Five Fantasy Novels With Fairy Tale Vibes

Fairy tales are essentially fantasy narratives, but there are plenty of fantasy stories that don’t fit the fairy tale mold. It’s an “all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs” type of situation, but less easy to define. There are plenty of fantasy books that retell classic fairy tales and Rachel Ayers has you covered on that front, having collected retellings of “Rapunzel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” and many other fairy tales here on the site.

This list is going to focus on fantasy books that feel like fairy tales, but aren’t actually based on any of the classics. The authors of these books have written an original story, but have managed to inject it with those wonderfully familiar fairy tale vibes.

So what do I mean by fairy tale vibes? The fantasy elements usually have a whimsical and dreamlike quality; magical elements are often accepted as just the way things are, without explanation. And if you like sprawling narratives that provide detailed explanations about the background of characters and the world, look elsewhere—in fairy tales it’s common for certain people to have the quality of stock characters, filling familiar roles, however vividly and memorably. But, of course, these aren’t blanket rules, and all of these authors put their own unique stamp on the fairy tale formula. With that said, let’s get to the books…

Stardust (1999) by Neil Gaiman

Book cover of Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Often in fairy tales, the main character is easy to root for from the outset; they’re usually brave and smart and kind. Stardust’s Tristran Thorn is not one of those protagonists (at least at first!). He has the “dreamy, far-off look” of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), but sadly not her smarts or maturity.

Tristran lives in the little village of Wall and he’s infatuated with a girl called Victoria, who doesn’t return his affections. In a desperate (and foolish…) attempt to win her heart, he sets off on a quest to find and bring her a star that has fallen in the land of Faerie. But Tristran isn’t the only one after the star…

If you’ve seen the 2007 movie adaptation but haven’t read the book, be warned that Robert De Niro’s fabulous Captain Shakespeare doesn’t make an appearance in the original story. And while the film is overall whimsical and sparkly (much like Disneyfied fairy tales), the book has a touch of darkness and melancholy running through it (in the spirit of many classic fairy tales).

The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman

Book cover of The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I grew up watching Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation of The Princess Bride and I loved it so much that I thought the book couldn’t possibly be better… despite knowing deep in my bookish heart that the books often—although not always—better! It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally gave Goldman’s novel a chance and I realized what a fool I’d been. The book certainly has differences when compared with the movie, but it’s one of those rare cases where both versions are equally incredible.

In the book, instead of the frame narrative being a grandfather reading the story to his grandson, we have Goldman realizing that his father only read him the “good parts” of the story, which was written by fictional author S. Morgenstern. Goldman takes it upon himself to present readers with an edited version of the tale which cuts out all of the boring serious parts about royal ancestry and the country’s history.

What we’re left with is the delightfully tongue-in-cheek tale of Westley and Buttercup’s romance, plus all of the accompanying fencing, piracy, beasts, intrigue, and revenge, with hilarious commentary throughout.

Tress of the Emerald Sea (2023) by Brandon Sanderson

Book cover of Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson

Tress of the Emerald Sea is set within Brandon Sanderson’s extensive Cosmere universe, but don’t let that put you off if you’ve never picked up one of his books before because Tress is also a standalone story.

Titular character Tress lives on a little island in the middle of an ocean that, instead of water, is made of green sand-like spores. If water touches these spores, there are explosive results (a fairly detailed explanation of how this all works is given!), making sailing on the sea pretty dangerous. Landlubber Tress finds herself taking to the deadly spore sea in an attempt to rescue her best friend, Charlie, who has wound up as a prisoner of the Sorceress, who lives on an island in the Midnight Sea. Chaos ensues—as does friendship, adventure, and romance.

If you’ve already read The Princess Bride, you might realize that Tress is Sanderson’s own creative take on that tale, but with Westley and Buttercup’s roles reversed. Just as with Goldman’s novel, the story has a playful tone while still being earnestly heartfelt.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror (2017) by Mizuki Tsujimura

Book cover of Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

(English translation by Philip Gabriel, 2021) If you’re after a story with a gentler pace and a more serious tone, check out Lonely Castle in the Mirror. Kokoro has stopped going to her junior high school because she’s being bullied; while home alone one day, she discovers that her bedroom mirror is a portal to a castle surrounded by water as far as the eye can see.

A girl wearing a wolf mask explains to Kokoro, along with the six other teenagers whose mirrors have led them there, that if they can find the key hidden somewhere within the castle, they’ll be granted one wish. But, of course, there are a couple of fairy tale-esque catches: if they don’t go home by 5 p.m. each day then they’ll be eaten by a wolf, and upon the granting of the wish they’ll all lose their memories of each other and the castle.

The teens do search for the key, but the quest doesn’t actually occupy that much of the story until everything really kicks off at the end. For each of them, the magical castle quickly becomes a place of solace from the cruelties of the real world. The story is really less about the magical wish and more about the turbulence of being a teenager and the beauty of friendship.

Nettle & Bone (2022) by T. Kingfisher

Book cover of Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

There’s a relatively standard glittery and romantic mold that most people think of when it comes to fairy tales about princes and princesses. In Nettle & Bone, T. Kingfisher breaks that mold and grinds it into dust.

Main character Marra is the third-born princess of the Harbor Kingdom and as such never expects her life to hold much royal importance. Her eldest sister goes to the vastly more powerful Northern Kingdom to become the bride of a cruel prince, but then she dies, and their middle sister is sent off as a replacement. Marra isn’t willing to lose another family member and so she sets off on a quest to kill the prince.

Nettle & Bone is full of magic—there’s a witch, three impossible tasks, a dog made only of bones, and a goblin market—but there’s also a streak of horror running through the story (the dead princess and skeletal dog may have clued you in to that!). Fear not though, while things get pretty dark, a healthy dose of humor adds some levity to Marra’s quest for vengeance.  

Have you got any recommendations for fantasy books that have the comforting feeling of a fairy tale? Let me know in the comments below! icon-paragraph-end

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