The best novels based on mythology from around the world

Myths and legends have all the drama and tension a story-lover needs. Here are nine books inspired by ancient tales to add to your reading list.

Sarah Shaffi
An illustration of an ancient helmet with a book instead of a plume of feathers on an orange background
Flynn Shore / Penguin

As long as there have been people, there have been stories. From ancient beings to epic love affairs, some myths and legends from around the world keep being retold over and over again, and it's easy to see why. Featuring great characters, essential lessons, and plenty of drama, these stories from Ancient Greece to China and beyond are full of appeal.

Here are nine books that retell or reimagine stories from mythology and legend.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

Calling on elements of Russian mythology and folklore, The Bear and the Nightingale is the first novel in Katherine Arden's Winternight trilogy.

It begins with Vasya, a young and wild child who lives in a village at the edge of a forest. For her, the tales of the Winter King and old magic are more than just stories; she can see the spirits that guard her home and sense the dark magic in the woods.

Enchanting and a little spooky, The Bear and the Nightingale will introduce you to myths and monsters that will blow your imagination.

Mythos by Stephen Fry (2017)

In Mythos, Stephen Fry takes famous and lesser-known tales from Greek myths and tells them in his own inimitable fashion. Magic and mayhem are centre to these tales, which focus on the Greek gods and goddesses and their (mostly) bad behaviour. From the birth of Athena to Pandora opening the jar or evil torments, Mythos is told with great humour and a wink or two.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

Kamila Shamsie's Women's Prize for Fiction winner Home Fire is a modern retelling of Sophocles' play Antigone. That tale chronicles Antigone's attempts to bury her brother Polynices against the orders of the Theban king Creon.

Shamsie's reimagining of the play follows the Pasha family: oldest sister Isma, and her younger twin siblings Anneka and Parvaiz, whose lives are all changed when Eamonn Lone, the son of British Home Secretary Karamat Lone, enters their lives.

No surprises for guessing that the tale ends in tragedy, but it still comes as a surprise in Shamsie's deft hands. Arifa Akbar in the Evening Standard said "Home Fire is as much its own story as a re-telling".

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (2005)

In this novella, Margaret Atwood turns her attention to Penelope, wife of Odysseus. She spends years silently weaving and unpicking a tapestry while waiting for her husband to return from the Trojan war. As Penelope wanders the underworld she's spinning her own tale and it's one that contains lust, greed, and murder.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell (1995)

Bernard Cornwell's retelling of Arthurian legend shows Arthur, Merlin, and Guinevere as you've never seen them before.

In the Dark Ages, Uther, the High King of Britain has died and left his son, the infant Mordred, as his heir. The country's lesser kings are seeking to claim the crown for themselves, but no one has counted on the fearsome warlord Arthur. Handed power by Merlin and pursuing a doomed romance with the beautiful Guinevere, Arthur's destiny is to unite the country and hold back the Saxon enemy at the gate.

The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin (2021)

According to Greek mythology, Orpheus and Eurydice had a love so great that when Eurydice died, Orpheus travelled to the underworld to get her back. But when he disobeyed instructions to not look back to check if Eurydice was following him, he lost her forever.

Sarvat Hasin's The Giant Dark is inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and follows rock star Aida and her muse Ehsan, who reconnect after a decade apart. It's an intense look at an intense love, and explores the all-consuming and devastating effects of having a lover as a muse.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan (2022)

Sue Lynn Tan's Daughter of the Moon Goddess takes the legend of the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e as its starting point. Chang'e took an elixir of immortality, and as punishment was banished to live on the moon. Chang'e's daughter Xingyin leaves her mother to become one of the Crown Prince's guards in the Celestial Kingdom. But her ultimate aim, through all her perilous quests, is to free her mother.

Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

Madeline Miller's follow-up to her bestselling The Song of Achilles takes us into the world of the witch Circe. Growing up, Circe is a strange child who discovers the power of witchcraft which could see her challenge the gods themselves.

Threatened by her power, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her craft and crosses paths with famous figures from mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his son Icarus, Medea, and wily Odysseus.

Circe is the story of a woman who stands alone in the face of threats from men who are scared of her, and who learns to protect what she loves most.

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