Robin McKinley,
Spindle's End
(Putnam, 2000)

Robin McKinley continues to recast old tales into new in Spindle's End, a lush and fresh look at the story of Sleeping Beauty.

In a country where magic literally accumulates like dust, a princess is born to the king and queen after many long years of waiting. Although the happy parents would like to host the entire country, they are encouraged to limit attendance somewhat, and to this end, representatives from all the villages are chosen by lot and one-and-twenty fairy godmothers prepare magical gifts for the child.

Although not much more than a girl, Katriona is the representative from Foggy Bottom, a village in the remote, somewhat swampy northwestern part of the country called the Gig. She is thrilled to be in attendance, although as a fairy (albeit not a very skillful one yet), she is somewhat disappointed in the trivial-seeming gifts bestowed upon the baby.

Then a strange man gives her an amulet, just before the appearance of Pernicia, a wicked fairy with a major axe to grind against the royal family. Pernicia pronounces a curse on the child, predicting that she would prick her finger on a spindle at the age of 21 -- or perhaps sooner -- and die. Without thinking too hard about it, Katriona bestows the 21st gift on the baby -- her gift of speaking with animals -- and ends up being given the baby to take back to Foggy Bottom in an effort to hide her from Pernicia.

No one knows where the princess is, and of all the villagers, only Katriona and her aunt know the secret of her identity. Calling her Rosie, they raise her as they would any child, and the girl grows up, sturdy and healthy and happy and unaware of her royal background. She doesn't care for dresses and domesticity, and her happiest hours are spent with Narl, the taciturn blacksmith, talking to and soothing the horses brought in to be shod.

When Katriona marries and they move in to town, Rosie befriends Peony, the niece of the adjoining wainwright, and the girls become nearly inseparable. As Pernicia draws closer over the years, Rosie learns the truth, and she and Peony draw on their closeness in a scheme which may or may not break the curse.

McKinley's novel sprawls but does not drag; she spins her tale with an eye to just the right details to enhance and build the story in careful, cohesive layers. Her writing is lively, often humorous and tongue-in-cheek as she tweaks fairy tale conventions to suit her tale. At the same time, she delves below the surface of these conventions and expands on them, assigning them new depth. The characters are well-realized and appealing (except for Pernicia), including the various animals, and Rosie especially demonstrates that it is not how one is born but how one grows up that determines one's destiny.

McKinley fans will not need second invitation, and for those not familiar with her writing, Spindle's End is a good place to begin.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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