Mon
Dec 10 2012 4:30pm

Sleeping Beauty: Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End

Sleeping Beauty: a review of Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s EndThe 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.

13 comments
Bridget Smith
1. BridgetSmith
Because I've never been the kind of person who is terribly interested in plot (this is sort of weird, I admit it), this is one of my favorites of Robin McKinley's books. It's probably my favorite fairy tale of hers, though I do like both the Damar books and OUTLAWS OF SHERWOOD better. It's not her BEST fairy tale, but I love that it's a book that just allows you to live in it. Executed less well, even I admit it'd be terribly dull, but the characters are lovable and the world is fascinating and the prose is gorgeous. It's a book that I wanted to spend time in, and one that I revisit again and again.

For example, there's that two-page long diversion about the evolution of spindles as artwork. This is completely unnecessary, and yet I adore it. And the book is full of those! It makes no sense! But I just love reading it. I even love that distant dreamlike quality it takes on: as Rosie starts losing her sense of reality towards the end, I start feeling vaguely delirious in the same way. It's a powerful book - but only if you can ignore that there's almost no story there.
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
I love everything about the story except its climax. Which for the sake of spoilers I won't describe, except to say that while I love the way things are resolved, the actual writing of the resolution is so dreamlike and full of fairytale logic that it didn't seem to inhabit quite the same world as the one with the kettles and blacksmiths and singing tunelessly while doing chores.
nicolefitz
3. nicolefitz
I love everything about this book except the very ending, which outrages me. Rot-13'd for spoilers: JUNG NOBHG GUR DHRRA? Jul qbrf fur unir gb fhssre n snxr qnhtugre? Jul ba rnegu, zntvp be abg, qbrfa'g Ebfvr whfg *noqvpngr* vafgrnq bs qbvat gung penml cevaprff-genqvat zntvp? Qb V whfg abg trg vg? V zrna, nsgre tbvat vagb rkvyr naq qrsrngvat gur jvpxrq snvel, qbrfa'g fur whfg trg gb fnl, V'z qbar, zneelvat gur fzvgu, unir sha orvat ehyrq ol bar bs zl pbby oebguref??? It makes no sense to me. Please, Jo, please explain it to me.
nicolefitz
4. EC Spurlock
This has always been my favorite McKinley precisely BECAUSE of that dreamlike prose. It puts the reader inside the fairy tale world. And as the story goes on and becomes more surreal, you literally experience what Rosie is experiencing - Pernicia's distortion of reality into something unfamiliar, that does not obey the laws of the physical world, that cannot even be perceived as reality. She takes us into the miasma that lies between our world and the alien world of Faerie, and we have to navigate our way through it as uncertainly as Rosie does, guessing at meaning and intention and unsure of our own perception of truth and illusion.

That and the characters. I love every single one of them, human and otherwise.
nicolefitz
5. pilgrimsoul
A beautiful story precisely because it confounds expectations. I don't think I can elaborate on that statement because of spoilers. But the way the plot unfolds is so curiously satisfying on account of the confounding.
nicolefitz
6. TomT
Robin does poetry with language in her books often. She can paint amazing pictures with words and not leave me bored to tears. A problem I've had with certain other great books. Ones I've thrown repeatedly across the room as I bounced off the the wall of description. I think she does that balancing act between description and story very well. Not only that she can make it enchanting and enchant you with it. :)
nicolefitz
7. JillRedhand
I've always rationalized the overlapping links between all of McKinley's lands with Hetta from A Pool in the Desert; she reads all about the history of Damar, including the stories of Aerin and Maur and of Harimad-sol at the Madamar Gate, in modern Not-England, and then travels to Damar in the past. She then travels around telling these stories in Damar, Deerskin's country, and Rosie's country, which are all near contemporaries of each other. I rather think that Sylvie's country is Rosie's country in the far past, but I haven't any real idea how any of these countries can exist in the same world as the Homeland, which refuses to acknowledge that magic may exist.

I suppose I don't really need to think it through that much; there are still plenty of holes in the theory, and it really is more enjoyable to just see a nod to other favorite characters and stories without overthinking it. I always like seeing those nods, though.

@nicolefitz; I always understood that the point was partly so that Peony could wind up happily ever after, and because she really would do a better job at it than Rosie. And I don't think that the Queen is really fooled; she knows (or at least she is consciously not questioning things too closely), but she's content to know that her daughter is happy.

I was always more upset that Rosie ended up with Narl; I really think their romance is the least well-realized of all of McKinley's romances, and I have a hard time getting over the weird effect of Narl essentially raising Rosie since she was a toddler.

Not that it's anything like as creepy as that imprinting debacle in Twilight, but I just really feel that Rosie and Narl's relationship is more bro-like than convincingly romantic-- Rosie and Peony's relationship was more romantic, and much more important to the story. I would be happy to read five more books of Narl and Rosie as badass best-friend-faerie-smith-horse-leech-whisperers, I just never bought that they were in love with each other.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
NicoleFitz: Yeah, the Problem of Peony. No good answers here, sorry.
Zack Weinberg
9. zwol
bluejo: Have you read Patricia McKillip's more recent works? They do similar things with language, but IMHO in a more successful way. (I'm particularly thinking of Od Magic, The Tower at Stony Wood, Harrowing the Dragon, and Alphabet of Thorn.)
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Zwol: McKillip also seems dreamlike to me and not always in a good way.
nicolefitz
11. hapax
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

Yes! This is very much how I feel about so much of McKinley's later work.

It always makes me feel like Silverlock at the Hippocrene Springs. Two sips, and I'm always too full to bursting, drunk on words, to be able to take on the final, crucial, third draught necessary to stay in the Land of Story.
nicolefitz
12. Jan the Alan Fan
This is one of those lovely books where it's all too easy to get carried away with the prose. We need more books like that. ;)
Melissa Shumake
13. cherie_2137
it's been ages since i've read this particular mckinley story, but i love everything i've ever read of hers (which, i'm pretty sure, is all of her published novels). she seems to me to be one of those authors whose books are on the harder end of the scale for trying to find, though (in real life bookstores, anyways. anything can be found on the internet, but part of book shopping is going and drifting through the stacks not looking for anything in particular and then finding a gem)

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