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You're never too old for "Once upon a time"

By Rose Sutherland • April 14, 2024Recommended Reading

Rose Sutherland, author of A Sweet Sting Of Salt, shares her favourite folktales from around the world, retold in contemporary fiction.

There's something magic in the words “Once upon a time”. In an instant, they bring us back to childhood, to places and times long past, or that perhaps never were, but which somehow ring of true in spite of their fantastical trappings. Simplified for younger ears, writ in layers of metaphor, we often call folktales “children's stories”, when in fact they are deeply sophisticated and imbued with layers of meaning and significance. Perhaps the reason folktales are told and retold down centuries and across cultures, continuing to capture our collective imagination even as adults, is that they aren't childish at all, so much as they are glimpses into very real, entirely grown-up fears and insecurities.

As adults, we're led to believe that we're meant to put away such stories, that they're no longer needed. But historical folktales are ripe for adult audiences to turn over and re-examine, to discover how much more they have to say about ourselves and the world around us than we understood as children. My own debut novel, A Sweet Sting Of Salt, grew out of an adult understanding of the dark reality behind the Celtic legend of the selkie wife, a reality glossed over by treating it as nothing more than a simple, romantic story for children.

By breathing new life into myth and legend and introducing fresh historical perspectives, the following tales aimed at modern adult readers provide insights into life, love, and what it means to be human, who and what we call “other” and why, reminding us of a childhood lesson we should never grow too old for: the importance of looking beyond the surface.

Marvelous by Molly Greeley

This fabulous novel tells the incredible true story of Pedro Gonsalves, a man born with the condition of hirsutism, hair covering his entire body and face. Stolen from his home as a child and gifted as a “marvel” to King Henri II of France, Pedro is pushed into an arranged marriage with beautiful, seventeen-year-old Catherine Raffelin, who consents to their union as a means of saving her merchant father from his debtors. The touching, occasionally heartbreaking tale of the pair's journey to mutual love and understanding is widely considered the real-life inspiration behind the story of Beauty and the Beast.

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The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

Set in 1908 Manchuria, this recent release follows Bao, a detective investigating a crime surrounded by rumours of fox gods—beings able to transform into beautiful humans at will—and Snow, a secretive mother on a quest to find vengeance for her lost child. As she trails a murderer, with Bao following along in her tracks, the pair must navigate myths, misconceptions, and murders alike, in a tale of second chances and lost loves, maternal devotion, and ancient legends that might, in fact, prove true.

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Spear by Nicola Griffith

This queer, gender-swapped reimagining of Arthurian folklore returns the knights of the round table to their Welsh roots, flipping assumptions about the people and objects of legend completely on their heads. When young Peretur(Percival) steals a spear and sets out on a journey of self-discovery, aiming to become one of Arturus' companions and join in the quest for the holy grail, she finds there's more to being a hero than stealing the hearts of beautiful women and facing down the monsters and men of myth as she seeks out deeper connections, in a search for her people and a place where she can truly belong.

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Masquerade by O.O. Sangoyomi

This tale set in 15th century West Africa weaves together African history and folklore with the classical Greek myth of Persephone in the underworld: Òdòdó's life as a blacksmith is already difficult, shunned and living in a Timbuktu conquered by the warrior king of Yorùbáland. But when she is abducted, and whisked across a desert to become the chosen wife of that very king, she finds herself suddenly at the peak of society, surrounded by intrigues, temptations, and elaborate scheming beyond anything she has ever known. As political tensions threaten to boil over, Òdòdó must forge her own allies and loyalties within the court if she wishes to survive.◼︎

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ROSE SUTHERLAND is the author of A Sweet Sting of Salt. Born and raised a voracious reader of anything she could get her hands on in rural Nova Scotia, Rose has an overactive imagination and once fell off the roof of her house trying to re-enact Anne of Green Gables. She's continued to be entertainingly foolhardy since, graduating theatre school in NYC, apprenticing at a pâtisserie in rural France, and moonlighting as an usher and bartender in Toronto. Her hobbies include yoga, dance, singing, searching out amazing coffee and croissants, and making niche jokes about Victor Hugo on the internet. She's mildly obsessed with the idea of one day owning a large dog, several chickens, and maybe a goat.

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland

Once a young woman uncovers a dark secret about her neighbor and his mysterious new wife, she’ll have to fight to keep herself—and the woman she loves—safe in this stunning queer reimagining of the classic folktale “The Selkie Wife.”

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