Review: Spindle's End, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley's Spindle's End is one of the best novels I've read this year. A beautiful and magical retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I feel this book considerably surpasses her other fairy-tale novels I've read, Beauty and Rose Daughter (both retellings of Beauty and the Beast). (It's hard for me to sensibly compare it to the Damar books, as they're in somewhat different areas of fantasy.)

The book's recasting of Sleeping Beauty is both sensible and atmospheric. First, it's sensible in that the twists and turns wrought in the familiar story follow from what's been established earlier. (A nice touch that I like: spindles are not outlawed because of the curse, because spinning is an important part of the economy. Instead, spindles are not allowed to have points thinner than the forefinger of a three-month-old baby. The blunt ends come to be carved and decorated, hence the title.) It's atmospheric in that the magic of the climactic confrontation is mysterious and menacing and almost suffocating to read about—and, thankfully, not spoon-fed to the reader, either. However, that's not why I like the book so much. The story's good, very good, but the people and the world are even better.

The people first. Rosie, the princess, was given twenty-one names on her name-day (Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domina Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose, and what were they thinking to inflict those on a princess), and was to be given twenty-one fairy gifts as well; unfortunately, the first twenty were all useless things like "golden hair" and "long ringlets wide and round as goblets"—and then Pernicia, the wicked fairy, showed up. Rosie was whisked away and brought up in ordinariness by two fairies, Katriona and her Aunt.

Rosie hated her curly golden hair. When she was old enough to hold minimal conversations, the itsy-bitsy-cutesy-coo sort of grown-ups would pull the soft ringlets gently and tell her what a pretty little girl she was. She would stare at this sort of grown-up and say, "I am not pretty. I am intelligent. And brave." The grownups usually thought this was darling, which only made her angry, perhaps partly because she was speaking the truth, although it was tricky to differentiate between "brave" and "foolhardy" at three or four years old. . . .

Rosie grows up to be an energetic, determined, generous, but entirely non-domestic woman. As she can speak to animals (an extremely rare fairy talent), she has become the local horse-doctor by the time her twenty-first birthday approaches and she learns her true identity. Then, she and her friends (human and animal) and family, wonderful characters all, must find a way to stop Pernicia.

The setting of the book is practically another character, and one that I would actually really like to visit (there are a lot of well-realized fictional worlds of which this is not true).

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housekeepers in that country earned unusually good wages.) . . .

People either loved that country and couldn't imagine living anywhere else, or hated it, left as soon as they could, and never came back. If you loved it, you loved coming over the last hill before your village one day in early autumn and hearing the corn-field singing madrigals, and that day became a story you told your grandchildren, the way in other countries other grandparents told the story of the day they won the betting pool at the pub, or their applecake won first place at the local fete. If you lived there, you learned what you had to do, like putting a pinch of dried dja vine in your kettle once a week, like asking your bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (The people of this country had developed a reputation among outsiders for being unusually pious, because of the number of things they appeared to mutter a blessing over before they did them; but in most cases this was merely the asking of things it was safer to ask to remain nonmagical first, while work or play or food preparation or whatever was being got on with. Nobody had heard of a loaf of bread turning into a flock of starlings for anyone they knew, but the nursery tale was well known, and in that country it didn't pay to take chances. The muttered words were usually only some phrase such as "Bread, stay bread," or, in upper-class households, "Bread, please oblige me," which was a less wise form, since an especially impish gust of magic could choose to translate "oblige" just as it chose.)

I could have broken this somewhat lengthy passage off before the parenthetical, but it just doesn't give the full flavor of the prose, as well as the setting, otherwise. The language doesn't have the extravagant beauty of Winter's Tale, for instance, but it has its own subtler ways of intoxicating a reader. (I wish it were short enough to read aloud.) And at the end, when the curse is lifted (it's a fairy tale, you know the curse is going to be lifted) and the sleepers awake—McKinley is wise enough to know that there is a price for everything, and even happy endings bring change.

This is a terrific book, and while it might not be to everyone's taste, anyone who enjoyed these excerpts should really go read it immediately.

%T   Spindle's End
%A   McKinley, Robin
%C   New York
%D   2000
%G   0-399-23466-7
%I   G.P. Putnam's Sons
%O   hardcover
%P   422pp

Copyright September 10, 2001 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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