Spindle’s End (Robin McKinley)

Posted: January 4, 2015 in fiction
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Oh, come on, you remember Robin McKinley. She got Newberys for The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword back in the ‘80s. I loved those books when I was little. Well, that was the beginning of her career. She’s still writing now. Spindle’s End was first published in the year 2000, and these days she has an online serial that she’s doing, alongside other projects for print. Sometimes I reread books from my childhood, and I can’t imagine how I ever got through them, even when I was ten (Roald Dahl, I’m looking at you). Not so here – I was pleased to see that McKinley’s style stands up to the test of adulthood (and a couple of degrees in literature).

We know this story. Not only is Sleeping Beauty one of my favorite Disney cartoons, I just saw Maleficent this summer. But as I’ve mentioned before, we seldom read for plot. An experienced reader knows what’s going to happen pretty early on, no matter what he’s reading; we rely heavily on convention when telling stories. We keep reading because we love the characters and we love the language. But as you would expect from an author who writes about female dragonslayers, the king’s daughter will not wait passively to be rescued.

The first thing McKinley makes clear is that we’re dealing with a place where magic infests everything. It transforms, it binds, it protects, it attacks, it keeps physics from working as it should. As a result, there are fairies, who have the natural ability to work with magic, and magicians, who learned in an academy. [There are also priests and religion, but they’re not very important.] Magic can also have nothing to do with the professionals; a piece of household furniture that is very loved can take on magical properties. She doesn’t make this explicit, but love can be the most powerful form of magic.

Barder’s gift was a little flat medallion of ash, carved, like the plaque over the door of Cairngorm’s pub, in the shape of an egret; but while the pub’s egret stood, gazing over the green marsh at its feet, Barder’s egret curled into the small oval space, its long neck folded gracefully back against its body, its long legs tucked out of sight. Even in so tiny an area Barder had cut the feathers to perfection; Katriona half-expected them to yield under her touch as she stroked them. “A memory charm, eh?” said Aunt, admiring the egret. “He’s given you his own charm, I think, a charm for remembering where to come back to.”

“Barder isn’t – ”

“Not that kind of magic,” said Aunt. “But real for all that.”

And, of course, if there are powerful women and magic, cats won’t be far behind.

Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic – which was what all magic was – it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on you knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody’s knee and purred. Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you could call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were always more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona’s theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight enough answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren’t true.

Yeah, sounds right.

We’re just coming out of a spate of gift-giving in this part of the world, and I managed to avoid getting anything but one. Fortunately there weren’t any curses attached. Sleeping Beauty is, after all, a story of gifts going wrong. Normally I’m not into gifts and getting things, but twice a year, birthday and Christmas, the lack of them makes me feel especially lonely. Instead of going to a party New Year’s Eve, I was with a friend whose kids were staying up to midnight for the first time, so I rang in 2015 with a Phineas and Ferb marathon. Nice for a change, fun because I don’t do it often, but if I’m going to spend all year watching cartoons . . . that life isn’t worth living. But anyway, for Christmas my mom gave me my grandfather’s briefcase. I don’t have any specific memories of it, but I love it because it reminds me of him. It’s like when Rosie carves Peony a new spindle end for the princess’s birthday, and she says,

I’m sorry it’s only new.

I think that a gift should bring the giver to mind, so it’s nicer to get things that are either handmade or old. New-bought things are great and all, but there’s very little of the self that the person is giving to you. It gets you the possession you want, but it doesn’t draw your community closer as a gift should.

This last week I went visiting friends and family Down East. One of my friends saw that I was reading this and told me how much she loved it, which told me something I’d already suspected about it: this book is completely kid-friendly. She’s not any younger than I am, but ever since we were teenagers she’s feigned an extreme innocence. The illusions help her square her experience of the real world with her religious conservatism. She wasn’t very supportive when I came out of the closet, but we’re back to being good friends now, probably because I don’t talk with her about my love life. She’s happier putting it out of her mind.

People forgot; it was in the nature of people to forget, to blur boundaries, to retell stories to come out the way they wanted them to come out, to remember things as how they ought to be instead of how they were.

She said there was one moment in the book that struck her as weird and off, but that I hadn’t reached it yet. Later, when Rosie kisses Peony, I knew I had found it. It’s not really weird or out of character, actually, unless you’re a homophobic American. Rosie and Peony meet when Rosie’s family moves from the country into town. Rosie has always been a little butch, wearing trousers, talking to animals, and hanging out in traditionally masculine places like the town forge. She’s the best large-animal veterinarian around because she can ask the horses what their problems are. Peony is the perfect little femme, with all the airs and graces and little household skills you would expect from a princess. Rosie tries to hate her at first, but can’t. Despite the polar opposites of their personalities, they become close friends. Rosie first notices romantic feelings in herself when Peony falls in love with someone else. When Rosie begins to prepare for her twenty-first birthday and final showdown with Pernicia, Peony volunteers to be her stunt double. They tell everyone that Peony is the princess – which is more believable than presenting the kingdom with a short-haired, big-boned, misanthropic horse-girl – and they cover the two of them in binding spells so that even magic spells will confuse the two of them. They breathe in unison and cast only one shadow. So when Peony jabs her finger on that sharp spindle, she doesn’t die because she’s the wrong princess. Rosie goes off on a quest to save her friend (revived by her fairy blacksmith boyfriend performing CPR, not kissing her), which ends in Rosie putting the spindle end that symbolizes their union between Peony’s hands and kissing her. The dramatic moment when Sleeping Beauty is awakened by true love’s kiss, and it’s between two not-quite princesses. They both have heterosexual relationships, but there’s something at least a little lesbian between the two of them. However, as mentioned, the book is kid-friendly so the homosocial content is presented in a world where any sort of sexuality is nearly effaced. You can read it as I do, that there’s an offstage GFY romance, or you can read it as simply two very close friends who spent their teenage years without the company of other girls their age. My religious friend has four sisters, and she’s always been close with at least one or two, so she goes for the second reading, which makes kissing on the lips a little weird, but that interpretation allows her to enjoy the book, so I won’t tell her what I think of it.

Spindle’s End is a good book. It’s especially good for people who like fairy tales, fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery type (but with not many swords or sorcerers, just an everyday sort of magic), coming-of-age stories, and strongly implied feminism. If you need profanity or sex scenes to enjoy a book, you’re better off reading something else.

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