Title: Spindle’s End
Author: Robin McKinley
Nutshell: Katriona, a young woman training in the ways of the wise woman, visits the capital city in order to attend the new and greatly lauded princess’s name day. While she sits in the audience, twenty fairies give the princess name-day gifts, each more shallow than the last. Golden hair, a tinkling laugh, the gift of embroidering… You may have guessed what happens next. Tragedy. A spurned, wicked-hearted fairy. A curse.
Katriona is the first to move after the smoke clears. Snatching up the wailing infant, she gives her a gift, almost by accident, blessing her with the ability to speak to animals. Then, because the palace is an obvious location, and the danger is still great, the queen sends the baby with Katriona, to her small village far from the capital, to be as safe as any other ordinary person.
So the princess grows, surrounded by her people, raised by Kat. But by the time she reaches the edge of her destiny, she has her own life. Friends. Loves. Her twenty-first birthday is approaching, the end of all she knows. And her curse isn’t going to be broken by a simple prick and a kiss.
Read-alikes: Cameron Dokey’s rewritten fairy tales are just right for someone looking for tales like McKinley’s. Also Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball and sequels; Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl; Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and sequels. If looking for something similar in theme and feel but less traditional and more grown up, try Patricia Mckillip’s Winter Rose.
This is not my favorite McKinley, although I do like it plenty. It ended up here, instead of Chalice or Pegasus, because this is the only one I own, and my Top Ten have rules.
That said, it is a very good example of McKinley’s remarkable style. She writes in a very casual, train-of-thought sort of way, slipping backwards and forwards in the way that most people tell stories. (Once I saw a bobcat. I wasn’t even supposed to be in those woods, because of the signs and the witch. The witch shouldn’t have been there either, come to think of it. Still, there was me, and there was the bobcat, and things naturally had to proceed from there.) It’s easy to read, and constantly interesting because the story moves ahead showing all the other little stories that went into its construction in a detailed but not elaborate way. (Mrs. McKinley keeps a blog, and in the blog, which is by nature a much more brief and straightforward medium, her back-and-forth-and-by-the-way nature shows itself as a series of nested footnotes.)
Rewritten fairy tales are a very popular thing to write, and I find they come in three varieties: The first is tales revised and expanded, to turn a short tale into a full story. These are the ones that answer the questions, “But WHY do they dance every night in a secret world?” or “HOW does the slipper only fit one girl?” These usually take the original tale very much to heart.1
The second is the spoof on the tale. In this, you’ll find Cinderella turned into Cinderellis, a young man trying to marry a princess who is kept at the top of a glass tower. Or when the princess kisses the frog, she finds herself turned green and hoppy instead.2
The third kind of rewritten fairy tale is the grab bag, where the author has turned elements of fairy tales out onto their workbench and hammered together an altogether different story. These are the sorts of stories that have Red Riding Hood the fearless assassin joining forces with super-spy Cinderella to stop a brotherhood of werewolves, or Rumplestilskin being a shopkeeper and informant in a town with surprisingly convoluted secrets.3
All this to say that McKinley’s tales are of the first variety, keeping all the odd little details of a tale but fleshing them out, filling them up, until it doesn’t seem very odd at all that the princess lives away from the fortified palace in a plain village with no fighters.
And then she adds her own little twists.
The people cut the actual spindles off their spinning wheels, for one thing. (Not the distaff, as is shown in the Disney movie.) And then, as people do, they cannot stand the sight of the ragged, chopped-off spindles, and so they carve elaborate spindle ends. They carve wooden hearts, or grand birds, or grinning gargoyles. It’s such a folksy touch.
Fairies in her story become regular people, mostly, who only are different in that they can interact with the quantities of magic so prevalent and thick in the world that it falls as actual dust on surfaces. So many darling little details come with this feature, such as the fact that things transform at random and occasionally inconvienient times. The people of the land are constantly reminding the things around them to stay what they are.
On the larger scale, Mrs. McKinley adds so much life to the princess. She grows, in the story, rather than skipping all of that inconvenient life stuff so that she can finally find the prince and get cursed. And of course, she grows into Rosie, a village girl who prefers her gorgeous curls shorn close to her scalp, who is far too tall to dance gracefully, fairy’s gift or no, and who prefers to spend her time healing animals.
McKinley’s books carry such a great feeling of connection to the earth. It gives them weight in their simplicity, and innocence in their complexity. (Wow, that’s a sentence to be reckoned with.) They feel like nice, clean fairy-stories, but not fluffy, airy stories. Good deep earthy stories, they are. And while things might take tricksy turns, they do it in such innocence that the trickery feels like good common sense, rather than underhanded dealing. There’s an honesty about McKinley’s fairytales, and a sort of hobbit-ish sensibility.
1. These questions are answered in Princess of the Midnight Ball and Disney’s new Cinderella, respectively.
2. These tales are Cinderellis and the Glass Tower by Gail Carson Levine and The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker. (The princess turning into a frog also happens in that Disney movie, but that movie is super creepy.)
3. You can find Red the Assassin in Jim C. Hines’ princess books, and Shopkeeper Rumple is from television’s Once Upon a Time.