There鈥檚 a reason that mythology and fairy tales are enduring: The larger-than-life characters and stories appeal to us, and there鈥檚 a certain elegant simplicity about the way things work out. Well, in this modern moment, we鈥檙e all very aware that things are a little murkier and more morally complex. In that vein, the new books in this week鈥檚 book club take the classic structures of myths and legends and update them through the more complex lens of intersectional feminism. If that sounds like homework, it鈥檚 anything but: They鈥檙e also compelling, funny, and sometimes even hopeful.

1. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg ($17): Ortberg (who has come out as trans since the book鈥檚 publication) is one of the darlings of the online media world, and with good reason. Founder of the late lamented The Toast, Ortberg wrote articles that left us wheezing with laughter. His uncanny ability to take anything from literature or art history and give it a modern, ironic spin (Texts from Jane Eyre) kept droves of readers coming back. This is something he continues in his latest book, a collection of mixed-up and twisted fairy tales, folk legends, and Bible parables, which is an expansion from The Toast鈥檚 鈥淐hildren鈥檚 Stories Made Horrific鈥 series.

It鈥檚 not just about making the stories sinister or dark 鈥 after all, if you look at most of them for a minute or two, you鈥檒l know they already are, or at least have those elements. It鈥檚 about discussing gender roles and suffering and turning those ideas on their heads. In Ortberg鈥檚 work, gender and pronouns are fluid and redefinable, and men and women aren鈥檛 so much pitted against each other as they are both treated with empathy (along with a great deal of horror and humor). Along the way, there are critiques of capitalism, class, and culture.

鈥淭here once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with daughters. Another man might have filled with something else 鈥 potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines 鈥 but this one filled it with daughters, so there鈥檚 no use arguing about it now.鈥 Ortberg鈥檚 diverse sources and influences range from this retelling of The Little Mermaid to one of the Book of Genesis, The Velveteen Rabbit to King Lear, with heavy doses of The Brothers Grimm, The Wind in the Willows, and Thomas Aquinas. It鈥檚 nerdy, feminist bliss.

2. The Red Word by Sarah Henstra ($16): 鈥淪ing, O Goddess, of the fury of Dyann Brooks-Morriss, teller of unbearable truths. O sing of the rage that kindled one young woman鈥檚 heart and the next until it drove us together from our homes, battlethirsty, into the secret places of the enemy. Sing how the young men scattered and fled as before the thunderbolt that lashes the sky.鈥 This invocation to the Muses starts Henstra鈥檚 novel: The 鈥渨ord鈥 in her title is 鈥渞ape,鈥 and her tale of rape culture and warring fraternity and feminist houses is given mythic properties.

Karen Huls, a girl from small-town Ontario attending an Ivy League school in the mid-鈥90s, wakes up dazed one morning of her sophomore year on the lawn of Raghurst. Raghurst is a staunchly ideological house for female students: 鈥淐ommitted feminists only,鈥 it advertises. 鈥淰egetarian/ vegan/macrobiotic meal-sharing鈥ueer-friendliness a must.鈥 Karen has come from a party at the neighboring Gamma Beta Chi frat (nicknamed 鈥淕ang Bang Central鈥); when the Raghurst women ask if she鈥檚 been raped, she resists the term. 鈥溾楻ape鈥 was a sharp word, a greedy word. It was a double-sided axe brandished in a circle over the head. It drew all kinds of attention to itself.鈥 Soon, though, Karen is taken into the circle of the Raghurst women, and dazzled by their fierce ideology, intellectual passion, and connection to a campus scholar of feminist mythology.

Torn between her growing affection for one of the frat boys and her house鈥檚 beliefs, Karen is worried when house leader Dyann vows to bring down GBC once and for all. As in many epic stories, a bold claim can come with a terrifying cost; (as Shakespeare might put it, 鈥淎 plague o鈥 both your houses鈥). 鈥淓veryone knows the trouble with myth. The trouble with myth is the way it shirks blame,鈥 writes Henstra. 鈥淚t makes violent death as unavoidable as weather. All that tragic destiny lets everyone off the hook. Some bored god comes kicking up gravel and, just like that, a noble house explodes into carnage.鈥 Henstra鈥檚 uncomfortable, provocative book doesn鈥檛 shirk anything; nothing is completely clear-cut or binary, and not only the 鈥渞ight people鈥 suffer.

3. The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood ($18): Spotswood鈥檚 book is aimed at teens, but is for anyone with a thirst for stories that defy the patriarchy. The 12 stories that don鈥檛 usually get told, of diverse American girls coming of age on the margins of society, come from accomplished YA authors like Dahlia Adler, Erin Bowman, Dhonielle Clayton, Sarah Farizan, Meg Medina, Marieke Nikjamp, and Sarvenaz Tash (among others).

Spotswood鈥檚 second anthology of feminist historical fiction (after 2015鈥檚 A Tyranny of Petticoats) focuses on the radicals of society, 鈥渨hether by virtue of their race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender, or the profession they were pursuing.鈥 She points out that radical can mean untraditional, but it can also mean 鈥渃ool,鈥 and the stars of these stories are both. They work as Union saboteurs to the Confederacy. They study Torah at a time when it was forbidden to Orthodox Jewish women. They make feminist punk music, use magic, play poker, and walk tightropes.

鈥淭hese girls will not allow society to define them. Instead, they define themselves, claiming their identities even though it was often not historically safe 鈥 and disappointingly, is not always currently safe 鈥 to do so. They learn to love themselves in all their perfectly imperfect beauty 鈥 which, as some of our heroines learn, might be the most radical act of all.鈥 Though fictional, the women challenge the notion of one simple narration of what history looked like and what stories should be told.

What books tell your story? Tag us in your next radical read @BritandCo.

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