Book review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

As far as modern retellings of classic fairy tales go, Harrow’s take on The Sleeping Beauty is quite original, emotional, and featuring one of the most efficient writing I’ve seen among this year’s Hugo nominees. The characters are highly relatable, and unlike so many recent works I’ve read, they have their own agency. And in addition to all this, the title is a work of genius. Seriously, try to say A Spindle Splintered five times in a row, without injuring yourself.

Zinnia is a dead girl walking. She suffers from an incurable disease, where the longest-living survivor lasted for less than 22 years. She is about to celebrate her 21st birthday. Her best friend, Charm, is throwing her a thematic party, based on Zin’s favorite fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty. True to its theme, at the stroke of midnight, Zin pricks her finger with a spindle and falls through a multiverse. She observes numerous sleeping beauties at various stages of their curse, until she comes across one that still battles the curse, and whom Zin can help. She exits the multiverse into the world of Primrose, a princess who is about to prick her own finger on a spindle.

Zin rescues the princess and is swept away in a fairytale land where not everything is rosy. Primrose, surviving her curse, is about to be wed to a heroic hero who doesn’t seem to have much personality and has even less love for the princess. Zin is still on the verge of dying, especially without her medication, and Primrose still sleepwalks every night, trying to prick her finger. The two of them set on a quest to find the evil fairy, both to see whether their curses may be lifted. They find the fairy, who turns out to be a kindly old woman, using magic to fight for the rights of women to choose, and for that she is branded a witch. She sees young women being traded to unloving husbands for land, titles, or favor, and she is trying to prevent this with the only means she has at her disposal: enchanting the women in various ways, including granting a hundred-year sleep, in the hope that the future will be kinder for them.

Zin and Primrose don’t get their curses lifted, so they head back to the castle, but wiser than before. There, they find out that the wedding would proceed as quickly as possible, and so they devise a plan to each prick her finger with the spindle. Primrose would be safe for a hundred years, and Zin would be sent back home. Unfortunately, they are caught in the act by the fiancée, who expected just such an event. Primrose is sent off to be married, and Zin is jailed in the dungeon, awaiting her execution for witchcraft. However, Zin manages to convince the queen to grant her one last wish, and with that she enters the multiverse again. She recruits a few of the more combative sleeping beauties, and together they rescue Primrose right from the altar. In a rather frenetic finale, they all manage to escape to our world. Primrose falls in love with Charm and decides to stay with her. The other sleeping beauties return to their own stories. And Zin is given another lease on life, albeit time-limited, and decides to start rescuing other damsels in distress from other fairy tales.

For such a short novella, it is choke-full of content. Even more impressively, the author’s efficient writing managed to flesh out several characters to the point where I genuinely cared for them. The main downside of the writing is that for once I feel inadequate to properly review this book, but I’ll give it a try.

Modern retellings of classic fairy tales have become quite fashionable in recent years. My personal favorites are short stories by Neil Gaiman, featuring a dark universe where the protagonists and antagonists switch places. A more topical example of this niche would be Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, where hidden worlds are a mashup of folk tales, myths, and even modern media. In all those examples, however, the original stories are either retold from different perspectives or left untouched, as a backdrop to the characters’ adventures. In Harrow’s novella, however, the protagonists actively shape the story, to the point where they completely break free from the original narrative.

The use of a multiverse helped this break. The author has virtually limitless resources in terms of characters and narrative twists (a science fiction sleeping beauty fighting alongside a Viking queen, for example), and she uses them just enough to make the story interesting.

This story is indeed interesting. In the recent years, especially in Hugo-nominated books, I have been detecting a lack of threat for the main characters. The protagonists are either too overpowered, or they are combined with narrators who are not affected by the world’s events. Without worrying about the heroes, I can’t form a strong emotional attachment to them, and I tend to forget about the book soon after I finish it. A Spindle Splintered is a rare exception. I quickly grew to care about both Zin and Primrose. Harrow may have cheated a little by making Zin so vulnerable from the first paragraph, but Primrose impressed me by the strength of her character. So, when a crisis happened, I actually had to put the book for a few minutes down to catch my breath. The final act, escape to real world, was even more breathtaking. That the author managed to cram this short volume with a well fleshed out story, relatable characters whom the reader cares about, as well as LGBT, gender and environmental themes, which I don’t feel competent to critique, is immensely impressive.

But enough of gushing about Harrow’s writing prowess. I must mention one element that left me scratching my head: the cop-out with Zin’s illness. Even though the witch could not help her, Zin is somehow miraculously cured of her progression at the end. The illness is still there and will kill her, but with the progress reset to zero, she still has years to live. I understand that this was necessary to establish an entire series of books featuring Zin, but the explanation felt more like an afterthought; just to close that one loop. In place of a half-hearted explanation, I would have been much happier if the author skipped this part and explored it in a later volume.

Overall, however, I think this is one of the best, if not the best, novellas nominated for this year’s Hugo awards. The underlying premise may not have been too original, but the efficient and nuanced writing was by far the best I’ve experienced when reading through this year’s ballot. I’m happy to recommend A Spindle Splintered to everyone, not only fantasy or folk tale fans.

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