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 Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018.