A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow
One of the folks I would occasionally encounter back in my dog park days was Jack, a professor emeritus of German, comparative literature, and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota (and his rambunctious standard poodle, Vinnie). Jack has published many books on fairy tales, their evolution, and their social and political role in civilizing processes. He would tell me about his latest travels for research and lecturing, and would ask me if I had read any good retellings of fairy tales lately; I usually had a few to share with him.
Oh, boy, do I have a good one for Jack today!
Alix E. Harrow, author of the superlative novels The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches has written a novella that take the story of Sleeping Beauty and gives it not so much a modern retelling as a modern twist.
Zinnia Gray is a young woman from Ohio with a chronic disease caused by environmental disregard and corporate greed. Diagnosed at birth, no one afflicted with the malady has lived beyond their 21st birthday – and for Zin, that auspicious milestone is quickly approaching.
Since age 6, Zin has been captivated by the story of Sleeping Beauty; not so much for its romance, as for the specter of its heroine.
Charm (Charmaine Baldwin, my best/only friend) says Sleeping Beauty was my first crush and she’s not totally wrong, but it was more than that. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing my face reflected brighter and better. It was my own shitty story made mythic and grand and beautiful. A princess cursed at birth. A sleep that never ends. A dying girl who refused to die.
Zin becomes obsessed with the fairy tale, even the harsher, older versions. So, on her 21st birthday, her friend Charm organizes a party unlike any other – a bower of roses in the tallest tower in the land (okay, the decrepit watchtower of a long-abandoned penitentiary outside of town) complete with a rickety old spinning wheel picked up from a local thrift store. But when Zin pricks her finger on the wheel on a dare (well, kind of), something actually happens. Not sleep, but a weird falling into an actual fairy tale, complete with a princess who is also turning 21 and facing her own destiny.
What is glorious about this book is that Zin never loses her modern self, even in the midst of what should be illusion. She realizes the tropes she has memorialized are somehow very real, even though she doesn’t understand how she came to be in this place, or if she can get back – or why she can still text Charm from this new reality. But once she accepts that she is truly in the fairy tale she’s always loved – or at least one iteration of it – she decides it’s time to rewrite the story.
At its heart, A Spindle Splintered is a love story, not between a princess and her Prince Charming, but between one troubled girl and those who love her. That love is not always pure and rarely easy; it can come with obligations and burdens, and deep fears. It’s about unconventional love, as well, and choosing a path different than the one laid out before you. It’s terrifying and uplifting… and very, very wittily written, a hallmark of Alix E. Harrow’s works. It’s glorious.
Delightfully – and somewhat creepily – decorated throughout by silhouette illustrations from the famous artist Arthur Rackham (that were “unavoidably harmed, fractured, and splintered during the editing process”), A Spindle Splintered is a quick, fun, eerie and totally unique read. Zin is a delight, even when she’s at her most morbid, and the action is quick and whip smart. I was enthralled the entire time I was reading this book, and I’m pleased to see that this is the first of a series (Fractured Fables), the second of which, A Mirror Mended, is set to publish in June 2022.
I can’t wait to tell Jack about it.
— Sharon Browning