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Fables Retold is a collection of six novella-length (or longer) stories, each built around the conceits of fairy tales. Camille and Jovan each reviewed three stories from the collection and have included mini reviews below. The overall anthology ratings reflect each reviewers’ average individual ratings for the three stories that they read, rather than the collection as a whole.
The Cat Returns to Adderly: A Puss in Boots Retelling by Sam Burns
Rating: 5 stars
Luke might be eighteen, but he’s only about half the age of his two older brothers. Instead of spending a gap year exploring the world like his siblings had before starting college, Luke is trying to piece together his life in the wake of losing both his parents in a car accident. That grief is bad enough, but neither of his brothers has a lick of sympathy or empathy for Luke. In fact, they all but kick Luke and the family cat, Wentworth, out on the street with nothing more than the clothes on his back.
Homeless and near penniless, Luke is distraught when even Wentworth takes off into the night. Determined to get his furry companion back, Luke follows the feline into the seemingly abandoned home of a witch. Luke knows the home belongs to a witch because the wildly attractive owner, Alastair, visits Luke in his dreams. Bolstered with the knowledge Luke is welcome to stay, he begins planning how to get back onto his feet. Just when Luke thinks he can make ends meet, however, his vindictive brother starts harassing him. Will Alastair be able to return from his travels to help Luke before it’s too late?
This was such a charmingly cozy read with a lick of heat and hint of kink. I thoroughly enjoyed the melodrama stirred up by two unfathomably petty, selfish, and just plain mean brothers. Luke seems to take it all in stride, willing to steer clear of them. When it becomes apparent that his brothers will not simply leave Luke alone—they want the one book Luke managed to rescue from his parents’ house before getting kicked to the curb—Luke resolves to be a pushover no longer. The story largely flips between Luke’s and Wentworth’s perspective. Not being at all familiar with the Puss in Boots tale, I was eager to see what having a cat as a narrator might mean for the romance. And figuring out how Wentworth and Alastair fit into the plot was another fun guessing game. Another fun discovery was learning how non-magical Luke was going to fit into the life of a witch. The challenges of a non-magical having any kind of relationship with a magical one was thoroughly covered in Alastair’s backstory.
Overall, I thought this was just a superbly entertaining read. For readers who love paranormal stories or fairy tales, it’s a must. There is also the pleasure of reading about the obvious bad guy getting his comeuppance and an impossible-seeming, whirl-wind like romance.
The Seventh Ring of Bertram Bell: A Bluebeard Retelling by W.M. Fawkes
Rating: 5 stars
Back before Elio was born, his father was dying from a terminal illness. He and his wife turned to a powerful magician named Bertrand Bell, who promised to help if only the couple would promise that their future son would serve as his apprentice upon turning eighteen. Desperate for a life-saving cure, they accepted. The couple then had three children, a daughter and two sons. But before Bell’s payment came due, another tragedy hit Elio’s family: his father was taken, murdered by a mysterious beast. The family’s devastation was compounded by knowing that soon, Elio would come of age and be whisked off to apprentice the mage.
But Elio turned eighteen and Bell did not come. Nor the year after or the year after that. Now at 23, Elio and his family have largely assumed Bell forgot the debt. That is, until the mage turns up at the eighteenth birthday party for Elio’s talented younger brother. Loathe to let his brother’s rising star be dimmed by being cloistered with the mage, Elio offers himself up. After all, everyone assumed it was Elio who would go. And Elio knew he would give anything for his family—even if it meant leaving his best friend, Dutch, behind.
Apprenticing under Bell isn’t all bad, at first. The man is demanding, but he also showers Elio with attention and gifts. Elio draws the line at a surprise kiss from the older man, however. Dutch may only see Elio as a friend, but that doesn’t mean Elio’s ready to throw his lot in with Bell. And despite Bell’s obvious wealth, there is something creepy about the man. But how can Elio uncover the secrets of a powerful mage who seems to have put his mark on him?
The Seventh Ring of Bertram Bell was an enthralling story. I thought there was depth in both the magical world Fawkes creates and the plot our characters navigate. By way of example, it was clear from the very beginning that Elio lives in a world populated by magic users and mythical beasts alongside the common-place. Elio puts his meagre magic skills to work creating colorful illusions in the coffee drinks he makes patrons to his mother’s cafe. We also get a thorough introduction to Elio’s family life, the awareness the family and Dutch have over what Elio’s mom promised, and how Elio wants nothing more than to improve his family’s situation.
While the spectre of Elio and Dutch is raised early and alluded to often, Elio’s unrequited longing for Dutch is set on the back burner—a choice that kept me marveling over how Elio would either come to grips with the idea that an older man was into him and/or the idea that his love for Dutch truly was unrequited. And as Elio begins his apprenticeship with Bell, there were several times where I hoped what read like “creepy older man perving on a younger one” might redeem itself…or fall into glorious deceit. I enjoyed the internal back and forth Elio engages in, trying to ground himself and his feelings. Fawkes does a nice job capturing how confused Elio’s emotions can get as he’s mostly isolated from Dutch and his family. To that end, it was extremely satisfying for me when Dutch finally gets to visit Elio and remind Elio of their friendship and more. It also added a more sinister flavor to Bell’s unwavering attentions to Elio.
Trying to guess whether Bell was actually a bad character and, if so, just how bad he truly was was a highlight in the book for me. Not being familiar with the source material beyond name recognition made it tremendously enjoyable to guess at Bell’s motivations and what would ultimately befall Elio. And it all builds up to a satisfying end. I think this is another excellent offering in the book. I’d say it’s less cozy and more thriller—if mysterious apparitions, forbidden doorways, and something akin to necromancy tickles your fancy, I think you’ll enjoy this story enormously.
Gruff: A Three Billy Goats Gruff Retelling by Morgan Brice
Rating: 4.5 stars
Having accepted a research position at the Fox Institute in a remote part of New York, Adiel is eager to leave Boston to jump into his academic interests: documenting shifters and paranormal culture. The town and institute are something of a haven for shifters; Adiel hopes he can lend permanence to their oral traditions. Maybe he can even meet someone—someone who won’t betray his trust or break his heart. But at thirty-five years old, he’s not holding out much hope. Even the hot guy at a gas station en route from Boston to New York feels like nothing more than a silly flirtation. Not only is the guy incredibly attractive, but Adiel is sure he’s barely legal. Adiel may be old enough to be a dad, but he’s not harboring any fantasies about being someone’s daddy.
For Joel, leaving Tennessee was the best decision he made. Armed with an education in photography and set up to live a nomadic lifestyle, it’s easy for him to jump from gig to gig. Now, he’s about to start photography for a project run by the Fox Institute. The drive is somewhat tedious, but he catches a hot older man checking him out at a gas station. Playing car tag with him until he reaches his destination makes for a fun distraction. Except once he settles in at the campgrounds near the institute, Joel discovers that same man is going to be his professional partner for the next academic year. Suddenly, all the flirting feels like it could take on an awkward life of its own.
The thing is, both Adiel and Joel feel an intense attraction to each other. And it’s not just them…they’re both goat shifters and their inner goats instantly recognize their fated mate at first sight. Previous relationships for both men have left them with trust issues and neither one is in a position to ruin their professional career for romance, not even their one true love. Tensions run ever higher as Joel and Adiel try to manage their attraction and their academics. But one mix threatens to ruin any chance at a happy ending and when a few vengeful faeries get pulled into the mix, one of them will literally have to battle demigods if he hopes for a second chance at happiness with his mate.
The fairytale upon which this story is based is the only one of the three that I was familiar with. Given that the source material indicates three goats, I was wondering if Brice would incorporate a polyamorous romance. The early chapters certainly introduce plenty of options to turn the Adiel/Joel pairing into a poly situation, but the story eventually resolves to set our two MCs up as exclusive fated mates. For readers who are charmed by the supporting cast, which includes a squirrel shifter and a fox/wolf pairing, this story connects with Brice’s Fox Hollow Zodiac series. Gruff seemed like the shortest of the three titles I read in this collection, but the world building did not feel wanting for this brevity.
While there is some drama to the “will they or won’t they” aspect of Joel and Adiel getting together, it seemed like a foregone conclusion because they’re fated mates. A significant portion of the first half of the book builds on the idea that their inner goats are absolutely convinced about being mates and how that is at odds with the lived experiences of their human sides. It was also clear that these two spend most of their time as humans. Taken together, I thought this built up a nice bit of tension to their romance. It felt like a slow burn, but one with an ironclad conclusion coming. I was also charmed with how Joel, being a Tennessee “fainting” goat shifter, reflects his inner goat even when as a human: he sort of passes out when he gets too tense/surprised. It creates at least one sort of hurt/comfort scene between him and Adiel when they are both enjoying being in their goat forms…and at least raises the prospect of furry sex.
About halfway through the book, we take a hard turn into tried-and-true melodrama. There is a classic set-up almost immediately after Adiel and Joel tacitly agree to try having a romantic relationship that leaves Adiel convinced Joel is playing fast as loose. When confronted with these bald accusations, Joel decides to cut his losses and shut Adiel out. It is exactly while these two are on the outs that a group of evil fae in the area come into the picture to prevent the would-be lovers from clearing the air and reuniting. Therein lies my one criticism: I thought this was a bit expedient for the sake of the plot and the drama flows from the, well, tired trope of a “one true pairing” being separated because of their own hastily drawn conclusions. The one element of excitement as the two MCs struggle to reunite came from how Adiel had to battle three fae reimagined as goat demigods to save Joel. I liked that the battle wasn’t merely a physical test, but that the antagonists preyed upon the older Adiel’s perceptions of his own inadequacy for a younger Joel.
Overall, this was a fine story. The beginning was punchy and fun, focusing on two unsuspecting fated-mates randomly finding each other enroute to what would become a joint project. If you like lovers who have a hard time convincing themselves to go for it, you’ll love how these two try to deny their feelings for one another. And if you enjoy stories that set the romantic leads at odds over a misunderstanding that should be very easy to clear up, you’ll enjoy the contrivance that separates Joel and Adiel. Fans of shifter and off-beat shifter stories will also find a lot to enjoy in this short story.
Blake & the Beast by Rhys Lawless
Rating: 3 stars
This is basically an in name only version of the fable that takes place in an alternate reality, where fae are a marginalized group because they have to feed on humans and Unseelie fae hated the most because, unlike Seelie, they have no human form and usually have animalistic features. As a human with Unseelie parents, Blake witnessed the cruelty against the fae firsthand, but when his cure to help Unseelie fae becomes weaponized, he ends up targeted by a black-ops team for the Independent Fae Alliance led by Archer, the Beast. But nothing is as cut and dry as it seems and Blake and Archer finds themselves standing together against humans and fae.
The story has WAY more in common with different version of the X-Men than Beauty and the Beast, so if you’re a big fan, you may be disappointed. I like the general premise (natch, since I enjoyed the X-Men as well) and some concepts, but the story feels like it was written as a standalone and retrofitted. While Blake loves both Archer’s forms, the getting to know each other love is replaced by them being soulmates. The story is heavy on genetics/sci-fi that got in the way of my enjoyment. The general concepts and science are cool, but as a scientist, there’s enough glossed over that the quote “Genetic soulmates. Apparently, it’s a thing.” is the only sciency thing I loved. For example, fae “came out” only 90 years ago, yet humans and fae must have been interbreeding for centuries if two Unseelie fae can produce a “human” child. The fae are all magical, which I guess is genetic as well (though the most magical element of this story is the basic microscope that can be carted around in a backpack with the capability to see individual COLORCODED genes). I tried to read one of Lawless’s works before, but the dialogue and writing were a bit too clunky and forced to me; unfortunately, that remains true here. After an initial introduction of the characters, this story is very one-note fated mates interactions and bad diatribes from another character until the action picks up in the back half (presumably to set up the sequels).
Demon’s in the Details by Meghan Maslow
Rating: 4.5 stars
As a very accomplished thief, raven shifter Poe is well-acquainted with living in the moral grays when it comes to protecting his roost from the consequences of their alpha’s selfishness. However, when the alpha (Poe’s stepfather) gets so far in debt there’s no way to keep the roost’s territory from the ruthless criminal, Briggs’s clutches, Poe visits the barbershop Rumpled Still: Skin, Hair, and Scalp to find the demon, Tommy. Tommy can make your dreams come true—for a price. Punishment for not paying is brutal, but Poe is desperate, and for all his scary reputation, Tommy isn’t what Poe expects. Even when Tommy’s power and pitilessness are on full display, Poe can’t fear him. However, Poe’s willingness to do anything for his roost is put to the ultimate test when he is asked to give up his most personal and precious possession to save them all.
Full disclosure, I’m a Maslow stan so I was primed to enjoy this story, and it doesn’t disappoint. To me, it’s also the best example of mirroring and honoring the fable’s core themes and archetypes, while creating a completely unique world, tone, and protagonist to the originals. I love raven shifters, and haven’t seen enough stories with them so that’s a plus as well. I also liked Maslow’s less traditional concept for alpha dynamics and powers in a roost compared to most shifters, specifically as it creates a validly insurmountable obstacle to the stepfather problem.
The chemistry between Tommy and Poe is scorching, and Maslow’s skill with creating funny, natural-sounding sarcastic dialogue and banter is a treat. Comedy is an art and not easy to create. With the increasing trend of comedy/snarkiness in paranormal and fantasy stories, I’m reading more and more forced banter and formulaic Lorne Michaels-esque humor, so I appreciate Maslow’s talent with a turn of phrase all the more. I enjoyed this alternate reality Baltimore where territories are called Neighborhoods and controlled by Rogers. At times, the scale of the world building overwhelms the story, so some elements aren’t as clearly defined as they need to be to avoid seeming like contradictions/holes, but overall a gem.
Spirit of Snow by Richard Amos
Rating: 3.75 stars
When former copper and bookstore owner, Alec Snow, and his bf, Kayleigh go searching for a missing coworker, he finds himself entangled with a creepy snake cult and on an exiled evil wizard’s hit list. Alec also doesn’t expect the mysterious stranger he boned in the woods two years ago to reappear in his life or to feel such an overwhelming and inexplicable need for him.
Tristan is a tortured soul; created to be the key in his master’s plan to regain wealth and renown, Tristan is abused, tortured, and forced into murdering those in his master’s way. He’s also literally haunted by his victims’ ghosts and his own cowardice. When his beautiful stranger, Alec is predicted to gain the power his master has been plotting for decades to achieve, Tristan’s love for Alec may be the only things that can save Tristan’s soul…and the world.
This story is an interesting mixed bag that I have complicated feelings about. The elements Amos chooses from the Snow White tales and how he shapes them for his world is imaginative; he also incorporates dashes of other mythologies and legends into the tale that add richness to the storytelling (but at times can detract from it). As a character, I found Alec to be as compellingly erratic as the story he’s in; they definitely contain multitudes. The narrative seems to introduce elements in an attempt to show different sides of Alec’s personality, but after his first few chapters, he feels less defined as the story goes on. When the story shifts from urban fantasy to more Arthurian fated legend, Alec as a person is kind of swallowed and swept along to the end with only his wisecracks as reminders.
Tristan (the Huntsman) is the ultimate poor unfortunate soul whose only purpose is to be used as a tool. He’s given a more tragic backstory and life than his counterpart and technically more depth, but he functions similarly and is mostly just there to do the narrative’s bidding. The writing quality and pace is a little all over the place as well. Alec’s “quirky” humor and cringeworthy scenes with the completely flat villain and his monotonous “why do you make me hurt you” evil monologuing are interspersed with some genuinely entertaining and fluid writing. Additionally, Alec and Tristan’s connection is, at first handled, in a somewhat realistic way (for the world), but is forced by the pacing into literally destined by fate. While at times frustrated with the story, I feel like Amos made some intriguing choices, and I can see a lot of people really liking it.
Camille and Jovan, thanks for your reviews.