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Spindle's End

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: A modern retelling of an old fairy tale without sacrificing traditional sensibilities. Simple joys of life in a backwater. Uncomplicated friendships and family. Generosity without asking anything in return. Casual reference to divorce.

Cover of Spindle's End

Author: Robin McKinley

Publisher: David Fickling

Published in: 2002

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Indeterminate

Setting: Foggy Bottom, rural backwater of The Gig, awash with magic

Genres:  FantasyGrowing-UpMagic


Characters:

  • Katriona, niece of a fairy and a fairy herself, is chosen out of all those in the village to attend the christening of the new princess. She finds herself rescuing the princess instead, and bringing her back to their little village where she can grow up as Rosie.
  • Rosie is the rightful heir to the throne, cursed at her christening and taken away by Katriona for safekeeping. She is unaware of her origins, believing her parents dead, and she grows up discovering her talents for speaking to animals and horse work.
  • Peony is Rose's best friend, good-natured and helpful. She is entirely unmagical, but agrees to help when Rosie's background comes to the fore.
  • Narl is the village blacksmith, taciturn except with Rosie.

Synopsis:

Katriona brings home baby Rosie from her trip to see the christening of the new princess. The girl grows up among the villagers, believing herself the orphaned cousin of Katriona and her Aunt. She retains an ability to speak to animals, unusual even in that magic-ridden land, and becomes an expert horse-leech, working alongside the blacksmith Narl, and forms a close friendship to Peony the wheelwright's daughter. This is all she knows until a short while before her 21st birthday, when an unusual man knocks at the door in the middle of a storm (in keeping with the conventions of narrative and dramatic tension) and her past is revealed.

Notes:

Literary: I take my hat off once again to Robin McKinley, who's managed to retain the fairy-tale feel of a story while filling out the gaps normally indicated by phrases like “and she grew up knowing nothing of her past”. The magical elements of the story are variously playful and wild — the land's native magic which turns mugs into frogs — and dark and sinister — the evil Pernicia's curse upon the princess, and her 21-year-long spell to find where she has been hidden.

A wealth of details fills out the background of the Sleeping Beauty story: sharp spinning spindles are forbidden, so the people of Foggy Bottom develop a style of blunted carved spindle, which gives rise to its own style of spinning. The children of the land have a baby magic which they can't control, so Katriona and her Aunt, both fairies, take in baby-lodgers whose magic they are adept at controlling and averting. And so on.

Magic: The land in which the story takes place is the first thing you meet in the book and it is described as “thick and tenacious” so that “you had to descale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week”. It is a natural and wild magic, and mostly used by village fairies to offer charms to help you find things or to let you appear unattractive to would-be thieves. The sorcerors of the court study the mechanics of magic, but they hardly intrude upon the story at all.

Friendship & Family: These are to the foremost throughout the story. Fairy-tales often feature simple goodhearted characters and families who do their best against the clearly blackhearted opposition. And so it is here. Katriona, not yet a woman, takes the baby princess back to her village for protection, and Rose grows up with Kat and her Aunt, both fairies, and forms a strong friendship with her good-natured neighbour Peony and with the strong and silent blacksmith Narl. All their relationships are simple and straightforward.

At the beginning of the story, the king and queen have not had any children. Since the king and queen of the land must possess certain qualities, certain of the royal cousins divorce their spouses so that they remain eligible if the king dies childless.

Rosie looked at her friends in the striped twilight and thought: one reluctant princecss who is really a horse-leech, two horses, a few hounds, a spaniel, a very small terrier, a fox, two mice and a cat. And a fairy smith who says he's better at smithing. And we are seeking to confront a wicked fairy who is planning to destroy our entire country, and the only people who might help us are asleep. I suppose it is a confrontation we want. I don't know. This was what Katriona was supposed to do.

Wednesday 18th February 2004