Spindle’s End, by Robin McKinley
From the jacket: “All the creatures of the forest and field and riverbank knew the infant was special. She was the princess, spirited away from the evil fairy Pernicia on her name-day. But the curse was cast: Some unknown time in the future Rosie would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a poisoned sleep from which no one could rouse her.”
My take: In this feminist retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, author Robin McKinley takes the power away from the prince and puts it squarely in the hands of the cursed princess.
Rosie can remember no other life before coming to live with Aunt and Katriona, two fairies living in a remote corner of the kingdom. Aunt, she has been told, came and fetched her when her parents died suddenly just a week after Katriona returned home from an ill-fated naming ceremony of the year-old princess. She has lived with the two of them ever since, running in the forest, hanging out with the local iron monger, and conversing with the local animals — a rare gift, even among families with fairies in it as strong as her aunt and cousin.
What they have not told her is that she is not their kin, but the nation’s princess in hiding. Katriona, in fact, ran off with her in the minutes after a dark fairy capped off a list of useless fairy godparent gifts (following the trend of long eyelashes and extraordinary embroidery skill) with a death threat. Aided by the animals of the land, who assist her in finding milk, Katriona drags the baby across the kingdom, taking three months to lug Rosie home to her aunt.
Believing their princess to be in a secure location with her mother and aided by a bit of glamourizing magic, the townfolk have no reason to doubt Rosie is who the fairies say she is (although a few nastily suggest Katriona might be the girl’s mother, rather than her cousin). And neither does Rosie, who grows up independent, self-confident, and capable, generally unfettered by the gifts her godparents gave her so many years before.
That is until the final year before the princess and Rosie turn 21, the age by which Pernicia swears she will be killed. With the kingdom seemingly under attack by negative magic and its people desperate for the heir to the throne to appear, Rosie’s past is about to knock on her door and throw her life into disarray. And that’s provided she isn’t murdered by a magical curse first.
Spindle’s End is one of those stories where you’re glad to have read it nearly as soon as it begins. The core elements of the original story remain intact — princess, fairies, evil, spindle, ignorance, sleep, briars, a “prince” and his “kiss” to awaken the main character, and buckets of true love — but it is made real by a three-generation cast of kick-ass women, several pretty awesome guys, and communicative animals, as well as a quest to keep things lively.
If you have read any of McKinley’s other works, I highly suggest this one as their equal. If you have read and enjoyed other feminist retellings, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon or The Firebrand, I think this is far less convoluted a retelling and gets its pro-girl message across without throwing out the contributions of men to society and the story. If you have a daughter or a granddaughter or a friend or a self in need of reminding just how capable and wonderful they can be solely by being who they are, then sit them down with a copy of this book right now. They’ll thank you for it.
This book fills the fairy tale category of the Once upon a Time VI reading challenge.