Julia Fine’s novel “What Should Be Wild” (Harper, 350 pages, $26.99) is set in the borderlands between myth and fairy tale, between life and death. Her heroine, Maisie, was born from a dead mother. In a way Maisie is like King Midas. Everything she touches dies, if alive, or comes back to life, if dead. As a child, clearing some weeds from her garden, she touches a leaf, and sees “dead gray eat its way across the green.” She has to be walled off from the world, a barrier of thorns between her and the wood outside, just like Sleeping Beauty, all human contact carefully monitored, just like Rapunzel.
But the wood outside is even stranger. In it live—are they alive?—her female ancestors, all of them images of ancient cruelty inflicted on women. “Nothing promises revival like a fairy tale,” says Ms. Fine, but can even Maisie revive or appease these angry ghosts? Even deeper in the wood, there is another power stirring, and Maisie’s well-meaning protectors, father Peter the anthropologist and lover Matthew the historian, have no answer to it in theory or in practice.
The Brothers Grimm gave us the fairy tales; many years later Tanith Lee gave us “Tales From the Sisters Grimmer.” In this astonishing debut, Ms. Fine bids fair to be the Sister Grimmest.
It’s the spirits that make Sarah Beth Durst’s world of Renthia distinctive in “The Queen of Sorrow” (Harper Voyager, 432 pages, $21.99). The idea that nature is animate is all but universal, of course. But Ms. Durst’s spirits aren’t like the flimsy oreads and dryads of Greek myth. They are not in harmony with humans, but bitterly hostile. The big ones bring avalanches, hurricanes and volcanoes, the little ones practice petty malice. They can all be controlled only by queens—and if a queen dies without an heir, it’s disaster.
Two previous volumes set the stage for the climax in “The Queen of Sorrow,” but once again it’s not the standard Last Battle or military apocalypse. Queen Naelin’s children have been kidnapped, Queen Daleina has to go to the rescue, with what spirits she can muster against those of Queen Merecot, the kidnapper. Here it’s not war between kings, but agreement between queens that brings peace. The Renthia trilogy stands old beliefs, and even old myths, on their heads. Ms. Durst has given us a refreshing, provocative and ultimately convincing remake of modern fantasy conventions. The wonder is that we ever saw things the other way round.