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3 new fantasy novels spin inventive narratives from old folklore

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Daughters and sisters are at the heart of three new fantasy novels that spin fresh narratives from old folklore.

Supernatural bargains and shapeshifting transformations are just the beginning of the many fairytale motifs that these books use to explore the depths of the family relationships we are born into and those we build by choice — and some we can only hope to survive.

The Magician's Daughter by H.G. Parry

Biddy has lived her whole life on the hidden island of Hy-Brasil, where she was brought up by a magician named Rowan and his rabbit familiar. Hy-Brasil is a mystical place, the home of elusive fair folk and trees full of ancient power, and Biddy loves it with all her heart. But at 16, Biddy is beginning to wonder if she will ever have the opportunity to see more of the world and meet anyone other than her guardians. When Rowan fails to return from one of his mysterious expeditions away from the island, the fallout catapults Biddy into the world she so longed to explore.

Playing the role of bait in a magician's trap was not what she had in mind when she hoped for adventure, nor was the grim London school for orphans where she finds herself. But in order to discover the truth about herself and her guardian, she will have to face all of that and more — and the very existence of magic may hang in the balance.

This book is rooted in appreciation for the classics, but it never feels derivative of or awkwardly nostalgic for any of the things it references. I ripped through it with a sort of manic glee, repeatedly forgetting I was supposed to be reading it critically rather then just enjoying myself.

It has all the trappings you could ask for: A kind but imperfect father figure. A magical rabbit person who feels exactly like a real rabbit but also likes to take human form to cook and eat breakfast foods and worry about everyone's wellbeing. A protagonist who is limited by her lack of experience but never hesitates to do what she must. Actual, slightly creepy Irish folklore. A horrible Dickensian school for orphans. A terrifying storm wizard trapped mid-transformation from man to raven. A library hidden inside a tree!

In short, this is a charming romp of an old-school coming of age fantasy about family and magic that will take your heart for a wild ride. It's going to be one of my top books of the year for certain, which is a bold claim to make in February, but here we are. And I'll note that, while this is being marketed as adult fantasy and will definitely enchant that reader, it would also be a great read for fantasy-loving teens.

The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill

The teenaged daughter of an artist watches her world disintegrate around her when her mother brings home a crane and tells her daughter and younger son to call him Father. The crane is no ordinary bird. Destructive and cruel, he occupies all of the mother's time, rendering her bloody and frail as she labors obsessively on a secret work of art. Her daughter is left to pick up the pieces of raising her brother and keeping their home life together, but then she begins to suspect that there is also a man in the house — a malevolent man whose existence is tied to that of the crane.

The Crane Husband is a slim little novella that packs a narrative punch more intense than that of many books ten times its length. It takes well-trodden tropes and renders them specific and more sinister than they seemed in the old tales, woven through with vivid and grisly details.

Animal bridegrooms are common in both fairytale and myth, and this novella takes that concept — the alienation and fear of a strange and possibly unknowable husband — and transforms it into something even more terrifying by telling us the story through the eyes of the daughter rather than the wife. In a traditional animal bridegroom narrative, the power in the end generally lies with the bride as she finds a way to humanize her husband and make the best of her lot: The choices are ultimately hers. But when the story is that of the bride's daughter, she is completely powerless, at the mercy of a mother who may not be entirely human herself.

Folklore enthusiasts will see the writing on the wall. In the old tales, cranes are more often brides than grooms, and their stories are ones of women trying to deny their otherness, only to eventually break free and return to their true form, often leaving their human children behind.

The Crane Husband takes familiar motifs and twists them, creating a new kind of tale about surviving a traumatic childhood with a parent completely consumed by their own transformation. It has a grim beauty that lingers in the mind.

The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill by Rowenna Miller

Sisters Alaine and Delphine grew up making bargains with the fairies that dwell alongside them at their family's orchard on Prospect Hill. They leave little gifts — a silver pin or a few chicken bones or a scrap of cloth — in exchange for good weather or a bountiful harvest. It seems safe enough, as long as they follow the prescribed bargains established by the generations that came before them. But then a series of problems arise at the orchard, and Alaine begins to wonder if perhaps there are better bargains to be made.

She begins to experiment with the fairy contracts, growing bolder and more reckless. Then, when Delphine's high-society marriage crumbles, the sisters resort to one last bargain, meant to set everything right. But the fae have been waiting, and the cost of Delphine's freedom is one that neither sister could have imagined.

The thing about bargains made with fairies in stories is that they always go awry. And the humans making the bargains always know this, but they make the bargain anyway, because who can resist the allure of magic? Likewise, I think it's impossible to resist the allure of this charming book. Its focus on the small, everyday things that can be made easier with a little luck and a little fairy grace really creates a lived-in world where you can smell the apple blossoms in the orchard and hear the rattle of wagon wheels on dirt roads. The fairy magic feels accessible — that is, until Alaine pushes things too far and shatters the barrier that kept her family safe, making way for much stranger, more fearsome magics.

Above all, this is a book about family, and the traditions passed down from one generation to the next, and how we much protect them and each other. It's about grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters, and how they keep each other safe by telling their stories and working their small but essential magics. In the end, it is only by further deepening that connection and support and care that the family will survive.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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Caitlyn Paxson