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Alexandra Christo on writing fairytales into YA fantasy

Alexandra Christo on writing fairytales into YA fantasy

Usually when writing fantasy, you’re building a world from scratch. Sure, you may steal bits and pieces from old myths and legends, but essentially you’re creating a universe from the depths of your mind. And so comes the hard task of convincing readers why your story is worth reading and why they’ll fall in love with it.

The great thing about retellings and re-imaginings is that your readers already know the story. Often, they already love it. Fairytale retellings retain an irresistible sense of childhood nostalgia—told through a lens of modern politics—updating the stories we all loved as children, so we can love them even more now.

Especially since we can now fully appreciate just how dark and twisted they always were. I mean, in the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, the step sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the slipper! And in Rapunzel, the prince falls from the tower, landing in a thorn bush that blinds him!

But within all that chaos and darkness, the thing I love most about fairytale retellings and re-imaginings is switching up the very traditional power dynamics. Giving both women and young people strength and power, or letting them reclaim it without it being villainous.

In the fairytales we know, young people are often betrayed and manipulated by the adults. Cursed into deep sleeps, poisoned by apples, or in Rapunzel’s case, traded by her father to repay his debt for stealing salad. Great parenting! As for the women, they are either victims of the plot who must be saved. Or if they do have power, they always use it for evil.

In the real world, nobody falls into those tidy little categories. Powerless and innocent. Or powerful and evil. People are shades of grey. And readers, especially young readers, want their heroes to have flaws as much as they want their villains to have flaws. After all, that’s what makes them seem real and relatable.

And so with the rise of the anti-heroes and the need for women and young people to reclaim their power and stand up to the tyrants of the world, comes the notion of fairytales. Taking those old stories and fleshing out the characters into real people who make mistakes, learn, change and grow with the plot. And eventually topple the evil forces working against them! (A cathartic message, since that’s exactly what so many young people in the real world are trying to do!)

Now I’m no stranger to taking fairytale princesses and princes, and making them complex and morally grey (my debut To Kill a Kingdom was an evil Little Mermaid retelling with pirates). And so in Princess of Souls, Selestra (aka Rapunzel) is a cursed witch, trapped in her tower by an immortal king, who uses her magic to steal souls. Oh, and she can’t touch anyone without seeing their deaths.

When writing, I kept asking myself, who is Rapunzel? I thought of a young girl, alone in her tower, watching the world go by as she stayed, trapped by dark magic. Who did she want to be? How did it feel being snatched from her family and forced to live in captivity, never able to touch anyone?

And what would she ever do to the evil king/witch if she had the power to punish them?

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Selestra’s story begins there. On the day everything changes and she realises she has to escape her tower and fight against the dark magic working to manipulate her and imprison the world.

Fairytales like Rapunzel have so many versions; from Brothers Grimm to Tangled, from being sold to ogres or forced to wander in the wilderness. I’m glad to be able to add my twisted re-imagining to the mix, with immortal kings, cursed witches, and a very deadly romance.

Princess of Souls is out 11 Oct. Order your copy today.

Alexandra Christo is a British author whose characters are always funnier and far more deadly than she is. She studied Creative Writing at university and graduated with the desire to never stop letting her imagination run wild. She currently lives in Hertfordshire with a rapidly growing garden and a never-ending stack of books. Her debut novel To Kill a Kingdom is an international bestseller and her Young Adult fantasy books have been translated into over a dozen languages worldwide.

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