Sarah Cross’s Beau Rivage series and Alethea Kontis’s Woodcutter Sisters series are like Rose Red and Rose White, two dark and light fairy-tale sisters. Both are juicy, wildly fun retellings, that also deal in the blunt brutality familiar to any fairy-tale fan. But where Cross’s world is a contemporary one, a small 21st-century town where death and dismemberment pass under cover of cursed behavior, Kontis’s is set in a semi-medieval place of villages, castles, and forests, enlivened by her rampant creativity. Both are catnip for anyone who grew up on the Grimm Brothers or Andrew Lang, combining fairy-tale tropes with wickedly inventive updates, and rewarding close reading with callbacks to stock figures and tale types.
Cross riffs on the rigidity of fate within a fairy-tale world in a brilliantly literal way. In the modern-day town of Beau Rivage, a select few bear fairy curses, signified by small, thematic marks on their backs: like an apple for the Snow White curse, carried not just by the heroine of the story, but by the people destined to be her stepmother, huntsman, and prince. So the Cursed bide their time, waiting for their fates to unfold and hoping they get a happy ending—whether that means successfully gutting their stepdaughter, or actually having something to talk about with their prince when he comes along.
The first book in the series, Kill Me Softly, follows 15-year-old Mira, who runs away to Beau Rivage in search of her past and discovers she’s destined to play out a Sleeping Beauty curse. She falls in with her fellow Cursed—Blue, named for the color of his hair; his golden-hearted best friend, destined to be somebody’s prince; a tempestuous Snow White and her moody Huntsman; a Beast and his Beauty—and ends up entangled in a second fairy story even bloodier than her own. And in case you’re wondering: no, these curses don’t play out metaphorically. A boy in a Little Mermaid curse really is saved from drowning by a girl with a fish tail, and Mira really does run the risk of falling into an enchanted sleep inside a bower of thorns.
Book two, Tear You Apart, is out this week, and it’s a darker, even more exciting read. It continues the story of Viv and Henley, the Snow White and Huntsman introduced in Kill Me Softly. They were childhood sweethearts, but all that changed when Henley received his own curse on his sixteenth birthday—to become the Huntsman who cuts out Viv’s heart. So after receiving a strange invitation from a boy claiming to be her prince, she descends to an eerie underworld club to try speeding up her happily ever after. The Twelve Dancing Princesses make an appearance, as does a family with a Wild Swans curse, a Jack the Giant Killer, and a girl whose mouth drops flowers and jewels every time she speaks (an impractical fairy “gift,” but think of her stepsister, who spews reptiles when she talks). Cross uses this update to poke holes in the creepy cultural archetypes fairy tales are built on, asking why a girl can’t be more than a helpless heroine—and why a boy, destined by fairy intervention to kill the woman he loves, can’t save her instead.
Kontis’s Woodcutter Sisters series follows a family of sisters named for each day of the week (except poor Tuesday, who danced herself to death in cursed shoes before the series opens). With each book, Kontis’s world grows increasingly rich and more deliciously odd, pulling in so many threads of story only the most dedicated adherents to the Lang Fairy Books will recognize them all, and twining old tales together with wholly new tellings.
In book one, Enchanted, Sunday holds the mystical role of seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (her mother is a taciturn woodcutter’s wife—who has good reason for not talking much). She kisses a frog prince in the book’s early chapters, but her path from the woods to the palace doesn’t run straight. A beanstalk springs up, a series of balls are held, an evil king courts a lovely young wife with fairy blood, and every character has an enchanting backstory just waiting to be revealed.
In Hero, Sunday’s tomboy sister, Saturday Woodcutter, wants to make a destiny for herself that’s more than just a true love’s kiss. She considered herself the family’s only nonmagical member, until the day she accidentally conjures an ocean behind her family’s house (there was also the matter of her axe turning into an enchanted sword, but that’s a fairly everyday occurrence for the Woodcutters). She rides away on her sister Thursday’s pirate ship, till she’s plucked from its deck by a witch’s familiar. After a Grimm-approved meet-cute with Peregrine, a fellow captive (“Come to this witch’s cage often?”), they team up with a chimera to outsmart the witch together. Kontis’s rich references expand to include notes of Greek mythology, and Peregrine and Saturday share a gender-bending courtship readers will love.
Next week, the sweetest Woodcutter sister is getting her due: Friday (as in, “Friday’s child is loving and giving”) will star in Dearest, which opens on a kingdom trying to recover from Saturday’s ocean. As did Cross, Kontis revisits the Wild Swans tale, combining it with that of the poor, voiceless Goose Girl. Friday learns the extent of her powers, which far outstrip her prodigious gifts with a seamstress’s needle—and, like Sunday, learns the path to fairy-tale true love is a winding one. The third installment proves Kontis’s series really does exist in a genre of its own, such a rich mash of influences and and creativity you might call it fairy-tale psychedelia. Both Beau Rivage and the Woodcutter sisters’ kingdom are places where no opportunity for strange magic is left unexploited. Fairy-tale fans: consider this your marching papers to the nearest bookstore.