Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley
Target Audience: Adult/YA
Summary: When the evil fairy Pernicia lays her seemingly fatal curse upon the infant princess, the royal child's nanny entrusts the baby to Katriona--an orphan brought up by her powerful fairy aunt--to rear in the safety of her distant, cloistered village. In one of the many sequences that endow this novel with mythic grandeur, Katriona and her charge travel surreptitiously through the fields and woods, while the female animals of the countryside (vixens, a she-bear and countless others) suckle the royal baby to keep her alive. This unorthodox diet may be the reason the princess--whom Katriona and her aunt call Rosie--can communicate with all creatures. Unaware of her royal heritage (and bored by fairy-tale fripperies), Rosie makes a best friend of Peony, the wainwright's niece, and becomes an apprentice to Narl, the kind but uncommunicative village blacksmith. When the princess's true identity is finally revealed, and the fate of the realm hangs in the balance, Rosie, Narl and Peony fight a true battle royal to defeat Pernicia's schemes.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
So, I’m not sure I can adequately describe to you what my copy of this book looks like. Here's a picture:
That picture doesn't do it justice. Let me describe to you.
I’ve had my copy of this book since I was a sophomore in high school (which is, geez, almost 10 years, for those of you keeping count (please don’t)), and I’ve read it at least once just about every year I’ve owned it. This book has been loaned out countless times to people who have to read it, been shoved and carried around in backpacks with all a high schooler’s junk, survived several moves from home to dorm room to apartment and back again.
So, yeah, my copy of this book is pretty dog-eared. My copy of this book makes my friend Heidi cringe. It still has both its covers – mostly. The edges both front and back have started to fray and fold away, though. The upper layers on the places where the covers meet the spine have separated and started to curl in. The corners of the pages haven’t seen 90 degree angles for a long time, and the first few pages are almost as tattered around the edges as the covers. My mother keeps threatening to replace my copy of this book, and my response is always the same — over my dead body.
I love my copy of this book. I love the feeling of the pages softened by countless readings. I love the way there is no resistance from the cover when I open to the first page and roll it gently around the spine. I love what it smells like, and the way it feels in my hands. I have more of a sentimental attachment to this book (both this written story and this particular copy of this book) than just about any other book I own. And when I open it and read the first page that I know by heart, it’s like sinking into a warm bath. Settling into a soft bed on a chilly night. It’s like coming home.
Yes, I just rhapsodized for three paragraphs about a paperback. Deal.
We started this project with one of my favorite fairy tale novelizations. I hope it goes without saying that we’re ending the project with the novel that sits at the very top of that list. And like last week, it is incredibly complex (but this time around I wouldn’t change a single word), so I’m going to keep this as simple as I can.
Which means circumventing, slightly, McKinley’s fantastic narrative structure. She writes in a style that jumps ahead and projects occasionally, beyond what’s happening, just for a few pages, a glimpse that the world survives and extends beyond the story’s end. And sometimes, she jumps forward with the narrative, then doubles back to catch you up on a scene that happened in the interim, and that is risky storytelling, ladies and gents, because if you do it poorly, your novel is a burden to read, and it is very easy to do poorly. But McKinley happens to be a master storyteller, so it is not once an issue.
But for purposes of this summary, I’m gonna work linearly, by starting off telling you that the evil fairy of this story is a woman named Pernicia. Many generations before, the last time that an heir of this kingdom was a girl, Pernicia and the Queen in question faced off, and Pernicia was bested. But she swore that she would work her revenge on this family, and that when a Queen next inherited the throne, she would be back to take what was hers.
But enough time passes that everyone forgets this, mostly, and believes that Pernicia has died. And so when the current king and queen give birth to a princess, Pernicia isn’t invited. Just about everyone else is, though.
The Queen is from a small kingdom where everyone could be invited to every event. The kingdom of the story, though is much larger, so the king and queen send heralds to every town with lots to be drawn. One person per town will be invited to the princess’s name day. The person selected from a town called Foggy Bottom in the northernmost bump of this country, known as the Gig, is a young girl, maybe 15 years old, named Katriona.
It’s a long journey to the capital, nearly two months, but Kat gets there just in time for the ceremony. Something strange happens as she is sitting and waiting for things to begin, though. A guard comes over to her and gives her a very powerful amulet. He won’t explain why, but he tells her it’s important, and that he’ll come collect it again eventually.
And then the name day begins. Fairies, in this land, are pretty commonplace. Magic is everywhere, and it either leaves you alone or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, you become a fairy. There are far too many fairies to keep track of, so to navigate the difficult politics of inviting them to the name day, the king and queen chose 21 fairies to serve as the princesses godparents. They were supposed to give unobtrusive gifts. They don’t.
Kat is utterly aghast and dismayed when the fairies start giving the princess things like golden hair and ringlets and flawless skin and a laugh like a silver bell and the ability to dance and embroider and sing like a bird. She can’t believe that professional fairies are treating magic in this way. But as she sits, thinking of all the useful things the fairies could have offered the princess, suddenly the air goes cold and the people in the arena freeze.
And Pernicia appears. She has come, she says to claim her revenge, though she was hoping even until just that morning that she would be offered an invitation, which might have placated her slightly. She says that she came with the intention to kill the young girl, but that now, that seems too easy. So instead, she lays the curse – that on the girl’s 21st birthday, she will die. And then she decides that the girl will die from a cursed spindle. And then she claims that maybe she won’t wait 21 years. Maybe she will make it happen any time she wants.
The curse is laid, and Pernicia disappears, and everyone is frozen – everyone but Kat, who somehow finds herself past the barrier, at the cradle, the princess in her arms, trying to comfort the child, offering up her small gift of magic – the ability to talk to animals, just “baby magic” (magic that children exhibit occasionally, particularly children who will grow up into fairies).
And then she is taken away by Sigil, the queen’s personal fairy, who congratulates Kat on what she has just done, though Kat doesn’t know what exactly that is. And then Sigil tells Kat to take the princess away with her. Take her back to wherever it is she lives and raise the princess as her own child, hiding her identity and keeping the princess safe. She doesn’t want to know Kat’s name or where she lives, because the more she knows, the easier Kat will be to track.
So Kat takes the princess and goes. Along the way, she uses her beast-speech to get milk for the infant from all the animals they meet along the way, and this part of the novel reads very much like some kind of fable, and it’s wonderful.
The trip back to the Gig takes three months, and then Kat and her aunt, who everyone calls Aunt, set about raising the princess, hiding her. Protecting her. They tell everyone that the baby is another niece of Aunt’s whose parents died, like Kat, and as Aunt has eleven siblings, no one really questions this. They call the princess Rosie, and Rosie grows up without any idea who she is.
I’m almost positive that McKinley is pulling a bit from Disney here, the idea of the princess being whisked away from her parents to be raised by fairies (for both Aunt and Kat are very powerful fairies), but McKinley, unlike Disney, does this beautifully. We spend a lot of time in the novel on watching Rosie grow up, and it is just beautifully done.
Because Rosie, purely by being Rosie, manages to get around a lot of the gifts given to her. She hates her ringlets, so she cuts them all off and keeps her hair short. She thinks things like dancing and playing the flute and sewing are stupid, so she never learns to do them. She can’t carry a tune to save her life, so sounding like a bird doesn’t much matter. It’s amazing and wonderful, and I love the forceful personality of this child.
Kat watches Rosie grow up, and she spends each night before she goes to sleep imagining telling the Queen stories about Rosie and what she’s like, except that it turns out that, not having much control on her magic yet, she’s actually doing that for real, and her stories have helped the queen immeasurably.
Because no one in the country knows that the princess was taken away from the name day. They all believe that she is being hidden in various strongholds around the country, moved from time to time to keep Pernicia from being able to find her. So the country believes that the princess is in hiding, but also that the king and queen know where she is and are still getting to watch her grow up.
This is not, however, true. She is, instead, being brought up by two fairies in a backwater part of the kingdom as an ordinary little girl. Kat tells the Queen that her daughter is “as safe as ordinariness can make her.”
The other thing that is helping to keep Rosie safe and secret is that Kat did, in fact, pass along some of her magic to Rosie, and Rosie can speak to animals. This is mind-boggling to Kat because the royal family is, first and foremost, magicless. It’s almost a rule. Spouses are chosen to be without magic. The royal family has no magic. And yet, there is Rosie. Talking to animals.
She grows up a real tomboy. She hates dresses and girlish activities, preferring to spend her time befriend Narl, the blacksmith who everyone but Rosie is a little afraid of, or learning to whittle from Barder, Kat’s future husband.
And the more we see Rosie grow up, the more we gradually shift from Kat’s perspective to Rosie’s. It’s done very subtly and very well, until we are entirely viewing the story through Rosie’s eyes almost without noticing it. But by the time Kat and Barder are married and Rosie is fifteen, she is our sole story focus.
When Kat marries Barder, she and Aunt and Rosie move from their small cottage a ways removed from Foggy Bottom to the very heart of the town, because Barder is the wheelwright, and that’s where his shop is. So at the age of fifteen, Rosie finds everything changing, and as that happens, there’s a voice inside her head that constantly tells her she’s not who she thinks she is. She does her best to ignore it, but it sneak into existence when she least expects it, and it becomes worse with the move to town.
Another reason Rosie dreads moving to town is that now she no longer has an excuse to avoid Peony, the niece of the wainwright who lives next door to Barder. Peony is the very picture of a perfect child. She and Rosie are the same age, and Peony does everything perfect – she sings and dances and embroiders and plays instruments, and is polite and good with children and just a paragon in many ways, and she drives Rosie crazy. Because she’s too perfect, and she makes Rosie feel inadequate.
But the first day that Rosie can no longer truly ignore her, Peony makes some comment about Rosie’s eyelashes being the longest she’s ever seen, and Rosie snaps about how much she hates her eyelashes, and something in that exchange breaks down the barrier between the two girls, and they end up becoming the very best of friends.
I love Rosie and Peony’s friendship because they are such different characters, but they mesh together very well. Rosie’s strange family provides an escape for Peony from an aunt and uncle who don’t have much love for her, though they treat her perfectly well. But Rosie is able to give Peony a happy sort of family, and Peony helps to ground Rosie.
She also inadvertently wakes a couple of Rosie’s princess gifts. She convinces Rosie to try embroidery, since the only kind of sewing Rosie ever attempted was hemming and mending – not sewing she was gifted talent for. And the moment Rosie takes the thread, her gift takes over, which is a terrifying experience, and brings back in full force that pernicious idea that Rosie is someone other than who she imagines herself to be.
It is fascinating to read Rosie’s pieces of story where she considers the princess. Because the princess occupies this almost mythological place in this kingdom. No one has ever seen her. No one ever knows for certain where she is. And Rosie feels sorry for her – says more than once that the life of the princess sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant one, constantly trapped and directed by other people, with no real freedom. Knowing more than Rosie does, in those moments, is always fun as a reader.
As Rosie gets older, she becomes Narl’s unofficial apprentice – not of smithing, but of horse-doctoring. Narl is typically called on to do that, as a smith, but he teaches Rosie the skills, and she become well known for it. Being able to talk to animals helps.
But it’s in working at the forge with Narl that Rosie first meets Rowland. Rowland is a young man who comes to Narl to be apprenticed in the smith work. Rosie likes him well enough, but she finds him to be fairly boring. Peony, however, takes one look at him and falls in love with him, and he with her.
Which is problematic, because Rowland is promised in marriage. Turns out (though we don’t learn this for a while), that Rowland is actually a prince from a neighboring kingdom, out masquerading as a commoner to get a sense of the world before taking a throne. Whose throne? Well, this country’s throne, as it turns out, because Rowland is betrothed to the cursed princess. In other words, Rosie, though no one knows that. The fact that he is betrothed is communicated to Peony. The fact that he is a prince is not.
And the whole episode with Peony and Rowland falling in love exists, largely, to set up Rosie’s romantic story, because in watching it happen to Peony, and in talking to Narl about what happened to Peony, she comes to realize that she is in love with Narl, agonizing to her because she believes, after their conversation, that Narl is in love with Peony.
Complicated as all that is, it isn’t the focus, which is nice. It’s there, it informs the situations to follow, but it’s never the focal point of the story.
When Rosie turns 20, things start to happen. Bad omens are seen all across the country. Magic is much more in turmoil than usual. It’s like everything with even a semblance of consciousness is aware that this is the year whose end is to bring Pernicia’s revenge and the toppling of the kingdom. And because of that, halfway through the year, Rosie is finally sent for.
Because way back at the name day ceremony, when Sigil sent Kat away with the infant princess, she promised that someday, she would come and retrieve the princess. She never said when, but she promised it would happen. And now, Ikor, the guard who gave Kat his amulet and who happens to be a fairy, meant to be Rosie’s 21st godparent, in fact, has appeared in the Gig to tell Rosie who she is and plan for what must be done.
And this is where things get really complex. You may have noticed that the whole ‘changing the curse of death to a curse of sleep’ thing never happened, because in this novel, it doesn’t – at least, not on the name day. But Ikor and Sigil and Kat and Aunt spin together an intricate and complicated plan designed to help Rosie defeat Pernicia.
It involves a decoy princess – Peony, who looks so like Rosie. Who naturally has almost all the gifts that the princess was given by her godparents. Who is an orphan living with an aunt and uncle. Who would do anything for Rosie. Peony is announced to be the long-lost princess. A glamour is placed on her aunt and uncle to make them remember being brought the infant in the night to keep and protect, and Rosie and Peony are wrapped together in this spell and whisked away to Woodwold, the grand house of the Gig, where they will stay until the princess’s birthday celebration and whatever is going to go down with Pernicia.
The idea is that Peony and Rosie will be tied together so tightly to trick Pernicia into going after the wrong girl. Because the curse is tied to Rosie so specifically, if Peony is the one who pricks her finger, she shouldn’t die. Instead, she should simply fall into a sleep, a sleep that those four fairies will put on everyone else as well while Kat and Rosie go and face Pernicia and defeat her once and for all.
That’s the plan. But it goes wrong. Pernicia is able to find Rosie, though it is difficult, and through her magic, she draws Rosie toward her spinning wheel, in this room full of royalty and dignitaries and all these people who don’t even notice that she’s there. But Peony does. And Peony realizes what’s going on. So Peony fights against the magic trying to hold her in place, forces Rosie out of the way, and pierces her finger with the spindle.
This action throws everything into turmoil, because just as they had hoped, Peony taking the curse instead of Rosie thwarted Pernicia’s plan somewhat. But the magical sleep that falls over the assembled affects fairies the worst, and so there’s no way Kat is going to be able to go with Rosie.
In the end, it’s Narl who takes her on this journey, and it’s Narl who brings Rosie back to life, too, since the rebounding of the curse hit her worse than most, and she wasn’t breathing. Narl managed somehow to escape the enchanted sleep, and he found Rosie and “kissed” her (mouth to mouth resuscitation, technically) and woke her, but since she’s not the princess the sleep is tied to, it doesn’t do anything to wake any of the other sleepers. For that to happen, Rosie has to find and defeat Pernicia.
This is the part of the novel that I’m not even going to try and touch. Suffice it to say, Rosie and Narl and most of the animals Rosie has befriended free themselves from Woodwold, find Pernicia, tear down her castle, and drive her, with Peony, back to Woodwold, where Rosie attacks her and, with the help of Woodwold itself, defeats her once and for all. The enchanted sleep is broken on everyone but Peony, and in the end, it isn’t Rowland or Narl or any sort of prince who kisses Peony awake – it’s Rosie, because in order to break Pernicia’s hold and the spell weaving her and Peony together, she has to transfer to Peony what of the princess exists inside her.
In other words, she gives it up, and there is something magical that happens in that moment. There truly, legitimately, is a transfer, and after that kiss, Rosie is no longer the princess. She was once, and she was born to the king and queen, but what was princess inside her isn’t there any longer. Peony will go and marry Rowland and rule the country, because Rosie never wanted to do any of that. Rosie never wanted to be the princess. Peony is much better suited, already loves the prince, and will be a much better Queen.
And Narl and Rosie live happily ever after, too, because he wasn’t in love with Peony. He was in love with Rosie. And screw you, everyone who says the age difference makes them uncomfortable. Their relationship is awesome. I don’t care that he’s at least 18 years older than she is. It’s a fairy tale world. Things like that happen. Read that confession of love and tell me those two aren’t meant to be. Just try.
I adore this book. I love it so, so much and I haven’t even come close to doing it justice here. You just, you have to read it. So much of this book exists in the narrative structure. It is beautiful and intricate and masterful, and so much more amazing than any summery will ever make it sound. This is a book you have to experience. Please. Just go read it. If you slog through no other book this year, slog through this one.
Make the characters more active in their story? Definitely. Kat and Rosie, our two protagonists, are just wonderful. I adore Rosie as a reimagining of this princess. She is defined by her activeness, both as a princess and just as Rosie. I adore that she fulfills both the role of Sleeping Beauty and that of the prince who rescues her. She is awoken from her slumber, and she has to go out and find Pernicia. She confronts her three times, almost dies, but doesn’t let that stop her from then going to save her friend. If that’s not active and kickass, I don’t know what is.
Introduce more conflict? Definitely. Pernicia is a deliciously evil character. She rivals Maleficent for my favorite portrayal of this role. If you’re going to make the fairy evil and not just a petty old lady holding a grudge, this is the way to do it. I also love her caveat that maybe the curse could happen at any time, because that really does increase the tension and the conflict. We never know where Pernicia is. We never know what she’s up to. The novel is full of moments where she almost finds Rosie, and only doesn’t because of a quick-thinking action from Aunt or Kat. It really ups the stakes in a wonderful way.
Explain the actions of the parents? The king and queen really aren’t huge players in this novel, and that’s the point. Their actions were explained by being taken away from them. Their daughter was taken away from them in what was the only real way to hope of keeping her safe. I love the glimpses we get through stories and rumors of how the king and queen cope with this fact, and I love how strong and wonderful the queen is in the few moments we see her. When she meets Rosie and Peony for the first time, she knows Peony isn’t her daughter. She knows Rosie is. She knows because Kat sat on her bed and told her stories of her little girl. She is so smart and so strong, and I love her.
Flesh out the world? Oh my good Lord, guys, this world. I. Love. It. It is rich and intricate and fully realized, but unlike other fantasy world builders I could mention, McKinley introduces us to this world piece by piece in a way that isn’t overwhelming and always enhances the story. The little details that get thrown in and keep being referred back to are magnificent. The way that McKinley very subtly connects this world to another kingdom in another fairy tale novel of hers is magnificent. Everything about the way this world is built and explored and unfolded is magnificent.
This novel has a very strong Disney influence, but what I love is that it reads like McKinley took the Disney movie and reworked it to address its shortcomings. It focuses on how growing up not a princess influenced and defined Rosie, and Kat and Aunt, and her parents. It made the characters into real people with flaws and virtues and dreams and desires, and it played with every expectation you have with this story. And I adore it.
Tomorrow, I’ll post the Sleeping Beauty wrap-up and a little about the future of this project now that our year has come to a close. But for now, I want to let this review stand for a little, because this is how we’re going out, y’all. I couldn’t think of a better book to end on.