The first chapter of Spindle’s End (2000) is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose ever written. The first time I read it I wanted to hug it close and wrap it around me and live in it forever. I wanted to read it aloud to people. I didn’t much want to go on and read the second chapter. The problem with wonderful lush poetic prose is that it doesn’t always march well with telling a story. The requirements of writing like that and the requirements of having a plot don’t always mesh. Spindle’s End is almost too beautiful to read. It’s like an embroidered cushion that you want to hang on the wall rather than put on a chair. Look, it goes like this:
The magic in that land was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country you had to descale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant like snakes or slime—magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself—but if you want a cup of tea a cup of lavender and gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory.)
I read it when it came out, and I kept thinking about re-reading it, completing my read of it, to talk about here. Sometimes I got as far as picking it off the shelf, but I never actually read it again until now, because when I thought about actually reading those gorgeous sentences I felt tired and as if I wasn’t ready to make that much effort again yet.
This is a fairy tale retelling in a very high magic world—well, a very high magic country in a world that includes Damar and the countries in which Deerskin takes place. The Queen comes from the Deerskin country, and at one point the characters think of the story of Aerin from The Hero and the Crown. This is a relatively normal thing for a writer to do, linking all the books into one universe, but it’s slightly problematic here because this means it’s also a world that has The Blue Sword in its future, and when you start thinking about how this works and fits together the answer is that it doesn’t. This is a high magic country where you can pour pansies out of your kettle and royal marriages work the way they work in fairytales and it doesn’t need to border on places that are much more realistic.
What McKinley has always excelled at is writing worlds where the numinous and the domestic come together at the same level of reality. Spindle’s End is no exception, as you can see from that paragraph I quoted. Magic settles like plaster dust and you consequently have to pay your house cleaners unusually well. She has also done a number of fairytale retellings. Her books each solidly establish the reality within the fantasy, and this is one of her strengths. It’s different from book to book, as it should be, and linking them does them a disservice because it causes the reader to start worrying about the wrong things. When you write non-mimetic fiction, you know the readers will have questions about the way things work. You want that. And you want to answer those questions. This is part of the process. You don’t want to make things more difficult for yourself by making them ask the wrong questions. Spindle’s End wrongfoots itself by making me ask a lot of worldbuilding questions that the book doesn’t need or answer, and indeed, are best answered by “...moving swiftly on....”
Mild spoilers coming up.
Spindle’s End does “Sleeping Beauty,” and it’s an unusual take on the story. Most people who tell it focus on the hundred-year sleep. That’s certainly the aspect of it that speaks to me. Other people have focused on the awakening and the kiss. This barely touches on that. McKinley’s interested in the story of living with a curse. The Princess Briar Rose, aka Rosie, is hidden among ordinary people in a village in the hope of avoiding her spindle, her magical gifts are a nuisance and not a blessing, and she trains as a horse leech. Everyone knows about the Princess and the bad fairy and the curse hanging over her, and everyone makes their spindles with beautiful carved rounded ends now.
The book is written with an omniscient narrator, fairytale omniscient, but the first part is mostly hovering around the point of view of Katriona, a fairy (magic user) from a little village in the Gig who goes to the Christening, and then Rosie herself, who has no idea that she’s a princess. Then we come to the Unusual Events and the final confrontation. The whole thing is slightly dreamlike and insubstantial and hard to hold onto. It’s partly the effect of the incredible prose warring with the ability of story to move—if you keep coming to sentences you want to read again more than you want to read the next sentence, you have a problem. But I think this time I read it at a normal speed, and I still found it a little distanced. There are wonderful things, like the animals who come to feed the baby, and there’s a very good female friendship, and I very much like the way that babies get uncontrollable magic when they’re learning to talk. But there’s something out of balance. Domestic fantasy is very hard to do. Prose like this is also very difficult. The book is best when it’s about the people of the village and their ordinary magic and problems, and weakest when it’s trying to make the story move along.
This will never be my favourite McKinley, and she has written better balanced books both before and since, but it’s an interesting experiment and I’m glad she wrote it.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.