rating: 4 of 5 stars
Robin McKinley re-tells the story of “Sleeping Beauty” in this whooping 400+ page YA novel. Fifteen years after the King and Queen marry, they have their first child: a girl blessed with 21 names, the last two of which happen to be Briar-Rose. The Queen is so jubilant she invites 21 Fairies and 21 representatives from around the neighboring communities to honor and celebrate the Princess’ Name Day.
Now theirs is a land saturated with magic; McKinley spends the first eight pages describing the trials of living in such a quirky place and the requirements needed to cope with magical oddities for non-magical (ordinary) folk. Fairies are a little more special a breed: their magic is innate, in the genes; wizards are the product of magical education and not nearly as powerful than their shorter counterparts.
Wielding the sort of power that they do, the Queen invites (selects) 21 fairies to give gifts to the baby Briar-Rose. But we know how the story goes: one fairy, jilted without an invitation sees fit to crash the party and take out her petulance on the Princess; Briar-Rose will prick her finger on a spindle and perish.
Fortunately for us, McKinley wrote this twist as the first of many variances on the familiar tale. Maliciously, Pernicia (evil fairy), throws the entire kingdom into a fright when she declares on a whim the Princess may at any time before her 21st birthday prick her finger and succumb to Pernicia’s wrath. But one fairy (Katriona), a very young representative from the Gig and not a present-giver, leaps to the Princess’ rescue and, without thinking, throws her body over Briar-Rose and in her desperation, grants the baby her ability to speak to animals. Sigil, the King and Queen’s fairy, sends the Princess away with Katriona as her guardian, to keep her until Sigil delivers the signal for the Princess’ return.
A story is made up and everyone in the kingdom belies the Princess is hidden away safely at the orders of her parents, under heavy guard and many locks. Katriona brings Briar-Rose home to the Gig where she is raised as a country girl and the apprentice to an iron smith, completely unaware of her real identity and known only to herself and her adoptive family as “Rosie.”
Years go by and the Princess becomes a figure in obscurity, secreted to new locations at the latest thread; Pernicia and her dark magic are not seen for many years and so the people begin to think perhaps her magic and evil spell have simply vanished. But, all too aware of the threat hanging over the Princess’ life, by royal decree, every metal spindle end is done away with. In the Gig, carpenters have specialized in thick, wooden spindle ends no bigger than the width of a baby’s finger, thus insuring any accidental finger pricking with spindle ends rubbed smooth and round, too fat to inflict any puncture-induced damage.
Most of the narrative rests in the middle of Rosie’s life: her childhood, adolescence, and then young adulthood. In other words, McKinley famously dwells on the normal, every-day-ness of life that, in her other books annoyed me, but in Spindle’s End, adds to the individualization of her version. It’s as much the overall plot twists and significant plot changes McKinley makes to “Sleeping Beauty” as it is the minor details she pours into the narrative to fill in the gaps that sketches a cast of lovable and memorable characters. Instead of being a story driven by its own celebrity, Spindle’s End is a character-driven homage and suffers nothing as a result.
Rosie’s best friend, Peony, is a sweetheart, but my favorite would have to be Narl, her (Rosie’s) grunting ironsmith companion. The world McKinley creates is so inventive and with whimsical and fickle magic with as much personality as her characters. I don’t want to say too much about the plot because there are so many amazing twists and original adaptations, you really need to go out and read it for yourself. I think the most unexpected surprise in a book filled with them is McKinley’s version of the kiss that breaks Pernicia’s spell, masterfully bestowed on and given by two unlikely and unexpected sources.
Her writing is considerably more mature in Spindle’s End than Beauty and The Door in the Hedge, two of her children’s books that I think suffered from their lush quality. The animals (since Rosie and Katriona can both speak to them) are given personalities and quirks fitting their nature perfectly--I loved Flinx, the Gig cat that roams around and in Katriona and Aunt’s cottage, but they’re all imaginative and strong personifications of the best and worst qualities we might never have imagined some animals to have.
I’m glad I didn’t read this one first, but a little upset it’s only my third McKinley book because now I’m completely spoiled and fully expect the same quality and magnificence of her other books that I found in Spindle’s End. The good news is I’ve checked out everything of McKinley’s recommended to me from the library; I’ll find disappointment or satisfaction real fast.
But Spindle’s End is a must-read if you’re a fan of fairy tales. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.
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