Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic—which was what all magic was—it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on your knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody’s knee and purred. Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you could call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were always more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona’s theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren’t true.
(I could have picked ever so many quotes from this book, but could not resist this one. I laughed over it for at least a minute straight.)
Author: Robin McKinley
Synopsis: In this spin on the Sleeping Beauty tale, princess Rosie receives a curse on her name-day: by her twenty-first birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a sleep from which no one can rouse her. In hopes of saving her, a small-town fairy kidnaps her and raises her to a commoner's life and everyday magic. But as Rosie grows up rough and outdoorsy and not at all fond of handcrafts like spinning, the fairy who cursed her keeps searching for a way to kill her sooner rather than later, and the clock keeps ticking.
Notes: Already impressive for her ability to achieve a variety of moods and styles—her opus ranges from the mythic, ethereal Beauty to the serious, detailed The Hero and The Crown—McKinley further proved her authorial flexibility with Spindle’s End, which is flat-out hilarious. This novel struck me as a four-hundred-page cousin to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, what with fairy godmothers giving awkward gifts and magic being a quirky, ever-present part of daily life. I was also pleasantly put in mind of Diana Wynne Jones, though if anything, McKinley’s world and characters felt more vivid and emotional to me than that of Howl’s Moving Castle or The Dark Lord of Derkholm.
Told in five parts with third-person omniscient narrative voice and two protagonists, Spindle’s End reworks the short, not-very-action-packed Sleeping Beauty fairy tale into a lively triple romance with heroism and coming of age and girl power on every front. And fairies, of course. It took a wildly different tack from the last Sleeping Beauty retelling I read—Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose—but here I’ll leave off making comparisons to other books, except to say that every time McKinley used the phrase ‘briar rose’, it made me think of the Holocaust, thanks to Yolen, which was disconcerting.
The book threatened to trespass on dangerous territory in a variety of places but never quite committed the offense. Priests and religion were made fun of a couple of times, but then, so was academia, to my thorough amusement. I don’t care for pointed subversions of feminine love for beauty, but Rosie won me over—much more on that later—and Peony was such a good character that the balance was struck. As for matters of plain taste, the story would have risked boring me in the long run had it been just a comedy, but it contained drama and human feeling enough to save it from that dark fate.
Most of the comedy was centered in the worldbuilding, generally told through extensive asides to the reader, often in parenthetical phrases and sentences long enough to rival St. Paul's—a tactic which would not have been advisable in a novel less devoted to being funny. It worked splendidly in this case, according to my own sense of humor, at least, which was roused to numerous snorts and smirks and giggles and the occasional burst of laughter. It succeeded, however, not just as humor but as worldbuilding; the Gig and the dja vines, Woodwold and the smithy and their surroundings all popped up as tangible, dimensional settings. If asked again which fictional worlds I’d like to visit, the Gig would make the top five with Hogwarts and Narnia and Silverydew.
It takes a good character to sell me on a novel, however, and Spindle’s End had several: Katriona and her aunt, Barder and Narl, Throstle and Fast and the merrel, the queen, Peony, and of course Rosie. Brave Katriona—protagonist number one—got my devotion from the outset; headstrong Rosie earned mine as she grew up.
Rosie probably merits extensive discussion as a type of anti-heroine, not because she’s not good, but because she’s not especially feminine in the usual dramatic style. McKinley enjoys playing this trope in various forms, with dragon-fighting Aerin-sol being another obvious example, but Rosie, with her trousers and her grunts, her short hair and her height, her hatred for embroidery and her love for horse-doctoring, is furiously set against all things girly-girl.
What I appreciate about McKinley’s characterizations, however—a fact of empathy that too many writers fail to include—is that even the tough, boyish heroines are allowed human vulnerability, and therefore they come off as womanly in their own ways. As a fellow tall girl with a fondness for jeans and horses and an unfortunate distaste for handicrafts, I sympathized with Rosie on numerous counts. And her deep love for her adoptive family and friends ultimately brought out a softness in her that suited her strength and kept her from destroying her own femininity.
Much of the book worked on similar empathetic principles. Rosie’s romance was odd and comical but emotional and satisfying. The twists on the ending were fascinating and touching despite making me want to roll my eyes once or twice. There was one aspect of the wrap-up that came off bittersweet, but a firm hope accompanied it, so it didn’t put me off the full-fledged glow at the ending.
The only thing I didn’t care much for was the castle showdown against Pernicia, which was packed with hard-to-visualize weirdnesses reminiscent of Aerin’s mage-battle in The Hero and the Crown. It felt like a scene from a different book and by a different writer, and its primary importance seemed to be that it allowed all the animals to take part. It took up so little of a very long, very satisfying story, however, that it didn’t trouble me much.
In the end, I was grateful for all four hundred of this book’s pages. The length gave me a lot of time to live in the Gig, to get to know Aunt and Katriona, and to become the solid, energetic, animal-loving country girl who contained strong hints of my own teenage self. I miss that girl. I have a feeling I’ll return for more time with her.