Spindle by E.K. Johnston. Hyperion, 2016.
Hundreds of years after the Storyteller Queen drove the demon out, as told in A Thousand Night, the demon has been slowly plotting its escape. It has invented a curse on making and the skills that will turn the princess called Little Rose into the ideal host, which will allow him to crush the kingdoms that formed out the lands that first drove him out.
Our narrator Yashaa is the son of a Spinner of the kingdom of Kharuf, formerly held in high regard, but now forced to live as nomads between kingdoms because of the magical sickness that crushes them if they return to their home. Yashaa and his fellow children of exile Tariq and Arwa, as well as Saoud from another nearby kingdom, decide to travel back to Kharuf to see if they can break the curse.
Sleeping Beauty is a much less obvious choice for retelling with a strong Middle Eastern setting, but (as always so far with E.K. Johnston for me), I loved it. Zahrah, the Little Rose, is tough and clever as she ropes the teens and one younger girl into orchestrating her escape. Women cover their hair and the preservation of reputations is at least attempted without the women feeling either like less important characters or that they are chafing at these parts of their cultures, a sensitivity I appreciated.
This is a beautiful tale. It still has a mythic feel like that of A Thousand Nights, but with named characters and concrete struggles, feels much more real at the same time.
E.K. Johnston has seven books listed on her website, of which I’ve now read four, including The Story of Owen and its sequel Prairie Fire. Still to read: Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Star Wars: Ahsoka and That Inevitable Victorian Thing. Those interested in fairy tale retellings can also try Robin McKinley’s very different-feeling retelling Spindle’s End.