One of the dismaying parts about writing for this column is that you often discover that a thing you really liked a long time ago is super problematic when you revisit it. For example, the last time I reread a Robin McKinley book (The Blue Sword) for a Throwback Thursday, I realized that it’s a dead ringer for the Mighty Whitey trope. Of all of McKinley’s books, Spindle’s End was always one of my favorites, so it was with some trepidation that I picked it up to read it again after several years.
To my great relief, I discovered that, in leaving the world of Damar behind for a different fantasy country, McKinley left her troubling racial tropes behind as well, instead weaving a fairy tale retelling that focuses on the importance of the bonds between several very different women.
Spoilers for a sixteen-year old book after the jump!
Spindle’s End is, as you might have guessed by now, a Sleeping Beauty retelling. After the long awaited heir-princess of the country is cursed by an evil fairy on her name-day, a young fairy apprentice named Katriona impulsively spirits the baby away. For twenty years, Kat and her Aunt (whose name is Sophriona, and therefore goes simply by Aunt) keep the princess, whom they call Rosie, as safe as ordinariness can make her. Rosie befriends the local blacksmith, practically growing up in his yard, and becomes the most renowned horse-doctor in her smallish corner of the country. She is shocked to the core when, a few months before her twenty-first birthday, a fairy from the Queen’s court finally manages to track her down, and reveals to her that she is the princess.
A spell like the one the evil fairy Pernicia cast is doggedly persistent and impossible to stop altogether, but with their small amount of lead time before Rosie’s birthday, the fairy courtier Ikor, Aunt, and Katriona band together to try to mislead it. Rosie’s closest friend Peony, a far more stereotypically princesslike girl than Rosie, volunteers to help, and the three fairies spend the last months before the princess’s birthday binding the two of them together so closely that the two girls start to feel like something rather less than two distinct people. The plan is, when the evil fairy shows at Rosie’s birthday, Peony will play the princess and prick her finger on the spindle instead. This will force the curse to misfire at the very last second, when all the power it has been gathering for twenty-one years is at its peak and cannot possibly be redirected, and will leave Rosie at full power to take on Pernicia along with her fairy companions. Obviously, not everything goes to plan, but a happy ending is had by all nevertheless.
I love so much about this book. The worldbuilding is fantastically rich and thorough and contains a far more different and interesting sort of magic from anything else I’ve read. The writing is engaging and the story is such a different spin on Sleeping Beauty that it feels fresh, despite the book’s age and the glut of fairy tale retellings out in the world. But what I love most of all, looking at it from an older vantage point, are the characters and the strong emotional connections between them.
Rosie isn’t beautiful. Of all the silly and vain gifts—ever-long eyelashes, and hair like cornsilk, pearly teeth, etc.—that she received from her fairy godmothers at her naming, none of them actually thought to gift her with straight-up beauty, so all of the features they wished on her combined into a rather plain face. She’s blunt and forthright, gawky and tall, and, as her only skill with magic is in talking to animals, she ends up taking on Pernicia physically in their final showdown. She surprises a four-hundred-year-old evil fairy (and the reader) by simply leaping at her and clutching her hands around her throat.
Katriona is a teenager when she rather unintentionally kidnaps her country’s princess, but her bond with Rosie grows out of something altruistic—“I have to help this poor, innocent, suddenly cursed baby”—into a strong and familial love as she and Aunt raise her. She’s not Rosie’s mother and doesn’t pretend to be—she and Aunt perpetuate the idea that Rosie is some kind of cousin to them, and Kat later marries and has children of her own—and is a bit older and more responsible than an older sister (speaking from experience as an older sister) might be. But the lack of a name for their bond doesn’t weaken it.
Peony is the kind of character who could have been easily hateable, and Rosie does hate her at first. Peony is effortlessly sweet and kind, gentle and loving, good at cooking and with children, a graceful dancer, and a skilled seamstress. When the time comes, it’s far easier for the country to believe that Peony is their missing, hidden princess, because she already naturally is wonderful at the things at which princesses are expected to excel. It’s during the part in the middle, after Katriona’s marriage means they now share a yard, that Peony tries to befriend Rosie, and says exactly the wrong thing. She does it so guilelessly, however, that Rosie can’t help but laugh, and they are soon on the way to becoming fast friends. It’s out of her pure love of Rosie that Peony volunteers to pretend to be the princess—she specifically rejects it as a duty to her country or an obligation to do the right thing. And when Peony does prick her finger on the spindle and fall into a cursed sleep, it is her bond with Rosie that brings her back, and Rosie’s platonic true love’s kiss that awakens her at the end.
While it’s not a perfect, one-to-one comparison, I loved and still love Rosie because I see a lot of myself in her and in her relationships. I too have an inseparable best friend who is far more feminine and princess-ish than I ever was as a teen, and our friendship grew out of an intense dislike based on a harmless comment taken too much to heart. I was partially raised by a woman not old enough to be my mother, but too old to be my sister, who is a bit of both and more to me. And while I have grown into myself now, both into my looks and into who I am as a person, awkward young Saika could deeply relate to gawky Rosie, whose skills did not include being good at socializing with human beings.
Looking at the story now, I am especially surprised and pleased by the way all of these very different women were imagined so well. From main characters like Rosie and Katriona and Peony and Aunt, from the Queen to Pernicia, and all the women down to those with only a line or two of speech or description, none of them are remotely the same kind of person. And yet in spite of this, Pernicia is the only one who’s ever shown to us as being genuinely bad. We’re not only given a book in which we’re gifted with multiple complementary and rich ways of being a woman; we’re given a book in which those fascinating and multifaceted women share meaningful and supportive bonds of family and friendship, and it’s refreshing and empowering.
And it’s worth mentioning given my unfortunately necessary takedown of her earlier books, but perhaps in the space of time between publishing her Damar books in the 1980s and 2000, when Spindle’s End came out, McKinley grew a bit savvier about including terrible racist tropes in her stories. However, while this book definitely avoids the massive faux pas of The Blue Sword, it still only has one Black character, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Ikor’s a powerful fairy whose role in the story is not defined by his Blackness, and who doesn’t fit neatly into a tropey position like the solitary Black leader or the magical negro. It’s too bad that the reason this book does better than the Damar books in terms of race is that it barely has any characters of color. It means we can’t necessarily say for sure if McKinley gained any kind of understanding about how harmful her older book is, even as we enjoy the lack of those tropes in the newer one.
While I went into the book justifiably worried, I was both happy and relieved to discover that, for once, past me didn’t have questionable taste. Spindle’s End is, after sixteen years, still a heartwarming and fresh spin on an old fairy tale that puts powerful female friendships at the forefront, and I highly recommend it.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!