Why You Need to Read: “A Spindle Splintered”

Fractured Fables, #1: A Spindle Splintered

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 5, 2021

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore

            …I’ve fallen out of my own story and into one that might have a happy ending. Because this is my last chance to have a real adventure, to escape, to do more than play out the clock, (2).

            Fairy tales have existed since oral and literary traditions became embedded in folklore and culture. For example, there is a “Cinderella” story for each region and culture in the world; and, it is one of the “oldest” folktales in human existence. In fact, anyone can recite a few fairy tales orally and include all of the “elements” within it. Disney movies aside, fairy tale retellings continue to exist, and there have been numerous stories released recently, which demonstrates how these tales continue to entertain us. In Alix E. Harrow’s novella, A Spindle Splintered, she fuses traditional variants with modern knowledge. 

            There are 2 things you need to know about the protagonist, Zinnia Gray. First, she is obsessed with the tale of “Sleeping Beauty”; second, Zinnia is dying from a rare genetic disease. In fact, she is not expected to live past her 21st birthday, which is today (in the story), and time is limited as Zinnia starts to process her “last days.” Fairy tales have been a coping mechanism for Zinnia—she earned a Master’s degree in Folk Studies—and, it is the story of “Sleeping Beauty” she finds most relatable to her. And yet, Zinnia’s best friend, Charmaine Baldwin a.k.a. “Charm,” has stood by her since childhood. Furthermore, Charm insists that her best friend attends the “Sleeping Beauty” themed birthday party she put together for her. There’s even a spinning wheel! But, what happens when Zinnia pricks her finger on it? And, who is the young woman claiming to be a princess? Readers learn quickly that Zinnia is more than just a “sick girl.” Her determination and her resilience allows her to view her current predicament as an opportunity to save her life, and another’s as well. 

            The plot of this story is Zinnia dreading her impending death. Her disease means that she won’t live past 21, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. That is, until a spinning wheel provides a rare chance to change her fate. At the same time, Zinnia might be able to rescue a princess from hers. There is a subplot in this story, and it is fairy tales: their origins, their evolution, and their “lasting appeal.” Remember, every story is a story unless it’s yours; that’s when the story becomes one’s experience. The subplot drives the plot in this narrative, which brings out the reality (and the magic) within the fiction.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Zinnia’s point-of-view, and it is told in the present. Zinnia’s stream-of-consciousness is vital to the narrative because her knowledge of the past helps her with her quest and her phone lets her (and us) know that all of the events within the narrative are happening—Zinnia is NOT under a sleeping spell. A few revelations throughout the quest leads to genuine moments of awe and of shock through Zinnia, which makes her a reliable narrator with a narrative that can be followed easily. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses in A Spindle Splintered is different from her novels. Instead of allusions to previous stories, myths, legends and magic, this novella delves into the evolution of fairy tales—also known as Märchen, or “magic tale” by folklorists—many in which, “expresses the escape from reality,” (Dégh 59). In addition, this story is NOT a fairy tale retelling, but a “fractured fairy tale.” A fairy tale is “a story involving the fantastic, usually involving familiar traditional formulas and often ending in eucatastrophe (after which people live happily ever after),” (Mendlesohn and James 253). A fractured fairy tale is the practice of breaking fairy tales (from as small as a split to as large as a chasm) up so that the storyteller can rewrite them to reflect the present world while maintaining key elements from the fractures that get used in them. In other words, new variants of the older variants of fairy tales must have something in it so that the audience can identify the (new) tale being told. The most popular example of this is Disney and how they took older variants of these folktales and retold them in a way in which the audience knows it’s the “Disney variant.” A fractured fairy tale is another way for stories to be “told and retold in many different ways. They are guised and disguised,” (Yolen 4). Another explanation is that the author has taken parts of the tale of “Sleeping Beauty,” kept the parts that would identify it as “Sleeping Beauty,” include the possible origins of the tale within a modern conflict that presents the tale as a new variant. In short, and I repeat, this is NOT a fairy tale retelling (per se), but a modern fairy tale. How many fairy tales have working smartphones in them? The mood in this story is dread. 2 young women are fearful of their impending 21st birthdays. The tone is resilience. Both young women actively seek out ways to change their fate.

            The appeal for A Spindle Splintered will be positive. Fans of the author’s previous works will enjoy this one; however, they should know that this book is closer to a fairy tale than a fantasy story—similar yet different. If you’re not a fan of fairy tales, then this book might not be for you. Fans of Jane Yolen and Robin McKinley will enjoy this book the most. But, fans Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Rena Rossner should consider reading this story, too. Anyone who studied folklore—such as myself—will appreciate all of the scholarly references mentioned throughout this tale. And, anyone who enjoys this book will be pleased to know that the follow up—A Mirror Mended—will be released next summer.

            A Spindle Splintered is a tragic yet entertaining story about the lasting affect of fairy tales, and what an individual should do when they find themselves in one. Once again, Alix E. Harrow reminds her audience of the significance of fairy tales and their everlasting impact throughout culture and humanity. This is the “Sleeping Beauty” tale for the 21st century.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                                        References 

Dégh, Linda. “Folk Narrative.” Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, edited by Richard M. Dorson, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 53-83.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. Middlesex University Press, 2009.

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Tachyon Publications LLC, 2018. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!