A Tale as Old as Time: 8 Retellings of Beauty and the Beast

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Beauty and the Beast is one of a strange species of tale whose retellings have eclipsed the original.

Published in 1740, the original La Belle et la Bête was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, a woman who presided over a salon in the reign of Louis XV, at the height of the Enlightenment. She had a fairly colorful history: after being widowed young by a spendthrift aristocrat, she moved to Paris and became involved with a famous and important playwright, whom she lived with until her death. Her version of the story is novel-length, and includes interlacing plots and long histories of Beauty, Beast, and other characters, including Beauty’s father and the fairy who originally cursed the Beast. This version of the story is decidedly for adults, with a fair amount of naturalistic detail, despite the fantasy elements.

Just a year after Villeneuve’s death in 1756, the first retelling was published, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Beaumont trimmed the story considerably, stripping out the backstories for Beauty, Beast, and their families, truncating the action, and slimming down the cast. Thus, Villeneuve’s novel for adults was transmuted into a fairy tale for children. The naturalistic elements were downplayed or excised, and the fantasy elements and folkloric motifs emphasized. Beaumont’s work is didactic, with a moral and a message for young girls. Beaumont never credited Villeneuve, and since then has often been mistakenly sourced as the original writer. Many of the earliest retellings, like the English language version of Beaumont’s retelling in folklorist Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, hew to Beaumont’s fairy tale style.

As time went on, writers began complicating the tale once again, building new backstories for the Beast and Beauty, rewriting their families, his curse, or the underlying motivations. Or they stripped the story down further: reordering the world, telling the story without the father’s theft, or without the beast’s curse, or with other characters peopling the beast character’s habitation. Though Beauty and the Beast isn’t a folk tale in the strictest sense—it is not a story that comes out of an oral tradition with no clear progenitor—its centuries retellings and reinventions are the closest thing we have to a literary equivalent.

Here are 8 notable retellings of Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, by Robin McKinley
Beauty is the first retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley; you’ll encounter another one down-list. This version centers on Beauty and her loving family. Both the Villeneuve and Beaumont’s takes present Beauty’s sisters as vain, mean-spirited girls, but McKinley builds her Beauty’s kindness out of ironclad familial relationships. Beauty is no Cinderella—who is just inanely good—but someone who understands the work of compassion. We don’t even meet the Beast until halfway through the book, and while the romance and transformation feel a little rushed, Beauty’s character is so well detailed that her love and understanding feel natural and right.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, includes two versions of Beauty and the Beast: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride.” The first is in the vein of Beaumont’s version, but stripped down further. Its ending is bright and Romantic, an act of happy wish-fulfillment. “The Tiger’s Bride” is a counterpoint to the traditional telling, one that inverts a central metaphor in a way that makes my hair stand on end. Carter was a master of the perverse twist, and “The Tiger’s Bride” showcases that gift. The call and response Carter sets up is expertly done, and in her indomitable prose.

The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey
The action of The Fire Rose occurs largely in California, on the eve of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Its Beauty is a woman named Rose Hawkins, who is both grieving from her beloved father’s death, and a medieval scholar. She’s hired to act as governess to robber baron Jason Cameron’s children. After traveling from Chicago to California, she learns that he has no children, and is instead inflicted by a spell gone wrong, one that has left him half transformed between wolf and man. Like Villeneuve’s tale, The Fire Rose is situated in a specific place and time. The naturalistic details of the biographies of both its Beauty and its Beast are in counterpoint to the magic of the story. The Fire Rose tells both a secret history for events at the turn of the 20th Century, and a tight interpersonal tale.

Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley
Twenty years after her first novel, explored the Beauty and the Beast story, Robin McKinley returned to the subject in Rose Daughter. Though their concerns are very different, McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter are almost like Angela Carter’s short stories in the ways they triangulate and bookend the themes invoked by the original tale. Both authors are walking around the original works, and pulling out this thread or that for closer examination. Both the Beast and Beauty make very different choices in the end, choices that engage with the implicit bestiality of the original tale, even in its most didactic setting.

Bryony and Roses, by T. Kingfisher
Bryony and Roses is very directly inspired by McKinley’s Rose Daughter. Like McKinley, Kingfisher lavishes a fair amount of detail on horticulture, specifically the growing of roses, which grounds the text (almost literally). Bryony stumbles into an enchanted manor during a snowstorm, and it’s not entirely clear that the beast that resides there is her captor. They may both be captives of the house.

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
In Sarah J. Maas’s take, the beast character was never human, even before the curse: Tamlin presided over a court of the fae. (Tam Lin is also the name of a Child Ballad which involves roses, shape changing, and abduction by the fairy court, and both Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin inform the novel.) The beauty character, here called Feyre, reads a bit like Katniss Everdeen: she has accepted responsibility for her impoverished family, provided for them by hunting, and is full of anger at the injustice of it all. She ends up on the other side of the wall that divides human from fae after killing a fae in wolf form. The fae are known for their capricious cruelty to humans, and so Feyre must overcome not just Tamlin’s occasionally beastly appearance, but deeply ingrained prejudices (some of which are well justified).

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
The setting of de Bodard’s strange and beautiful take, which draws from Vietnamese culture, is both post-apocalyptic and folkloric: alien colonizers have abandoned a used-up and polluted earth, and creatures of myth stalk the land. A young scholar is sacrificed to the dragon, who is our beast character, and fully expects to be murdered. Instead, the dragon wants the scholar to tutor her two children, a pair of irascible twins who are neither human nor dragon, but something else entirely. The dragon’s palace is a slippery, changeable place, like the dragon herself, and the transformations that occur are not literal. In the Vanishers’ Palace is the most profound reordering of the Beauty and the Beast story I’ve encountered; it is both subversive and traditional, an impressive feat.

The Beast’s Heart, by Leife Shallcross
The Beast’s Heart follows the Beaumont version quite closely in the beginning: a ruined merchant stumbles into the Beast’s domain; he steals a rose; Beauty is sent to the Beast’s for a year. The key difference is that this retelling is centered on the Beast, not Beauty. His transformation from ravening beast starts even before her arrival; his self-improvement is not entirely dependent on her intervention. The story also follows Beauty’s father and two sisters after Beauty leaves. The sisters were mired in depression over the family’s ruin. Without Beauty around to perform all the household chores, they are forced to step up and care for themselves. In time, they become both confident and competent, and find their own love interests. In many ways, the sisters’ transformations are the most profound in the story, as the Beast’s transgressions which resulted in the curse feel muted and indistinct, and their courtship isn’t as grounded in everyday life like the sisters’.

What’s your favorite take on Beauty and the Beast?

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10 Novels Inspired by China and Southeast Asian Culture

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

According to the traditional Chinese calendar, today marks the start of the Year of the Pig and the celebration of Lunar New Year in China and other countries in Southeast Asia (including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand)—and, indeed, around the world. To celebrate the new year, here are 10 new and recent sci-fi and fantasy books that draw from or are set in the cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (aka The Three-Body trilogy), by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
The 2015 release of the English version of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem became a publishing sensation. A huge hit in Liu’s native China, where it has inspired everything from cosplay to theme parks, it became the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award and the flashpoint that ignited a small boom in Chinese sci-fi in the West. It couldn’t have happened to a better book: though it incorporates the tropes of the so-called Golden Age English-language sci-fi novels Liu grew up loving, The Three-Body Problem and its sequels approach the genre from a distinctly Chinese angle, centering the action in Chinese characters; the opening of the first novel is even set during the Cultural Revolution, a time when academics like the protagonists were persecuted for promoting science. As a whole, the trilogy explores a first contact scenario between humans and aliens on a vast scale, but the lens through which it is viewed is distinctly Chinese. The Redemption of Time, a continuation of the series penned by a fan and later sanction by the author will be released in the U.S. later this year.

The Dandelion Dynasty, by Ken Liu
Ken Liu is a prolific short story writer, and many of his speculative tales—including those in his marvelous collection The Paper Menagerie— draw from his Chinese heritage, but with his series the Dandelion Dynasty, he’s doing something truly different within the confines of epic fantasy. Though unabashedly epic in scope—an account of the rise and fall of empires in a world filled with magic, monsters, and inventive technology—The Grace of Kings and its sequel The Wall of Storms don’t fit the Western fantasy mold. The novels incorporate a fair amount of both history and folklore about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han way, way back in Chinese history, and enhance them with a silkpunk aesthetic, but the way the narrative unfurls, favoring the sweep of history over the intimate and the personal, sets them apart from so many A Game of Thrones readalikes. Chinese history—with its sweep of millennia and dynastic machinations—is perfectly suited to epic fantasy, a genre which has heretofore largely cribbed from medieval and renaissance Europe (with notable and important exceptions, of course). Liu tells something like a national origin story, with all of the attendant tall tales, mythologizing, and invocation of the gods such an enterprise incurs.

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang 
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile and is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman, able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history (particularly the horrific Rape of Nanking), but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The story continues later this year in The Dragon Republic.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
King’s scarily good debut does what sci-fi does best, extrapolating a plausible future from real-world reality. In a future China where the one-child policy has led to a population with 40 million more men than women, middle aged Wei-guo struggles through a life in which he is considered unnecessary. He maintains his optimism and conviction that as long as he continues to improve he will be rewarded with love, and finally saves a dowry that enables him to join an “advanced family” as a third husband—the lowest rank—to the lovely May-ling. The family is imperfect, harboring an “illegal spouse,” but Wei-guo finds kinship and friendship in this unusual arrangement. But the rulers of the nation know they are sitting on a powder keg, and have become more intrusive and authoritarian than ever. Someone is always listening, and Wei-guo knows no matter how happy he is, he will always be an “excess male,” and thus disposable. If this sounds like grim dystopia to you, never fear: though the circumstances Wei-guo faces are often harsh, the novel is ultimately affirming—heartwarming, romantic, and even sweet.

The Tensorate series, by JY Yang
Billed by Tor.com Publishing as a silkpunk fantasy saga, the linked novellas of JY Yang’s Tensorate series take place in a secondary world incorporating a myriad of Asian cultural traditions (while the author is Singaporean, the books cannot be so narrowly classified). They are a masterclass in worldbuilding. The pan-Asian fantasy setting pieces together the familiar (mosques, congee, and guns are all touchstones of our reality, and yet…) with elements that are truly strange: nagas, velociraptors, megafauna, and much else dwelling alongside humanity; prophecy as a talent used to guide nations; a culture where children control nothing of their own destiny, yet can choose their own genders. Each novella follows a different protagonist and explores different aspects of the world; they stand largely along, but we’d recommend starting with The Black Tides of Heaven. The next entry in the series, The Ascent to Godhood, arrives in July.

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Marjorie Liu’s acclaimed graphic novel series is a phantasmagorical horror story-cum-bildungsroman following Maika Halfwolf, a teenage girl who shares a bond with a mythical monster in a world inspired by the cultures and history of Asia in the early 20th century. While this is distinctly a secondary world—blood magic, wolf children, and talking cats abound—it deals with issues intrinsic to the grimmest history of the region: racism, slavery, and cultural warfare inspired by Liu’s grandmother’s experiences during World War II (the writer is half-Chinese, and her grandmother escaped the Japanese occupation of China as a teenager). Thanks to Sana Takeda’s darkly gorgeous, stunningly detailed artwork and endearing (and fearsome) character designs, the series is easy to pick up (which is probably why it has won multiple Eisner Awards for young adult comics), but the themes the narrative grapples with are weighty indeed.

In the Vanisher’s Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard is of French and Vietnamese descent, and she weaves elements of her cultural heritage into pretty much everything she writes, including her epic space opera series set in the Xuya Universe, the future of an alternate history in which the Chinese came to the Americas before the Europeans, which resulted in Asian powers dominating the globe and, thus, the future of intergalactic space travel. de Bodard’s most recent work is in an entirely different vein—a queer retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story that draws heavily upon Vietnamese culture in which the beast is a dragon and the world is still reeling from the fallout of colonialism after friendly visitors from an alien race brought disease and destruction with them on their starships. As a reframing of a classic fairy tale, In the Vanisher’s Palace is subversive and bold; as a romance, it is tentative, touching, and sweet.

The True Queen, by Zen Cho
The long-awaited sequel to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown explores new angles of her Regency-Era-with-magic world. It’s set on the enchanted island of Janda Baik in the Malay Archipelago (including the modern-day Brunei, Singapore, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor), a place that has long been home to witches in Cho’s alternate history. Sisters Muna and Sakti wash up on the shores of the island with no recollection of how they got there—and indeed, they seem to be suffering under a curse that has stolen most of their memories. They hope to find help from the great magicians of England, but they are waylaid on their journey west, which takes them through the fae lands, where Sakti vanishes.  To save her sister, Muna must convince the British magicians that she is a gifted magic user herself, running up against cultural prejudices in the process—no doubt informed by the author’s own background as a Malaysian woman living in the U.K. If you enjoy the way Zen Cho weaves Asian cultural traditions into her fiction, her story collection Spirits Abroad is an absolute must—and we’ll also tout the lovely novelette she published here on this blog, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”

Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The elevator pitch for YA author Fonda Lee’s first novel for adults is pretty catchy: it’s The Godfather meets Hong Kong martial arts films in a world inspired by the cultural traditions of China and other Asian communities. The titular Jade City is the capital of an island nation a generation or so past occupation by a foreign power. This occupation was repulsed by the Green Bone warriors, an ethnic minority who have the cultural lore and genetic predisposition to wield jade, a mineral resource that can confer superhuman powers on its wearers. Without adequate training or natural disposition, jade can drive a person to suicide. Two generations ago, Green Bone warriors were hungry freedom fighters with bonds forged in blood; now they are warring clans presided over by both cautious old men and hungry young upstarts. The Green Bone warriors are at war with themselves. Jade City is a sprawling story of crime families in conflict, set in a cosmopolitan city with a nevertheless deeply traditional culture. Sequel Jade War arrives later this year.

Gates of Stone, by Angus Macallan
The final entry on our recommended reading list is the only one that wouldn’t be considered an “own voices” work—though author Angus Macallan was born in China and lived, worked, and studied in Asia for much of his life, including a stint as a journalist in Hong Kong, he is not of Asian descent himself. His epic fantasy Gates of Stone draws from Indonesian culture as well as other Asian cultural traditions to tell the story of a princess who is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Princess Katerina’s journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of a prince whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. To this Western reader’s eye, this series-starter seems to engage with its Asian inspirations beyond using them as mere exotic window-dressing. Hopefully readers of all different cultural backgrounds will agree.

What Asian-inspired fantasy novels do you recommend for Lunar New Year reading?

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