Monday 31 January 2022

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Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

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A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Published: 5th October 2021 | Publisher: TorDotCom | Source: Bought
Alix E. Harrow’s Website

It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no-one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.
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When I heard of A Spindle Spintered by Alix E. Harrow I knew I had to read it. Spider-versing fairy tales?! Sign me up! And it was so, so good!

'I wonder what happens when you tell the same story again and again in a thousand overlapping realities, like a pen retracing the same words over and over on the page.' (p77)

Zinnia's problematic fave fairy tale is Sleeping Beauty. Or rather, it's not, she just finds she relates to the Princess who is cursed die/sleep on her 16th birthday, as she has a condition that will kill her while she's still young. No-one else with the condition has survived beyond 21, and today is Zinnia's 21st Birthday. Her love of Sleeping Beauty has lasted her whole life, and led to her studying fairy tales and folklore for her degree.

'"You are accustomed to thinking of fairy tales as make-believe." Dr. Bastille looked straight at me as she said it, her face somehow both searing and compassionate. "But they have only ever been mirrors."' (p55)

So it's no real surprise that her best friend has planned a Sleeping Beauty themed party. But when she pricks her finger ont he spindle of the spinning wheel, something weird happens. She disappears, finds herself falling while seeing multiple Sleeping Beauties about to prick their own fingers, until she shouts at one to stop, which she does, and Zinnia ends up in her story.

What's brilliant is Zinnia is very much a woman of our world, who finds herself within an archaic fairy tale. Every one speaks how you expect them to speak, yet Zinnia is still a 21st Century girl. The things she says, and the way she says them, clash so much against everything to do with where she finds herself, and it's so damn funny! But she knows fairy tales, which is to her advantage, and while she tries to find a way back home, she might as well try and save a fellow damsel in distress at the same time, right?

But Princess Primrose isn't exactly who Zinnia expects. She's cursed, as we know, but when Zinnia suggests they try to fight the curse together, she is more than up for it. The option to try and do something, even if it fails, spurs Primrose on. She's not quite resigned to her fate, and she's not completely helpless either. She's not the Sleeping Beauty any of us expect, accepting of her fate and prepared to wait for the handsome Prince to wake her with true love's kiss. Honestly, if she can avoid the Prince altogether, that would be better for her.

'At some point I suppose I should probably stop being surprised when the princess is more than a doe-eyed maiden, ready to faint prettily at the first sign of danger.' (p43)

A Spindle Splintered turns the fairy tales we know - and Zinnia knows - their head. Ultimately, it's a story of two women fiercely fighting against the cards they've been dealt, who want to take hold of Fate it bend it to their own will, rather than be bent to Fate's. Who says their stories have already been written? Who says a curse - of eternal sleep metaphorically and literally - can't be broken? Who says the damsels can't save themselves and each other?

But the story isn't light, fluffy, girl power either. There are the dark origins of the sanitised versions we know. And in the multiverse of Sleeping Beauty, every retelling, each incarnation of the Princess cursed to sleep, actually exist, actually happened. Just think about that; those various Sleeping Beauties, and the terrible things they experience. In A Spindle Splintered, we have a Princess who sleeps with a dagger under her bed, and an Evil Fairy who has her own story. This story is only 128 pages, but it has depth, and it has layers - much like an onion.

The thing about Alix E. Harrow is her love of stories, and how you can trust her to know them. Every book she's had published so far is about stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about a world where stories aren't just stories, but real worlds there are doors to all over Earth; The Once and Future Witches has, over generations, people passing down spells to children through witch (read: fairy) tales and nursery rhymes in a world where witchcraft is illegal, with a very particular fairy tale being extremely important. And now her Fractured Fables, novellas where all versions of fairy tales exist, somewhere. What she does with stories and fairy tales in her own books is always so imaginative and clever and mind-blowing, and I'm always in awe with how deftly she weaves her own stories with those of others. I just think she's brilliant.

I did think there would be more that happened in A Spindle Splintered than actually does - though don't get me wrong, things happen; there was a lot more internal monologue than I was expecting. But that doesn't take away from the sheer brilliance of this story and what Harrow has done with it. It's just so awesome, and I loved it. And it's queer, so there's also that!

I completely adored A Spindle Splintered, and I'm so very looking forward to A Mirror Mended, the second story in the Fractured Fables series. I highly recommend this novella to anyone who just loves stories, but especially to those who adore fairy tales and their retellings. It's beautiful.

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