A wondrous future lies before you – you, the destined hero of a charming fairy tale come true. And in yonder topmost tower, dreaming of her true love, the Princess Aurora! – Sleeping Beauty, Disney
Robin McKinley’s Spindle End is one of those books which makes you want to read everything written by the author, simply because of how much she makes you fall in love with the characters, the heart-warming storyline, and the curious magical-ness of it all. Spindle’s End brings to life the story of Sleeping Beauty, in a kingdom set where magic is so thick it “settles like chalk-dust everywhere”, and it’s an ordinary occurrence to ‘de-magick’ your kettles of magic, to stop your bread turning into larks, your clothes from running away, where it is illegal to have dealings with fish, and where fairies make an honest living in local villages. And yet the story has a traditional, just King and Queen who strive for a child, and after many years, manage to have a beautiful baby girl, celebrating the occasion with a grand ‘Name-Day’, inviting twenty-one (not three, Disney!) fairies to bestow gifts.
And gifts are bestowed, must to the disgust of one of the main characters, young fairy Katriona, who listens to “pearly teeth”, ‘golden hair” and “a sweet singing voice” being given, until the inevitable, a jealous evil fairy, here named Pernicia, gate-crashes with her own gift, a dangerous sleep for the newborn when she turns twenty-one. It is here that the life of the novel really begins, in the race to protect the Princess, she is smuggled away and raised by Kat in a secret life, “as safe as ordinariness can make her.”
Rosie, as she is lovingly named, becomes a creature to test her adoptive family as well as capture their hearts: she may have a voice like a bell, but it depends on how loud and robust the bell is; she may have a talent for dancing, but you’d have to convince her to dance first, and she may have golden ringlets like corn, but it’s difficult to see the curls after she chops all her hair off. Rosie, then, becomes a feminist in her own right, insisting she is not ‘pretty’ but intelligent, she doesn’t need to wear dresses when she can run after animals in breeches, and insisting that she will have her own career rather than settle down. Deeply entrenched in a lifestyle of her magic-using ‘Aunts’ and her family of animals and male friends, Rosie goes against every archetype of being a Princess, perhaps so because she remains blissfully ignorant of her true identity.
Weaving together the practicalities of magic, the complications of growing older, and the ever-questionable concept of ‘happily-ever-after’, McKinley shows how appearances are not always what they seem. Always through the novel is the underlying threat of the malevolent Pernicia, always searching and always threatening to change their fragile lifestyle, with McKinley creating some tense atmospheric scenes which really show the strengths of characters, putting to test their love for each other.
Rosie, remains, at the heart of all this, an ordinary, confused young woman, constantly re-shaping her identity, her perceptions of family, and the idea of destiny and grand love. While at the forefront, she remains an unusual character who refuses to conform to societal values of what it is to be a young woman, the vestiges of fairy-tale era still remain – we see how family can mean different things to different people, how duty is perceived, and above all, the idea of Good being expected to triumph over Evil.
This is a novel which makes you fall in love with Rosie, as a Princess, as an unruly child, and as a brave, old-style heroine – and it is not the idea of being a singing, pearly-teethed young woman who remains, but an ordinary (and ironically magical) sister, daughter and fierce friend, who fights for her family and friends as much as she tries to determine her own fate. A recommended book for all, especially if you like fairy-tales with a bit of a kick in them.