Book Review: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (I Don’t Even Know What’s Going On Here!)

As I’m working with ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for my dissertation, a friend suggested that I read Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. So I looked it up and thought it sounded interesting, then found a cheap copy on Ebay so I was all set.

Spindle's End Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End is a YA novel that retells the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ When a princess is born, the king and queen hold an extravagant party to celebrate her name-day. In every town of their kingdom, lots are drawn to decide who will attend. Far from the palace, out in the country, a young girl called Katriona is chosen. She makes the long journey, but returns with more than she expected. After an evil fairy turns up and curses the princess, in an attempt to keep her safe she is secretly entrusted into Katriona’s care.

Princess Rosie grows up ordinary. She cuts off the beautiful hair her fairy godmothers gave her, and refuses to engage in any of the activities they blessed her with a talent for. She is kept ignorant of her heritage, until her 21st birthday approaches and the curse begins to catch up with her.

Rosie, Katriona and her family, their friends and an assortment of helpful talking animals set out to thwart the curse and prevent the evil fairy, Pernicia, from destroying the kingdom. But Rosie isn’t sure that she wants to be the princess, or if their plan will work and be strong enough to save them all.

Sounds good, right? I thought so too. Until I started reading it. Now, to be fair, to this book isn’t awful… I managed to get to the end of it which is something – I’m a very picky reader! And I have most definitely encountered a hell of a lot worse. But, putting the things I loved about it aside, Spindle’s End has some MAJOR issues.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Let’s start positive. I’ll talk about some of those things I loved first. 

The world McKinley creates for this story is one of the most intricate story worlds I have ever encountered. She spends a lot of time filling in details about it – the geography, what the weather is like in certain areas, what kinds of plants grow, and how the natural supply of magic affects everyone and everything. These details establish a strong sense of place and drew me in. I could feel the world as I read; it was tangible, and I was there. Although, in places there was an overabundance of description which I felt slowed the story down. There’s a fine line between fleshing out a setting and spamming readers with irrelevant information, and McKinley just about manages to stay on the right side of it.

Although, with all the random information she took the trouble to include, you would think she could have at least given the world a name. But oh no. Every time the phrase ‘in that country’ was used I wanted to scream.

Spindle's End Robin McKinley
A map of ‘that country’ by LaurasMuse onDeviantART.

The thing I love most about the world Spindle’s End is set in is that McKinley clearly thought about the impact the events in the story would have on it. Other versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ focus on the main characters and their motivations and reactions to the curse, but in this book the repercussions are felt throughout the kingdom. Animals pass on the story of the lost princess they must protect from evil, people speculate about Pernicia’s whereabouts, and the curse itself is almost a character, slowly draining the life from the land and its inhabitants. One of the biggest effects the curse has is to alter the way spindles are made. In an effort to prevent Rosie from pricking her finger, needles are discarded. Spindle ends become shorter and fatter, and carved with elaborate designs. People go into business making spindle ends, and they become regarded as an art form. As well as a very appropriate title for the novel! 

Now for the not so positive stuff…

The writing style. For the first half of the book, it’s literally all telling. No showing whatsoever. I found this pretty dull, and reading it felt like a bit of a chore. Whenever I picked it up I was full of hope that something would happen, but little did so I’d get bored and try again later. During this part of the book time also skips backwards and forwards quickly without warning. At one point Rosie goes from being 16 to 18 years old in the space of a paragraph. I wouldn’t mind so much, but with all the telling and random details about the world thrown in Rosie hasn’t actually done much by this point. Then two years of her life get thrown away, just like that. This puts a great distance between the reader and characters. Plus, with all the telling, I felt that their relationships to one another were under-developed. Readers are constantly being told how they are, that Rosie didn’t like this and didn’t do that, and Katriona liked these people and wanted to do this & that, without getting the chance to find it out for themselves. After awhile it becomes patronising.

Once Rosie finds out she’s the princess, everything changes. Suddenly stuff is happening; the plot finally begins, as though it’s been patiently waiting for its chance to take over. It’s like a different book! I got hooked then. One particular plot point I saw coming a mile off is that Rosie and her friend, Peony, swap places. Peony becomes a decoy princess, and their lives become magically intertwined as a way of trying to confuse the curse. Even though I guessed it, I still loved the idea. I loved how Rosie and Peony almost become one person, and that the princess is both and neither of them at the same time, an entity hovering above them as they hide from Pernicia. Hats off to McKinley for doing something completely new with the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ I was excited to see how things would turn out after this. With such a crucial event, such potential created, such mystery waiting to climax, I thought that perhaps I had been wrong. Perhaps this would turn out to be a bombshell of a book after all.

Sadly, no.

When Pernicia makes her curse, she specifically says that ‘on her one-and-twentieth birthday she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel; and this prick will cause her to fall into that poisoned sleep from which no-one shall rouse her’ (she also says that the curse could come into effect at any time up until her one-and-twentieth birthday, but according to Katriona’s aunt she only said this to scare people because magic doesn’t work like that in ‘that country.’ How it does work is never mentioned, though. Woohoo).

So, what do the royal family and all the citizens of ‘that country’ go and do? Arrange a 21st birthday party. To be held on the princess’ birthday. Y’know, the exact day Pernicia said she would fall into a poisoned sleep. And they all think it’s fine, because the princess is still alive to turn 21 so Pernicia has failed already.

Why hold the party on the day of the curse? JUST WHY?! Didn’t you listen when it was cast? Clearly everyone in ‘that country’ is a moron. So, they have a party, and the party attracts Pernicia. She conjures up a spinning wheel with a needle and Rosie is like ‘oh, that’s a funny shape for a spindle end, I must take a closer look.’ But Peony beats her to it. But that’s okay, because this was the plan all along. Confuse the curse, and it won’t take effect. If Peony pricks her finger, it won’t harm her. But it does! Peony falls into the poisoned sleep! I’d be willing to let this one go on the grounds that her and Rosie’s lives had been previously entangled by magic, but then everyone else falls asleep as well!

Oh, apart from a fairy called Narl, who is also Rosie’s lifelong friend. Apparently the sleep didn’t get him because he’s a blacksmith and metal blocks magic… or something like that, to be honest I didn’t really get it (plus it’s later revealed that the sleep curse is extra effective on fairies, furthering the this-makes-no-sense argument). And the only person he can wake up? Rosie.

WHY? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!

Rosie is the one the curse was targeting in the first place! Surely she should be the hardest to awaken? Why can she wake up from the spell when no-one else can? We never find out.

So okay, we’re hitting the climax of the story here. Narl and Rosie run off to find Pernicia, assisted by a group of talking animals. Firstly, they have to break through the rose bushes which have grown up to protect the sleepers – a nice touch, nice nod to the original story. The animals are pretty cool too, full of personality and a good addition to the story. Animals feature a lot in fairy tales, so I like McKinley’s thinking in adding them to one which is somewhat lacking in them. Although I have no idea why or how they’ve suddenly become magical.

Now, Pernicia lives in a floating castle, which is in no specific location. Narl, Rosie, and the animals get there by jumping over the rose bush… Don’t even think to ask how they do that, because it’s not explained. They just jump, and suddenly they’re there. Pernicia sends minions after them, but the animals take them out with a little help from Narl’s spell casting skills (which are also not explained). The castle itself they squeeze until it falls apart, using a hair transformed into a rope by Narl. Seems legit. In fact, this whole section of the book resembles an account of someone’s acid trip, but I went along with it still hoping that the final showdown with Pernicia would finally offer explanations.

Erm, still no.

The castle collapses. They all make it back to the ballroom filled with sleepers. Rosie and Pernicia become locked in a deathly battle whilst Narl watches helplessly, wishing he could do something. Well, it turns out he doesn’t need to. Because a bird (called a ‘merrel,’ which I don’t think even exists) flies down from the ceiling, grabs Pernicia, and shoves her into a hole in the floor which is conveniently opened up by the suddenly sentient ballroom. There is then some sort of earthquake, and the hole is filled trapping Pernicia inside. That’s it. Climax over.


I’m not even sure what to say about this… give me a minute…A bird. A freaking bird! Pernicia is meant to be super powerful. Her curse has tormented ‘that country’ for 21 years, and not even the king’s finest magicians and the most reputable fairies have been able to stop it. But a single bird can, apparently. Lesson to all fantasy writers out there: If your main protagonist is in a sticky situation with an evil sorceress, bring on a bird! Problem solved!I almost threw the book across the room. This seems like a major cop out. It’s also not feasible that someone with so much power cannot make their way out of a hole in the ground. Okay, if she had fallen down a canyon lined with spiky rocks, poison, and flamethrowers or something more elaborate she might have a bit of trouble. But a regular hole under a ballroom? Seems a bit fishy.So okay, moving on from what it possibly the most disappointing final battle in the history of anything ever, Pernicia is gone. Everyone starts to wake up, because presumably her curse disappeared with her (we’re never told exactly). Everyone apart from Peony (and again, we’re never told why exactly). Peony is woken up by Narl, Rosie, and Katriona placing a spindle end on her chest & putting their hands over it. Then Rosie kisses her, and in doing so passes on her part of the princess. Excellent twist on the whole ‘true love’s kiss’ thing, but I don’t understand why any of this wakes her up.

Peony becomes the princess, as she is more suited to it than Rosie who just wants to resume her ordinary life. So in this respect, the ends of the story are tied up fairly well. Except for one final thing which irritated me: Rosie marries Narl. Remember all the telling I mentioned in the first half of the book? Well, somewhere in that it’s announced that Rosie suddenly realises she is in love with Narl. We never get to see this, we’re just told. And I can’t help feeling that it’s a little creepy… Rosie has been friends with Narl since she was around four years old. He’s significantly older than her, and helped look after her and watched her grow up. I find it difficult to believe romance would have grown between these two under such conditions. Maybe if McKinley had shown us their relationship develop it would have been more credible, but as it is it just appears out of nowhere and feels really random.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I didn’t hate it, but I was extremely disappointed with it. McKinley makes some wonderful innovations on the story, and has such a good setup. Her world and characters are well fleshed out, but the way she presents the story robs it of a lot of its potential. The ending doesn’t deliver enough, and way too much is left unexplained. I can’t help feeling like I’ve only been told half the story.

This is an interesting take on Sleeping Beauty, but all of its issues make it fall short. I’m glad I read it, and it’s provoked several thoughts of things I can consider for my own retelling. Like having a random villain-defeating bird. Or not.

Note: Long post is long! I didn’t realise how much I had to say about this book, sorry! Well done if you made it through my rants to the end!

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is a content editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

4 comments

  1. As a writer who writes a lot of magic/supernatural based stuff, you're definitely right in that magic is difficult to handle! I think if you're tackling something as big as a novel, then you need to 'live' in that world. You need to know the rules and limitations of the magic within it, and question how they will affect your story. Magic has so many different forms, so you need to pick one and stick to it and make it coherent. McKinley seemed to have this throughout Spindle's End – it was a little vague, but all the details she put in about the country made it tangible. Then at the end that all sort of went out the window & I don't think even she knew what was going on!

    I've heard a lot of people say that Beauty is really good, so when I have some spare time (if that even exists!) I'll pick it up & have a go. I didn't know she wrote fairy tale short stories, either. Thanks for telling me, I'll check them out, too!

  2. I read this book years ago, so this was a good refresher. I also remember being really confused by the weird magical battle at the end, although at the time assumed maybe I just didn't understand it.

    It's so difficult to create a magical world with consistent rules. To be fair I don't think I could do it (although I'm also not publishing novels). But it's like we tend to think of magic as being, “anything is possible and you never know what's going to happen,” when really magic, historically, was thought of as being another branch of science-just another way to manipulate the world around you, but in a logical, consistent way.

    Plus it's the tendency of our generation to want to insert epic battle scenes into every fantasy story. It's not necessary! Battle scenes are also really hard to write!

    I love Robin McKinley's “Beauty” so much that it's kind of sad it seems like none of her other books were able to reach (in my mind) the same quality. I like some of her fairy tale short stories, and love “Blue Sword” and “Hero and the Crown,” but have read other works of hers that just left me bored

  3. As far as I know she didn't, and she's done a lot of other standalone books. She couldn't really continue it as the story has a clear ending – a sequel would drag it out as there's nothing left to say! It would just have to be a book of explanations haha!

  4. This doesn't excuse lazy writing, but have you researched as to whether she intended it to be a series. This would explain abrupt ending over the fleshing out of the world.

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