A Spindle Splintered: A Modern Fairytale With My Favorite F-Word
What's that? A callback to a previous post? Well, if you haven't read all of my blogs religiously, then kindly get your mind out of the gutter. My favorite F-word is "Feminism." (Followed closely by the other one, but I digress.) Alix E. Harrow's A Spindle Splintered is, to paraphrase the author, if Sleeping Beauty went all Into the Spiderverse. It's an enormously creative retelling of the classic tale that posits the question: "sometimes we end up with shitty stories. What if we re-write our endings?"
Zinnia Gray is turning twenty-one, which is a momentous birthday for almost anyone, especially if you live in a random town in Ohio and have nothing better to do. But for Zinnia, it's more than that. A disease rages in her body, and no one knows much about it -- except that the prognosis for its victims has never been longer than twenty-one years. At the beginning of the story, she's been given a prognosis of "weeks, not months," and she's bitterly waiting out the clock, trying to give her family the time they need before the end comes.
She's always had a soft spot, bordering on obsession, with the Sleeping Beauty narrative. To her, it was the cursed girl who didn't end up dying, who cheated her way out of her fate and managed to sleep for a hundred years. So when her best friend, Charm, holds a Sleeping Beauty-themed party for her, complete with spinning wheel, she isn't surprised. But when she pricks her finger (for funsies), something altogether different happens. She's transported into a whole new world, where someone else is fighting a curse to sleep for a hundred years. Only she's calling for help. It's a terrific story that actually made me cry (as my wife can attest). It's got some glaring plot holes, some of which could be closed up by some added detail, but it had such heart and sass that I found myself not even caring. Let's dive in.
Zinnia, Primrose, and Other Non-Flower Characters
Zinnia Gray is our protagonist, and the first of the "Sleeping Beauty" characters in this book. Despite fiercely protective parents, she managed to go to college, and major in folklore, thinking that if she doesn't have a future, she might as well study what she wants, right? Ever since her graduation, her life has been winding down, and at the start of the story, she's living under the protective umbrella of her parents, essentially waiting to die. She stopped fighting for herself a long time ago, resigning herself to the fact that she was given a shitty story, and sometimes there's just no happy ending. (A fact that is, unfortunately, true, as evidenced by the death of my own mom.) She feels a kinship with the Sleeping Beauty story, and has gone to great lengths to learn all the versions of it, even the earliest ones where the prince does far worse than kiss the slumbering princess without consent, to the ones where she pricks her finger on a splinter of flax.
Zinnia's story, as she's flung into this new world where she meets our second Sleeping Beauty, Primrose (more on her in a moment), is one of hope. She finds herself in a medieval(ish) world where the princess's curse is actually a curse, instead of a deadly disease. Maybe, if she can't fix her own ending, she can help re-write someone else's. Her journey over the course of this story is that of someone learning to live again, to want to live, and learning to live on her own terms instead of idly trying to watch the clock.
Princess Primrose is our second Sleeping Beauty, a gorgeous Disney Princess if there ever was one. But this golden-haired woman is more than what she seems. She's been living in a gilded cage for twenty-one years, just like Zinnia, only instead of a disease, it's a curse to sleep for a hundred years. She's been betrothed to a banal shithead, Prince Harold, and the second Zinnia helps her escape the curse, even if only for a night, her father is pushing her to be wed. The problem being, of course, that Primrose doesn't want Prince Harold -- or any other man, for that matter. It becomes clear over the course of the story that Primrose, far from a simpering lady with no wit or strength, has a spine of metal that would give Wolverine a run for his money. (#nerdpoints) She's just never been given the chance to step outside her bonds to live as herself. The plot surrounds saving Primrose from her fate, but really, she saves herself. When she asks Zinnia for help through this "narrative resonance" (it's explained in the book, more on that later), she's taking her fate into her own hands, and asking for help so you can keep fighting is not weakness.
The last character I'm going to cover here is Charm, Zinnia's best friend. Though she's only present in the first part of Zinnia's adventure through text, she is the badass hero that's looking for someone to save. She's been trying to save Zinnia for years. She majored in biochemistry, did her thesis on the mutation that caused her best friend's disease, and went to work for Pfizer, all to find a way to make progress on turning back to the clock for Zinnia. And when Zin asks for help, she's in, all the way. She does the research, she fields the questions to Zinnia's parents -- which basically amounts to "yeah, Mr.and Mrs. Gray, she's having a sleepover. At my place. Six days? Why would six days be weird?" And when she does emerge into the story, she comes ready to roll heads, not least because she's kind of into the princess. She is the best friend everyone wishes they had, who rolls with the weird shit and has the brains and attitude to get you through the worst of the worst. And sometimes, the damsel gets the girl.
A Hundred Sleeping Princesses
The basic premise of this story relies on the concept of a multiverse, or the concept of infinite dimensions all going about their lives simultaneously. Conceptually, according to Harrow's telling, the multiverse is like a book, with a dimension on each page. Sometimes, the ink bleeds through the pages, creating what they call "narrative resonance." With enough narrative resonance, or creating a situation similar enough, one can slip through the dimensions to other worlds with the same circumstance. It's dodgy as hell, but this book is only just under 120 pages. Zinnia, Primrose -- and all the other Sleeping Beauties we meet -- are all the same character in different dimensions, playing out the same story. Zinnia, by the end, realizes that maybe some of them can, with a little help, save themselves from their own circumstances. And that maybe Sleeping Beauties ought to stick together.
The logic Harrow uses in the plot can be a bit sketchy, and oftentimes, she uses the logic of "it works because it does," which often isn't enough for me, because I like to know why something works, not just trust that it does because someone said so. For instance, Harrow approaches the idea of cell phones working across dimensions (despite the obvious lack of service tower for Verizon in Fantasy Land) as being weird, but it works, because it does. She tries to make the concept of Narrative Resonance into a researchable part of quantum mechanics, and honestly, I'd buy it a little more if it were just "magic." Maybe I'm a brainwashed fantasy nut. I don't know. (as an aside, in reality, Narrative Resonance is a writing device. I looked it up, just in case.) Harrow, like many, many other authors before her, has a scorching case of "the universe rooting for the protagonist" in this book. This isn't a bad thing. This is a short novel, and Zinnia's on a literal time limit, so she can't really afford to be wrong the first couple of times she experiments. Still, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and have recommended it to multiple people, I can recognize that its logic doesn't gel all the way, and that's okay. A book doesn't have to be perfect to be enjoyable. And to be honest, maybe if I watch Into the Spiderverse, it will make more sense. My wife keeps telling me to watch it.
Maybe We Can Re-Write Our Own Stories
Part of the reason I still love this book despite its plot holes, is the themes. Oh my god, the themes. The themes of self-discovery, of self-worth, and finding your power, of using that power to fight for your happy ending. The themes of women supporting women, and sticking together in a world where sometimes we're given really awful cards to play. Even the wicked fairy who cursed Primrose isn't what she seems. This little book packs a punch, and it hits you right in the feelings.
This book is meant to be a feminist take on a well-loved fairytale. A Spindle Splintered is one of those books that leaves you feeling empowered. Those of you who know me, know that I struggle constantly with my mental health. Beyond ADHD, I also struggle with CPTSD and Anxiety, and a few other things just for kicks. They mix together in unpredictable ways, until I have to fight just to function on a base level -- and by that, I mean "getting out of bed in the morning." I can't work, and I sometimes, like at the end of this year, struggle just to keep myself alive. In addition to that, I suffer from a life-threatening autoimmune disease that's been trying to shut down my lungs this year. While that may all sound very melodramatic, I can tell you without hesitation that watching Zinnia grow and remember what her life is worth was something I needed to read. Watching Primrose decide to hold her head high and choose her own destiny made me want to, too. Watching Charm swoop in and save the day made me want to be that kind of friend for those around me -- which I can only do if I'm still breathing. This book made me remember my own power in a very real way, right when I needed it. And to be entirely honest, I really needed a happy ending, so I could believe in that for myself.
The Writing Style
I think the other reason I loved this so much is that Harrow's writing is like putting on my favorite sweater. I've never seen a writing style that reminded me so much of my own. Honestly, I've never read a writer who out-sasses me when I write fiction, which is frankly impressive. Zinnia is so wry and funny, to the point where she can be talking about some truly morose shit, and all of a sudden, I'll burst out laughing at something she said that just struck me as hilarious.
Harrow outlines the texts between Zinnia and Charm for the first part of the book, which is so full of smartassery. She even puts in the texting spelling fails we all do when we start inevitably typing too fast with our thumbs when overexcited. (I related to that.) I loved the dialogue between characters, especially Zin and Charm, but I was also pleased to see Primrose's dialogue develop as she became less of a facade, and more of a person willing to be herself. (She also gets a little violent when men try to take advantage of her, which I am here for.)
There are eleven chapters, and they all make perfect sense in terms of how they delineate the story. It's told in first-person present-tense, which my old-fashioned ass is getting used to, slowly but surely. The action moves quickly, but doesn't leave the reader behind at any point. It's always accessible and easy to follow. I found myself falling into the pages almost immediately. In fact, I read the first chapter to my wife, just because it drew me in. If you're into serious, dignified prose, this book is not for you. But you might give it a try anyway.
One note that isn't quite about the writing style: oh my god, you guys. The illustrations. I'll leave a picture at the bottom of the inside of chapter one. Illustrated silhouettes of fairytales and briars wind through the entire book, and I never recovered from their beauty.
A Spindle Splintered isn't a perfect work, by any means. It suffers from the same pitfalls many short books do: it fails to explain details and characters that could really use some depth. That being said, that is my only qualm, and honestly, it feels like it doesn't even matter compared to the heart and power that was poured into this novel. I loved it, from beginning to end, and it wasn't even horror. Aren't you proud of me?
There is a second book in this series already out, and I purchased it with the Powell's gift card my wife gave me for Christmas. I probably won't review that one, and I'll just read it for fun. I also picked up some of Harrow's other work, so expect to see that in the future.
So here, readers, is my last review of the year, and in it, my hopes for your new year. I hope, in 2023 and the years beyond, that you find your own power, like Zinnia and Primrose found theirs. I hope you have love, and friendship, but beyond that, I hope you fight for your happy ending. I hope you discover all of the tremendous things inside you that make you unique, and I hope you treasure them. I hope you use them to make the world a little better. Happy New Year, friends. Let us all charge into it with war cries, and not go silently into the cold darkness of the world. You are its light.
Purchase This Book
Yep, I put this in front of my TV. Because I had no better ideas and I forgot to ask my wife to take a picture for me. As a random note, Persie loves to eat the fake pine needles. They're going away this weekend, so that's a relief.
I told you this was beautiful. The whole book is like this. It's mesmerizing.