The best novels that retell classic stories (with a fantasy twist)

The Books I Picked & Why

Lavinia

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover of Lavinia

Why this book?

In Vergil's Aeneid, Lavinia is a princess destined to marry the hero Aeneas and bear him a son who will be the ancestor of Julius Caesar. Le Guin makes Lavinia the center of her story. Her Lavinia is not a passive prize for the Trojan warrior, but a young woman attempting to find her way in a society that does not offer even princesses many opportunities for choice. 

But what’s really meaningful to me is the way Le Guin enters the world of another writer's story and creates her own based on it, remaining faithful to the original but taking it in new directions. Lavinia does this without disrespect to the great work it arises from, which is what I sought to do in my own book.


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Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea

Why this book?

Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, telling the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife. In Jane Eyre she is Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, a threat to Jane and Rochester. She is mostly invisible, and we waste no time empathizing with her. 

Rhys tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a young creole woman of the West Indies sold into marriage to Rochester and ultimately forced to move with him to England, only to be locked up in his cold mansion where she slowly goes mad. I love the way Rhys, with the benefit of a century’s understanding of imperialism, and drawing on her own creole heritage, opens Bronte’s world out into a critique of colonialism, and creates a character out of a cliché.


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Grendel

By John Gardner

Book cover of Grendel

Why this book?

In Grendel, the monster from Beowulf tells his version of the classic story. But Grendel (like the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), is not a shambling inarticulate demon but an ironic, witty observer of human beings and their idiocies. He’s an egomaniac, the ultimate outsider, but frequently hilarious. 

In the course of recounting his life leading up to his battle with Beowulf, Grendel comments on the different things humans focus on to make their lives meaningful. This was the book that first made me realize how a writer could flip a classic text upside down and in order to comment on that story, on stories in general, and on the world at large. And make me laugh while doing it. 


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Was

By Geoff Ryman

Book cover of Was

Why this book?

Was jumps back and forth over a century, from the 1870s to the 1990s, telling the stories of a half dozen characters—including the "real" Dorothy Gael and the young Judy Garland—all connected by their relation to L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels.

This is a moving story about how people cope with troubles they cannot overcome, finding healing in the midst of tragedy. I really like the many subtle ways Oz weaves in and out of the characters’ lives, through fantasy and reality: indulging in fantasy may lead people to behave destructively, but it also offers escape when we are feeling trapped.


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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Why this book?

Although, unlike these other books, Clarke does not take off from any single novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is redolent of British fiction of the early 1800s from Jane Austen to Ann Radcliffe to Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens. In telling the story of the recovery of “English Magic” by the title characters, Clarke immerses us in the people and politics of the Napoleonic Wars, reveals a whole history of magic and magicians, and spins a tale of horror and humanity. It taught me something about creating a historical voice without falling into phony archaisms. I really love the way this novel is both playful and steeped in history, and especially how, clever yet heartfelt, Clarke tells a gripping story of characters we care about.  


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