Book Review | Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Title: Spindle’s End
Author: Robin McKinley
Publication date: 2000
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling, YA

When met with stress people react in a variety of ways. Me- I delve into the fantastical.

Sometimes that means horror, sometimes science fiction.

This time it meant a fairy tale. Specifically, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a less-than-princessy princess named Rosie- who’s more at home re-shoeing a horse than doing any number of standard girly activities. Like the Disney version, Rosie is taken in by a fairy (along with the very young fairy’s aunt) who was present at her name-day ceremony, sheltered by the magical atmosphere as, in this world, the royal family is so incredibly mundane. She is, herself, fairly average- aside from the whole speaking with animals thing (a gift from the fairy), as well as her brash nature. She grows up, a little strange but safe, surrounded by her adoptive family; her best friend, Peony; Gorse- the local blacksmith, Rosie’s eventual teacher and companion; and a whole host of animals. All goes well, until her twenty-first birthday (and the curse’s deadline) approaches and the life she’s known begins to crumble around her.

I was so very excited when I saw this on the bookshelves- because Robin McKinley’s Beauty is one of my fave retellings ever.

I seriously need to quite getting over-excited about these things, cause I keep getting let down.

Not that this wasn’t a good book- not what I’m saying at all.

The world that this story inhabits is full of life and depth, governed by its own peculiar set of magic rules and idiosyncrasies. McKinley here takes a standard fairy tale and transforms it, creating a rich, imaginative landscape that lays heavy with magic- where even everyday people deal with accidental ‘baby-magic’ as toddlers due to how thick it is in the air, where care is taken to clean the grim off of day-to-day objects lest they take on magical attributes.

The story starts so strongly due to this, sucking you in as the world and the cast of characters (the mundane royals, the wise royal fairy, and the ever-uncertain but more-capable-than-she-realizes Katriona) are unveiled.

I saw some of the issues fairly early on, however. You see, the story has multiple narrators- this in and of itself isn’t an issue- it could have worked wonderfully. The problem, however, lies in how one narrrator transitions to the other. You see, the story begins when Rosie is just a baby, and in this story our original protagonist, I would argue, isn’t Rosie at all, but Katriona.  One spends the first quarter of the book with her as our main viewpoint into the world. Then things begin to shift, with Rosie getting a few scenes as viewpoint character- followed shortly afterwards (about 150 pages in) by Katriona taking a side-character role- right as Katriona gets married and has children.

There’s something that rankles about that- about the fact that as soon as Katriona becomes a wife and mother that becomes her central role. The young woman wrestling with her own fairy powers- so often uncertain of her own skills and place in the world- is shoved off with a couple of labels, and it leaves a gap, it seems, in the story, because while I love Rosie, she is also very much not in-the-know as far as what’s going on around her.

Additionally, how the story treats friendship is peculiar at times. Throughout most of the narrative I would have counted this as one of the strongest elements- I love reading a story with strong platonic bonds, especially between girls, because so many of the stories I was exposed to as a teenager absolutely lacked that. It’s the reason I avoided YA fiction for years- the treatment of friendships as characters grow and mature, especially when those relationships are deemed as character defining for both parties. I can’t say much, for fear of spoiling things, but ended up feeling let down by this story as well, in that respect.

It was still a wonderful story in so many ways; it just has a lot of issues as well- ones that happen to be some of my pet peeves. If you can look around these specific things, I definitely recommend trying the story out.

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