‘Spindle’ Lovingly Splinters Fairy-Tale Tropes

There’s been no shortage of fairy tale retellings or mythology reinterpreted lately. Alix E. Harrow‘s A Spindle Splintered is proof positive that another addition to a well-populated genre can still be done uniquely and oh-so-effectively.

Zinnia Gray is doomed to die. She’s one of the last surviving members of an unfortunate club of kids who were born Generalized Roseville Malady (GRM), a fictional but frighteningly plausible birth defect caused by a chemical compound used in natural gas extraction. Her body doesn’t process proteins right, meaning that her organs are progressively being choked with stray proteins. No one with GRM has ever lived to see 22, which is why Zinnia’s 21st birthday is a blowout bash, courtesy of her best friend, Charm. Charm, knowing of Zinnia’s lifelong love of Sleeping Beauty (a tale as old as time that has particular resonance with this cursed heroine), decorates a room at the top of an abandoned penitentiary to look like a princess’s “tower,” complete with a spinning wheel. But it may be a little too realistic, because when Zinnia pricks her finger on the spindle, she…

Well, she doesn’t die, but the tower and all of rural Ohio are suddenly far, far away as she finds herself in the bedroom of a princess destined to become a real Sleeping Beauty. Princess Primrose has been resisting the spindle’s call and wants to break the curse, especially because she’s due to marry the textbook-handsome Prince Harold in a matter of days. Zinnia encourages her to take her destiny into her own hands, which in this case means sneaking out of the castle and going to seek the evil witch who cursed her in the first place. Along the way, Zinnia realizes Primrose is far from the passive princess the Disney movie and dozens of other variations of the folktale made her out to be. The so-called evil witch is just as divorced from her fictional counterpart, too. Despite spending most of her life studying the Sleeping Beauty tale in all its variations, maybe Zinnia doesn’t know half as much as she thought she did. When things go extremely not according to plan, though, she’ll have to use every scrap of knowledge of fairy tales to get her home safe from this one.

The cover of A Spindle Splintered, featuring a tangle of red thorns in the foreground, framing a finger being pricked by a spindle. Small images of a drop of blood, a girl falling, and the quintessential Sleeping Beauty surrounded by roses make up the center of the cover.
Disney’s great and all, but this was so much better.

Zinnia’s voice is frank and irreverent, which provides a satisfying contrast to the pomp of the faux-medieval kingdom where the majority of this story takes place. Harrow has conveniently allowed her cell phone to continue working (albeit with less and less battery) to give her a lifeline back home, where her parents—and Charm—are fretting. The whole thing feels like a ruffled pink dress with combat boots, in the very best way. And while there’s a good deal of winking and nodding about the tropes of fairy tales, it’s also evident that A Spindle Splintered is also a love letter to them and the impact they continue to have on our busy and increasingly dystopic world.

One of the chief criticisms of many fairy tales, especially Sleeping Beauty, is the lack of agency among their heroines. Aurora has just eighteen lines in the movie ostensibly about her, Zinnia reminds us, and she spends most of that time sleeping while the forces of good and evil do battle around her. A Spindle Splintered seeks to debunk, to challenge, and ultimately reconcile that fact against something closer to reality. The evil witch in particular is a fascinating character and force in her misguided but well-intentioned spell that seals Primrose’s fate. It’s a facet of the book I’d like to talk about more in a venue where I don’t have to worry about spoiling the twists and turns Harrow manages to pack into this novella.

Do things end a little conveniently? Are things a little too happily-ever-after at the end? Perhaps, though there’s enough bitter-sweet from reality to keep things from getting too saccharine. And this is a fairy tale, after all. In two worlds, both fictional and real, with curses and fate, it’s nice to see a happy ending.

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