I’ve been following Alix E. Harrow’s career with much excitement because not only does she like the same books I like, but it feels like she wants to write exactly the kind of books that end up being my favorites. Heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythology, her tales are about nerdy characters, about underdogs, about true friendships and dreams come true. The fact that she started a “spider-versed fairy tale retelling” novella series feels like Christmas and birthdays and some other holidays all rolled into one.
A SPINDLE SPLINTERED
by Alix E. Harrow
Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback: 128 pages
Series: Fractured Fables #1
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.
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.
This story isn’t a fairy tale but it has a lot to say about them, particularly about Sleeping Beauty. Zinnia Gray has a rare disease – Generalized Roseville Malady – about which very little is known, except that most people suffering from it don’t make it past twenty-one. So the fact that she identifies with a fairy tale princess cursed to fall asleep on her birthday isn’t all that far fetched. Zinnia makes the best of her life, she lives fast, studies what she likes, and fiercly loves her best friend Charm who, by the way, is the absolute best friend ever in SFF fiction. Sure, you could say her savior/hero complex isn’t super healthy but she would do anything for Zinnia and reading about the way these two interact, their chat messages, the one-liners, the absolute trust – it’s pure friendshop goals!
So if you know the elevator pitch for this is “spider-verse a fairy tale” you won’t be surprised when, on her twenty-first birthday, Zinnia jokingly touches her finger to a spinnig wheel’s needle and – bam! – pops up in an alternate universe next to a real princess who wears a poofy dress and looks like she fell out of a Disney movie. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s what and soon the two work together to try and break the curse. Instead of sitting around waiting for fate to catch up in the shape of a needle, they pack some stuff and go out to find that thirteenth fairy to convince her to lift the curse or bribe her or… something. And while they’re at it, maybe Zinnia’s “curse” can be healed as well..?
The strength of this novella is definitely its protagonist and her relationships to the people around her. Zinnia has a great sense of humor and enough self-awareness to not take herself too seriously, despite her pretty serious situation. As a fairy tale scholar, she is also the perfect person to fall into a parallel universe where the fairy tale is actual fucking reality, and try to both help the resident damsel in distress as well as maybe save her own life at the same time.
There is actually a cute little adventure happening in Fairyland (where Zinnia has cell phone reception, btw, which I somehow find absolutely hilarious) and even characters who only show up shortly get… maybe not fleshed out but they give off a sense of being more than we can see. Whether it’s Princess Primrose’s mother or the prince she’s betrothed to, there is more to them than their fairy tale nature lets you suspect. I loved that, just as I loved the actual adventure the two girls go on, including creepy marshes, a raven, and some blood because, hey, its a fairytale! There must be blood.
Perhaps a little too easy and on the simplistic side was the big picture world building and the resultant world-hopping. What first seems to be the big conflict – how to get back home to her own world – soon turns into a barely existing barrier. Zinnia tries out one idea which happens to work, and that’s it. From then on, world-hopping is possible with no real effort. By anyone. That took a lot of the magic out of it for me.
But then this story isn’t about the multiverse, or even discovering and comparing some of its worlds. It’s about the people who live there. Just like in the movie inspiration for this novella series, you get a few comical appearances with no depth but great plot moments, like 90s princess (not like other girls, short hair, you know the type), Viking Sleeping Beauty, and Space Princess with a laser gun. As important as they may be to the overall plot, the heart of this story is Zinnia, her best friend Charm, and Princess Primrose who also has a lot more depth than you’d expect from your stereotypical fairy tale princess.
I loved so many aspects of this little book, starting with its self-awareness and its sense of humor. If you don’t like plenty of references then this may not be for you. Harrow drops a lot of them, starting with Disney characters, movies, and songs, , moving on to the darker, earlier versions of the fairy tale, to other pop culture characters and books and authors. And I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into it but the fact that Zinnia’s disease is called Generalized Roseville Malady – GRM for short – and it kills lots of people while they’re still very young, made me think of a certain boob-filled book and TV series by an author with very similar initials who is known to kill off characters, even if they’re protagonists…
I wish briefly but passionately that I’d been zapped into a different storyline, maybe one of those ’90s girl power fairy tale retellings with a rebellious princess who wears trousers and hates sweing. (I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.)
Alix harrow clearly has a lot to say not just about fairy tales but about women’s roles in stories and in real life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the women in this book instinctively work together, that they listen to each other, try to learn the other’s story before judging. And it just so happens that the vapid princess isn’t quite so vapid, the evil fairy may not be exactly what she seems, and Zinnia’s choices in life (based on the fact that it will be a short one) may not have been perfect. Harrow allows her heroines to be flawed and make mistakes while still remaining the heroes of their own story. And having a choice to change that story makes all the difference.
The ending could have been super sappy and messed the whole book up but, fortunately, Harrow didn’t go down that path. She left us on a satisfied note with a protagonist who has been changed fundamentally by the events of this tale, with a lovely side story for some side characters, and, most importantly, with the promise of more stories. More princesses who’d rather save themselves, more worlds, more versions of fairy tales to explore.
This was a very quick read and I do worry that it might not hold up on a reread, especially once a few years have passed. But only time will tell and until then, I’ll be recommending this fun, heartfelt novella with its excellent female friendships to anyone who likes fairy tales. Especially if they don’t behave as they should.
I’m already looking forward to the next book, A Mirror Mended, which will tackle Snow White.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!