Sunday, September 27

Spindle's End - Robin McKinley

Subtitled A tale of magic and adventure, this reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty fable opens with an explanation of the magic of the unnamed land in which it's set, "so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk dust." Fairies are employed for a variety of purposes, including reversing the magic that would otherwise produce thimbles or pansies instead of tea.
After fifteen years of childlessness, the queen conceives, and the joy of a nation greets the birth of Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Dominia Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose. For fairness the queen decides to invite the whole country to the baby's nameday, in the form of lots drawn in each village and hamlet.
In the most distant region of the kingdom, where Lord Prendergast acts on the king's behalf, the lot is drawn by Katriona, the orphaned niece of the fairy Saphronia, known to all as Aunt.
The first part of the novel is told from young Katriona's perspective - from her arduous voyage to the capital through to the surprising events at the naming, Katriona demonstrates courage and endurance, a fitting trial for what lies ahead. For, in the aftermath of Pernicia's curse on the newborn heir, the queen's personal fairy Sigil gives the infant to Katriona, with the admonition to keep her safe. Katriona retraces her steps, this time hiding in shrubbery and feeding the princess with the assistance of wild animals, with whom she can communicate and who seem to grasp the importance of discretion.
Rosie is raised as, and believes she is, Katriona's niece, and the second half is told from her perspective. Adamantly ungirly, despite her godmother-endowed blonde locks and sapphire eyes, Rosie crops her hair, prefers the company of animals to people, and is devastated when she has to move into their small town, though she ends up meeting the girl who will not only be her friend for life but change her destiny.
There were many things about Spindle's End that I really liked. One aspect was the conflict, evident more strongly early in the novel than later, between the male, logical and learned magicians and the (almost exclusively) female, intuitive and more backgrounded fairies.
I enjoy reworked fables, and McKinley deservedly has a reputation in this subgenre. I liked the narrative style, the transition in protagonist perspectives, the romantic elements, and the world building.
There's loyalty, friendship, love of all kinds, suspension, tension and drama in Spindle's End but somehow it was all relatively bland. I read the novel while at an academic conference, and appreciated the contrast but reflecting on it some days later nothing in particular stands out. I enjoyed it, but left the book behind without regret. I suspect part of this is because the underlying structure of the story didn't really offer anything substantially new. Certainly there are differences, key among which is that the princess is instrumental in her own fate, but all in all I've read more engrossing variants on a theme. - Alex

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