Classic Tales, Modern Tellers: 5 Retellings to Check Out

By Alison Bunis

Everybody’s got their favorite classic novel. And these days, everybody’s got their favorite retelling of a classic novel, too. Personally, if we’re talking movies, I stand by Clueless until the end of time. If we’re talking books, though, there are so many incredible options that it’s pretty much impossible to choose just one. To help you out, here are five of my favorites! I tried to pick a wide range, but I’m not gonna lie, you guys, I like what I like. So let’s kick things off with my current favorite…

Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton

Lady HotspurGather ye round, my fellow Shakespeare nerds: Tessa Gratton has given us an incredible gift. She’s already reimagined King Lear as an entrancing fantasy novel with The Queens of Innis Lear.

Now she’s turned Henry IV Part I into a heart-stopping novel of betrayal, battlefields, and destiny, Lady Hotspur. Here’s a glimpse at the characters to give you a quick taste of what it’s about: 

Hal Bolinbroke: A lady knight known for playing tricks and causing scandals, Hal is suddenly made heir to the kingdom when the mother she has not seen since childhood wins the crown. She loathes being a Prince but yearns to live up to the wishes of everyone she loves best—even if that means sacrificing her own heart.

Banna Mora: Heir to the overthrown king, Banna Mora is faced with an agonizing choice: give up everything she’s been raised to love and allow a king-killer to be rewarded—or retake the throne and take up arms against Prince Hal, her childhood best friend.

Lady Hotspur: The fiery and bold knight who stands between these two fierce Princes, and whose support may turn the tides of the coming war and decide everyone’s fates.

Tessa Gratton’s lush, lyrical fantasy world is the perfect setting for this gender-swapped retelling. Mark your calendars, Shakespeare-loving friends: Lady Hotspur hits shelves in January!

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies

Black LeviathanBuckle up, everybody, because Black Leviathan is the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick—but with dragons. You heard me. Moby Dick. Except instead of whales, it’s dragons, instead of “Call me Ishmael,” dragons, and instead of chapters on whaling technique, more dragons. And don’t worry, the revenge stuff is still in there. Seriously, what more do you need? 

In the coastal city Skargakar, dragon-hunting powers the economy. Dragons are used in everything from clothing to food, while airborne ships hunt them in the white expanse of a cloud sea, the Cloudmere. Lian does his part carving the kyrillian crystals that power the ships through the Cloudmere, but when he makes an enemy of a dangerous man, Lian ships out on the next vessel available. But he chooses the wrong ship. The fanatic captain, Adaron, hunts the Firstborn Gargantuan—and he is prepared to sacrifice everything for revenge.

You know what they say… revenge is a dish best served with dragons. (This particular dish comes out February 25th, 2020.)

Nottingham by Nathan Makaryk

NottinghamMost authors retelling a classic start with their favorite book, story, legend, myth…Not Nathan Makaryk. He saw all the things he hated about the Robin Hood legend, and he just had to rewrite the whole thing into an epic novel that examines who’s really the hero or villain of a story. Think less Men-In-Tights and more historically-accurate Game of Thrones.

The setup is a political nightmare: King Richard is half a world away, fighting for God and his own ambition. Back home, his country languishes, bankrupt and on the verge of anarchy. People with power are running unchecked. People without are growing angry. And in Nottingham, one of the largest shires in England, the sheriff seems intent on doing nothing about it. But don’t worry, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are here to save the day! Steal from the greedy rich and give to the poor! …Not really. Nothing is that simple in this world. Instead, the lives of six people—Arable, a servant girl with a secret, Robin and William, soldiers running from their pasts, Marion, a noblewoman working for change, Guy of Gisbourne, Nottingham’s beleaguered guard captain, and Elena Gamwell, a brash, ambitious thief—become intertwined. And a strange story begins to spread…

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen 

Briar RoseNo list about retellings is complete without including a fairy tale reimagining. It’s kind of a rule. And Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, a historically sensitive retelling of Sleeping Beauty set amid forests patrolled by the German army during World War II, is a terrifically moving, graceful entry into the fairy tale retelling genre.

It starts off with a tale being passed down through the generations: Since childhood, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma’s stories of Briar Rose, a young girl who arrived at a castle controlled by an evil army in the Polish forest during the summer of 1942. As Gemma tells it, Briar Rose was corrupted by dark deeds and choked by poisonous mist, and plunged into a deep sleep in the castle that soon came to be known as Chełmno extermination camp. Becca would have sworn the stories were made up, but on her deathbed Gemma extracts from Becca a promise to fulfill three impossible requests: find the castle, find the prince, and find the spell-maker. Her vow sends Becca on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma’s astonishing claim: She is Briar Rose.

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Miranda and CalibanAnother Shakespeare retelling? Yes. Let’s go there with Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest. We all know the tale of Prospero’s quest for revenge, but what about Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage? In Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey gives us their side of the story: the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. The two find solace and companionship in each other as Prospero weaves his magic and dreams of revenge. Always under Prospero’s jealous eye, Miranda and Caliban battle the dark, unknowable forces that bind them to the island even as the pangs of adolescence create a new awareness of each other and their doomed relationship.