You got to love it when a story knows how not to overstay its welcome. As much as I find fiction shorter than a novel less enjoyable in general, some stories are just better as short stories, novelettes, or—as in the case of A Spindle Splintered—novellas. This multiversal reimagining of Sleeping Beauty is a lot of fun, but I think Alix E. Harrow would have had a hard time sustaining the suspense and interest for an entire novel. This is one of a series of wise decisions that result in an eminently enjoyable tale.
Zinnia is a dying girl (her words, not mine). No one with her particular teratogenic condition has lived to be twenty-two, and Zinnia just turned twenty-one. On her birthday, she literally pricks her finger on a spindle and finds herself in a fairy tale, complete with a princess—also cursed—a castle, a prince, an evil fairy, etc. Fortunately, Zinnia is Genre Savvy, having become obsessed with the parallels between her life and the Sleeping Beauty story to the point where she has a degree in folklore. To this end, Zinnia seeks to hijack the narrative and give herself and her new princess friend a happily ever after.
I won’t spoil the story by discussing whether they get it!
As with The Once and Future Witches, this book is about stories and how our telling of stories can actually reify them. I am a sucker for such metafictional and epistemological ideas about literature, of course. The obvious comparison here is Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, which Harrow makes herself in her acknowledgements, and it is apt. She brings together different threads of the same tapestry, if you will, and much like the comic book movie, demonstrates how we as a species hunger to tell and retell the same stories over and over again.
Layered atop that is some commentary on gender and sexuality, on misogyny and ableism and how we treat those who are women, who are chronically ill, etc. It’s actually rather ambitious for a novella, and I don’t know if Harrow completely succeeds in this task, but it’s an admirable effort that results in some excellent lines, especially when Zinnia meditates on how painful she finds the unconditional love she receives from her parents and Charm. This is a book of pretty surface yet sharp edges.
I liked the ending, without giving too much away. Harrow has a fine line to walk between hope and despair, trying to come up with something not too trite yet also not unbearably tragic. It is fitting, I think, for a remix.
At the end of the day, this is not a revolutionary book. But it was an enjoyable diversion for an afternoon. I think for a younger reader, just coming into feminist literary theory and fairy tales, this book could spark a curiosity that would lead them deeper into Angela Carter et al—and that thirst, that desire to know more, is one of the greatest gifts a book can give anyone.