Reposting to include Tadiana’s review.
Spindle’s End (2000) is Robin McKinley’s delightful and very loose retelling of the Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose) fairy tale.
On the princess’s naming day, a bad fairy declares a curse, stating that, on her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. In an attempt to thwart the curse, a good fairy named Katriona takes the princess to live with her aunt in a swampy region called Foggy Bottom. There, without any knowledge of her true heritage, Rosie grows up happily with human and animal companions while her mother, the Queen, pines for her lost daughter.
After the opening scenes in which the princess is cursed, Spindles’ End bears little resemblance to the source material. The plot is slow and meandering for most of the novel, then abruptly changes pace as it comes to an odd, unforeseen, but not unsatisfactory, ending. The story features some charming friendships, a sweet romance, and an abundance of friendly and helpful animals.
Spindle’s End is best read when you’re in the mood for a light, sweet, unhurried fantasy that you can cozy up with. It’s not for the reader who’s looking for thrills or a challenge, or for those who want to read a traditional Sleeping Beauty tale.
I listened to the new audio version of Spindle’s End released by Tantor Audio last October. Justine Eyre, with her lovely British accent, was a good choice for narrator.
Spindle’s End is long and leisurely-paced, but I found it an absorbing retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, with fascinating details and appealing animals (Robin McKinley excels at both of those things) and a few major twists to the classic story. I enjoyed it enough to reread it at least two or three times in the last 20 years since it was published in 2000.
Spindle’s End starts out much like the traditional fairy tale: An evil fairy, Pernicia (nice name!) places a fatal curse on the baby princess at her outdoor christening party, where all the kingdom has been invited to watch. But at that party is a young woman with the magical power of speaking to animals, Katriona. The royal magician, desperate for a way to evade the curse, hands over baby Rosie (she’s got about fifteen official names, but Rosie is the one we’ll go with) to Katriona, asking Katriona to keep the princess well hidden until after her 16th birthday.
So totally-unprepared Katriona lugs baby Rosie all the way home to her village in the north part of the kingdom. It’s a walking journey, one that takes several weeks, and Katriona has a hungry nursing infant on her hands. The wild animals of the kingdom pass the word along and start turning up each day to nurse baby Rose. It’s really a delightful and unusual addition to the story.
Rosie grows up with Katriona and her aunt, seemingly an ordinary village girl, and a more plain-spoken, unorthodox princess cannot be imagined. (Another delightful twist is how all of the other fairies’ princess-appropriate gifts are subverted by Rosie’s true nature.) But Rosie, Katriona and Katriona’s aunt can all feel Pernicia’s magic seeking to hunt down Rosie, and it only gets scarier as her sixteenth birthday approaches.
Spindle’s End isn’t for everyone. Robin McKinley loves animals, and they play a major and unquestionably charming role in the story here, but McKinley also loves quirky and folksy details and speaking in digressions and parentheticals, and she takes her sweet time telling this story. There’s one of those weird nightmarish scenes toward the end that McKinley is inexplicably fond of, when the characters get pulled into Pernicia’s kingdom. And I’ll just say that the final twist also will not be to everyone’s taste. I’m not entirely sure it was for me, but as I’ve revisited Spindle’s End a couple of times over the years I find myself more inclined to go along with McKinley’s slow-paced but lovely reimagining of this story.
Give it a shot if you’re fond of fairy tale retellings, but be prepared to immerse yourself in a leisurely-told story with an abundance of additional details and a few odd twists.