Zinnia Gray, infamous dying girl, has gotten a second chance at life. In the first book of Alix E. Harrow’s duology, A Spindle Splintered, Zinnia found that not only was she her universe’s version of Sleeping Beauty, an archetype that resonated across all of space/time, but discovered she could travel to these other worlds and change them. Using her wits, her friends, and all the knowledge of fairy tales, folklore, and fables she had at her disposal, Zinnia saved her friends from their seemingly immutable endings, and found she was able to change her own story as well.
As A Mirror Mended begins, Harrow hits the ground running as hard, showing us through a scatter of universes and succinct, sharp prose, just what exactly Zinnia’s life has been since the end of the first book in the series.
With a new lease on life, Zinnia sweeps from storyverse to storyverse, rushing to put things right and upend the fairytale before her. No pricking of fingers on cursed spindles, no princess sequestered away to be saved while catching up on her Zs. Zinnia crashes in like a wrecking ball, and sticks around just long enough for a drink, a party, and maybe more before leaving. But the storyverse is not static; it is a living, breathing thing, and it does not enjoy being tampered with. It isn’t long before Zinnia finds herself pulled through a mirror into a whole different kind of fairy tale, where an “evil,” queen is so desperate to escape her own story, she’ll do anything to keep it from coming true.
It’s here, with the arrival of Eva (so dubbed from Zinnia’s weapons-grade snark), that the author truly hits her stride. You can tell when an author is having just the absolute best time when writing, and watching Zinnia and Eva sparking against one another like blades doing battle is one of the highlights of this book. Not to mention the immediate sexual tension—Zinnia can’t help herself, even as it dawns on her that she is meeting someone every story tells you is capital-E Evil.
But while Eva is misunderstood, misanthropic, and a bit of a malcontent, Alix E. Harrow does what she does best, and pulls apart the standard conventions like tissue paper. In spending time with this supposedly evil figure, the author asks: who exactly gets to own their story, and why? Who decides who is good and who is evil? If you had a lived a life as a prisoner to other’s demands and wants and needs, and finally broke free, is doing so evil because it required you to get your hands a little dirty? Throughout the story, Zinnia learns more and more about Eva and her plight, what drove her to that throne in her own storyverse, and why she sought out that princess called Snow White. In a neat narrative trick, as the reader’s preconceptions are broken down, so are Zinnia’s, who for all her experience in upended truths, still has much to learn.
And for all of the delicious new fairytale deconstructions the author engages in, for as much as this is a story of the dire consequences of running from stories and changing others’, this novella is truly about two women who have been running from their own stories for so long that there is not much road left. Zinnia and Eva connect, each of their walls coming down as they are thrust through the storyverse, and for the first time in a long time they find what they need in each other. Zinnia finds someone who cares for her and understands her impulses to run, her need to fix everything, even that which cannot be fixed. And Eva meets someone who knows what it is to run, so fast and so far, from the story the world tries to make true about you, who feels the bite of narrative at her heels. For all the hijinks and magic and reality-hopping, Alix E. Harrow is at her finest when channeling the awesome power between these characters; their ending is, after a long string of fairytales of grim tidings, hopeful. And if stories can’t give us hope for tomorrow, I don’t know what else there is to say.
Alix E. Harrow made lightning strike twice, simple as that. Zinnia Gray’s story got a jolt at the end of A Spindle Splintered and by the end of A Mirror Mended, she is aware of the power running through her veins. As both Harrow and Zinnia grapple with what makes an ending—a truly good ending—we are left with joy for the future, and the chance that one story ending is just another beginning. That we can constantly stop and start as we need to, for stories don’t just flow in one direction. Zinnia and Eva’s growth feels earned and Harrow delivers on all counts as we see just how far they’ve come. I don’t know the future of Zinnia or this series, but I can say Harrow has done some damn fine work so far; if there are more stories in the storyverse to tell, count me among those eager to see where we go from here.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.