Book Review: A Spindle Splintered Is A Fractured Fairytale From Alix E Harrow
There are many versions of fairy tales that exist around the world. From the dark and horrific early versions, to the morality tales of the Brothers Grimm. They all culminate in the sanitized and kid-friendly Disney versions. How many ways can an old story be told? How many times can it be told before the characters become unrecognizable? These are the questions that author Alix E Harrow tackles in her new novella A Spindle Splintered.
A Meta Portal Fantasy For The Modern Era
Image via Tor/Forge
The story starts off with a dying girl, whose body is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Zinnia Gray has been obsessed with the story of Sleeping Beauty from a young age. She can see herself reflected in the text, a young woman whose agency and choices have been taken from her. She is living under a curse, only one that will end her life instead of sending her into an enchanted slumber. With a projected lifespan of only 21 years, Zinnia finds herself celebrating what may be her final birthday atop an old tower. Her best friend Charm has made it all Sleeping Beauty themed, complete with a spinning wheel.
When Zinnia pricks her finger on the spindle of the wheel, she does not expect to be thrown headfirst into the fairytale. But soon she finds herself in a medieval fantasy land, facing down a princess named Primrose. The princess is living the standard Sleeping Beauty story. Cursed from birth to prick her finger and fall into an enchanted slumber. Only Zinnia’s arrival stopped her from touching the spindle. And now her fate may be even worse – she may actually have to marry her betrothed. And Prince Charming he is not.
Together Zinnia and Primrose set off on a journey to find the fairy who originally cursed her. Zinnia hopes that the magic of this land might be powerful enough to cure her biological curse. But what they discover is not what they expect. And soon they must make a decision that will affect all the princesses of all the Sleeping Beauty stories told across the ages.
A Fractured Fairytale That Amplifies Women’s Voices
Image via Disney
A Spindle Splintered is the first of Harrow’s Fractured Fairytale series, and it establishes the world(s) and characters nicely. Zinnia draws from her knowledge of fairytales and folklore to seek solutions to what seem like impossible problems. She is a bold and gutsy heroine, but one that is coping with her own fear of mortality. She runs from romance, determined never to break anyone else’s heart. It seems as though she has spent much of her life avoiding dealing with the reality of her illness. And now with death looming, she is desperate to escape her fate. This is not unlike the character of Primrose, who has spent her life under a curse. She also seeks to run from her fate, and together the two of them are parallels of the idea of the cursed Beauty.
Harrow updates the story for the modern era. Primrose is no damsel in distress, despite initial appearances. And Harrow plays with the idea of her “Prince Charming” actually being a woman. Zinnia is painfully aware of the many sexist undertones of her beloved fairytale. Sleeping Beauty is a story about women cursing one another for perceived slights. It is a story about sleeping through your life, and being “awoken” by true love.
In all of these stories there is a “happily ever after” where the a man rescues the Princess, despite the questions of consent surrounding men kissing sleeping women. But rarely do these stories delve into the interior lives of the women involved. But Harrow does that extremely well, although Primrose is not the POV character. Both Zinnia, Primrose, and Charm come to life on the page. They get an astonishing amount of characterization for such a short novel. Even the fairy gets a chance to tell her side of the story. In this fractured fairytale, the women’s stories are finally t0ld.
Narrative Resonance In A Spindle Splintered
Of course author Alix E Harrow has some experience with this format. She gave voices to a trio of sister witches in The Once And Future Witches – my favorite novel of 2020. In both of these stories, Harrow subverts common stereotypes and tropes surrounding the type of stories that women tell. And the type of stories women find themselves in. She is gifted at turning the reader’s expectations on their head. Fully aware of what is expected from the story and doing the complete opposite. Her female characters are complex, and flawed individuals. Even when they are practicing magic – or living in a fairytale – they are still real humans struggling to find agency over their own lives.
Photo by Emily O’Donnell
In A Spindle Splintered, Harrow also toys with the idea of ‘narrative resonance.’ This is the meta aspect of the story. Zinnia’s awareness and knowledge of fairytales and folklore inform her every action. She is aware of how many Beauties there are who are sleeping through their lives, all of them different and unique. Much like in The Once And Future Witches there is significant magical power in storytelling. When a story is retold over and over again, it takes on a life of its own and becomes real in a vital way. Zinnia always thought of herself as the character in Sleeping Beauty, and she soon realizes how many others exist across untold and unknown worlds who are in the same boat. How can a dying girl save others from their dire fates? How can she save herself?
A Feminist Fairytale For The Modern Era
A Spindle Splintered is decidedly a feminist fairytale for the modern era. It is lyrical and beautiful like a fairytale should be. But it is also unexpectedly funny and full of heart. This is also the first of a new series that Harrow is working on. She has already announced a sequel A Mirror Mended that delves into the character of the “Evil Queen” from Snow White. Something tells me that Harrow’s queen will not be as evil as we think, and I look forward to reading the exploration of another famous fairytale character when A Mirror Mended comes out in June of 2022.
Image via Tor/Forge
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.