Every once in a while, a story comes along that strikes a chord within us all, speaking to some universally resonant inner archetype. How else to explain those stories that have endured across centuries, popping up seemingly independently in disparate cultures? Looking to replicate the enduring legacy of the legendary tales of the Brothers Grimm, in The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe have assembled an entire anthology of stories that resonate. This is an incredible, genre-blurring collection of retold fairy tales, featuring well-published luminaries and up-and-coming voices, among them Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, Catherynne M. Valente, Amal El-Mohtar, Kat Howard, and Max Gladstone.
For fairy tale aficionados, this volume is a must-read; for those interested in sampling the work of some of the best short fiction writers in sci-fi and fantasy today, it is no less essential. Here are just a few of my of my favorite stories, tales I can imagine being told and retold far into the future.
“Even the Crumbs Were Delicious,” by Daryl Gregory, is a hilarious retelling of Hansel and Gretl set in the drug-fueled near future world of Gregory’s highly lauded novel Afterparty. Two teens wander into a drug den where some bad eggs are getting ready for the funeral of their leader. The protagonist is the surviving roommate, who had the not-so-brilliant idea of wallpapering the house with leftover drugs to celebrate the life of the deceased. He finds the teens after they’ve eaten some of the walls, and must care for them while they come down from their high.
“Familiaris,” by Genevieve Valentine, is a surreal dissection of a fairy tale called “The Wolves” giving voice to the fears and challenges of motherhood and societal expectations of women. Women who choose not to have children are often maligned, and Valentine’s piece is a dark, controversial, and compelling story that explores the societal ramifications of a deeply personal decision.
“Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar, might be my favorite story of the bunch. It’s a beautiful, poetic celebration of self-sacrifice and friendship between women. I love that it combines two lesser-known fairy tales, “The Black Bull of Norroway” and “The Glass Mountain,” and how their respective female protagonists reach out from their own stories to help one another. It’s unforgettable.
Garth Nix’s contribution, “Penny for a Match, Mister?” is a perfect Weird Western reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s same-titled story. It begins with a death that awakens a powerful force that seeks out the blood of the murdered to possess it and take revenge upon the killers. In this case, it’s the little match girl who’s possessed, and a magical marshall who must save the day. There’s so much world-building packed into this short story, one can only hope Nix has more in store for us in this setting. (It is, indeed, his second story set in this world; the end of this one leaves us clamoring for more.)
“Pearl,” by Aliette de Bodard is one of the longer pieces here, a space opera retelling of a Vietnamese tale called “Dã Tràng and the Pearl” featuring remoras, a race of artificially intelligent beings that live alongside humans. Pearl is a special remora, built by others of its own kind and given to Da Trang, a human architect. Da Trang comes to rely on Pearl in a rather unhealthy way. But Pearl is different from the others—not just designed to help, it has a spark of life, and begins to show its own yearnings that contradict Da Trang’s needs. This is science fiction told with a poetic sensibility, and an illustration of the breadth of this collection, which finds threads of the universal in far-flung stories of magic and science.
Finally, this anthology includes some lovely bonus materials, in the form of author’s notes at the end of each story, showcasing the voice of each contributor and giving us insight into why and how they chose which fairy tale to reinvent, and the thought processes involved in the retelling. They’re magical, these glimpses of the sources of the inspiration that defines this anthology, and sets it apart. Like those oft-told tales of old, The Starlit Wood is a volume readers will want to return to often, and it deserves a place on every bookshelf left wanting a touch of the magical.