January is Ana's and Iris' Long Awaited Reads Month. I was perusing my shelves, wondering how far back some books had been on it waiting to read, when this book fell into my hands: Spindle's End, by Robin McKinley.
I am a huge fan of Robin McKinley, and I'm not sure why I hadn't read Spindle's End before. I know I had tried at least twice, but the beginning is a little dry, with not a lot of action until chapter 2, when we meet Katriona, a girl of 15 who is picked from her village to represent it at the christening of the long-awaited princess who had finally been born to the king and queen. You know how the story begins: king and queen long for a baby, it's finally born after many years, and at the christening day, fairies are invited, and one is left out, Pernicia, and she ruins the party by putting a curse on the baby that on her 21st birthday, the princess will touch a spindle and fall into a poisoned sleep from which none can wake her. In this story, the evil fairy then changes it to: it could happen at any time up to her 21st birthday. And from there, the novel takes off on it's own wonderful course.
Spindle's End is the retelling of Sleeping Beauty, thus the name of the novel. It is one of the best retellings of this particular fairy tale I have read, and indeed, I think how the story is reworked so that the princess - called Rosie, nickname of the last of the 19 names she is given (they had been waiting a long time to have a baby), Briar Rose - Rosie herself plays a starring role in this novel. She is hidden away by Katriona, far from the palace and the seeking eyes of the wicked fairy . So Rosie grows up far away from anywhere, really, loved by two fairies, one of whom , Katriona, accidentally gives her small fairy talent to Rosie when she first sees her, because she wants to give her something (she is a tiny 3 month old princess after all) and because she wants to save her from the curse. The whole kingdom wants to. And for 20 years, Rosie is raised in relative safety. And then the year of the 21st birthday arrives.....
I love how the fairies are worked into this story: humans share the world with fairies, in this unnamed land, and the fairies are used to corral magic and try to keep it under control, because magic exists in this world. Fairies look like humans, so they are mostly identified by what happens around them, what they cause to happen, or what they can do.
Part of the spell this novel had me under is that Rosie grows up being able to talk to animals. It was at this point in reading the novel that I discovered - I remembered- that I had loved this part of fairy tales when I read them. I absolutely love animals that help characters, especially talking animals. That to me was pure magic, and I love that in Spindle's End this is worked in to the story in such a beautiful way. Rosie is not your archetypal princess, she is clumsy, large, not beautiful - but she is kind, and funny, and loves animals fiercely.
This was a funny magical fairy tale. It's been a long time since I read something that was so sweet, and well-written, and true to the spirit of fairy tales.
What I love most though, is that Rosie mostly saves herself. I think it says a lot for today, and our envisioning of female power, that the prince doesn't rescue Rosie. She decides to fight for the kingdom, for her people, for all she loves, to free them from the evil fairy. She doesn't fall into a slumber that only one kiss will awaken her, she doesn't lie in state in the castle waiting for a prince to hack his way through to her. She works with the land, the way a real princess (and King) do, close to it in the way that living in nature (they are far from any large city, or even small town) can give to people. That's what I mean by a marvelous true story. Some of the questions that have bothered me for years about Sleeping Beauty are: Should Briar Rose do something, anything, to stop her curse? Why is she so passive - hasn't she heard for all those years what the evil fairy wished on her? Shouldn't she flee at the sight of a spindle? Why is she so passive? Shouldn't she seek some way to avoid her fate, rather than let her father just banish spindles, as if that could stop an evil fairy? This retelling answers those questions I long held in a deeply satisfying way.
This one is rich in myth, and legend, and talking animals, good and evil, and a princess who is helped by those she is kind to. It's filled with lots of love too, brimming over with love and romance. At it's core, it's about being true to yourself. There are two big heroines in this book - Katriona, who rescues the princess and then helps to raise her, and Rosie, the princess. I love that they are the center of this story of Sleeping Beauty. They take action, they are the story. This is a wonderful re-imagining.
So that was my first book for long awaited reads month. I have had it on my shelves for several years now. Thank you, Ana and Iris, for creating this challenge!