For the first time, I’m participating in the amazing Book Smuggler’s Old School Wednesday Readalong. They’ve been doing this monthly for over a year now, and while I’ve always read them eagerly, this is the first time I was coordinated enough to get and read the book in time. It probably helped that the book was already sitting on my shelf. (I ILLed last month’s book, Kate Elliott’s Jaran, but didn’t get through it in time… I’ll get the review up hopefully this month sometime.)
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000.
Robin McKinley is one of my top favorite authors of all time (regular readers here will know this.) When I opened this book, I found a Borders Harry Potter tattoo clipped to the front page, and remembered finding Spindle’s End while doing the midnight Harry Potter release thing with my love. Happy memories!
I’m a re-reader, and McKinley is a go-to comfort author, but this was only the second time I’d read this book. I found plenty to enjoy about it – and my perspectives have shifted in the last 14 years – but I’d still have to say that this isn’t one of my favorite McKinley books. Now, on to the official questions!
1. Spindle’s End is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty – with a unique magical twist. What did you think of this particular retelling of the fable, and how did it stack up to other iterations you may have read or seen?
I love fairy tale retellings, and McKinley’s Beauty was the book that turned me on to them in the first place. Spindle’s End is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a story that doesn’t get adapted too often. Most recently, I’ve read Jim C. Hines’ radical reworking – which involves the princess’s life after she wakes up. I read Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, which moves the story to Nazi Germany, when it first came out in the early 90s. I liked it well enough to read it several times, and remember appreciating the setting and the coverage of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals as well as Jews. Other than that, I’m afraid my memory of it is a little hazy.
This one is divided into five parts. The first is an introduction to the country and its magic, and includes the fairy Katriona’s journey back to the Gig with the baby Princess. In part two, Rosie is growing up and the perspective is split between Katriona and a very young Rosie. It’s not until the last three parts that Rosie really takes over the story completely. While I very much liked both Katriona and Rosie, having the story split between multiple perspectives like this – not from the beginning, but Rosie absent in the beginning and Katriona absent in the end – made for a disjointed story. I feel like the story could have been told more effectively if McKinley had picked one perspective and stuck to it.
I do like what McKinley is trying to do with the story. I like her giving Rosie so much more agency than she has in the traditional story. I took the inane gifts of the 20 other fairies as attempts to give the princess things that wouldn’t have any magical properties for Pernicia to latch hold of, and loved both that Katriona and Rosie hated them anyway.
2. One of the fascinating things about Spindle’s End is the prevalence of magic in this world. What are your thoughts concerning the magical systems in this book – curses, baby-magic, charms, and all?
I agree with Thea and Ana – I love the magic in this book. I love how McKinley gives her background information in a way that feels cozy and conversational rather than info-dumpy, even when pages are devoted to it. Here’s the first sentence:
“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.”
I end up feeling like I would probably enjoy living in a country where I’d need a friendly neighborhood fairy to help descale my kettle, even with the baby magic and the curses. Both the baby and the fairy magic felt like lovely metaphors to me. Baby magic here springs up during those toddler/preschool years that have been extra challenging with both of my children. Fairy magic is described as rummaging around in a dark room for something you hope is there – only you get better at it with practice. That sounded very much like writing to me.
3. Let’s talk about Fate for a second. From her very birth, the Princess Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domnia Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose is heaped upon with senseless gifts from twenty-one fairies, and one pernicious curse from the spiteful Pernicia. It would seem that this poor, innocent child’s future has been set before she even has the chance to live. But Rosie is hardly the sweet-tempered, beautiful princess that one might think she’d become. Discuss the theme of fate in this book, and your thoughts as it relates to Rosie and all the lives around her.
I liked Rosie and her refusal to be the embroidering, lovely, and presumably passive princess that the other fairies expected her to be so very much.
My perspective on this has been changed the most by re-reading, and by my life in the intervening years. I now have a daughter who now, at four, could be Rosie at the same age (maybe minus the magical gifts). Like Rosie, she is stubborn, infuriating, friendly, interested in medicine and animals, and has beautiful golden curls that she keeps insisting on hacking off herself. She also came very, very close to dying before her first birthday, and was saved only by the intervention of a very large number of people, most especially the generosity of the family who donated their child’s organs. (My own daughter, though, would still love to be a princess.)
Seen through that lens, I understand better the pressure to be and do something extraordinary with a life that cost so very much, and how Rosie could rebel so strongly against her destiny. I noticed and thought about the themes of fate and destiny a whole lot more on this reading. Even as I loved Rosie and her personality taking over all of the inane gifts, I am still torn between cheering her on for insisting on being her own person and not being entirely comfortable with where this takes her in the end.
4. The ending: your thoughts.
The ending, alas, has never quite worked for me. I keep trying to to like it. Yes, the final confrontation is confusing. And why should her not wanting golden curls and good embroidery skills mean giving up being a princess?? After so many people (animals included) worked so hard for so long and sacrificed so much for her to be this? Wouldn’t her people be just as happy to have a more independent princess than they were maybe expecting? I really agree that her poor mother, the queen, really gets shafted here. It’s an interesting idea to posit that the Princess is a separate entity from the person, one that could be transferred to another person – but it didn’t quite make everything work for me. Maybe I’m too conditioned with books where people have a destiny that they struggle to live up to, and then, most satisfyingly, they find that new strength and those new depths and are able to become the person they didn’t know they could be, like Elisa in The Bitter Kingdom. Maybe – or really, obviously – McKinley is trying to make a point about expectations being crushing at times – but… To have Rosie escape Pernicia, grow up, defeat Pernicia – and then decide that her best friend, whom we actually know for a very short part of the book, should be the princess instead – it still feels like I was cheated as a reader, and that all those people who helped Rosie along the way were let down.
The journey to end was mostly enjoyable; I loved the characters and the country – but I’d recommend it mostly only to people who, like me, want to read every Robin McKinley writes for the purposes of completion. If you happen to be new to Robin McKinley or fairy tale retellings, I have many others I’d suggest first.