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:: Spindle's End

Another reinvention of a fairy tale, Robin McKinley's Spindle's End takes a new approach to "Sleeping Beauty." Rosie, the princess-in-hiding, is definitely a new spin on the main character -- totally uninterested in clothes, dancing, or any other highbrow stuff, it turns out her true calling is as a "horse-leech," a job made much easier by the fact that she can talk to animals. The talking-to-animals was a nice addition to the story, and I loved McKinley's characterization of the "voices" of the different species: cats are elliptical and always talk in riddles, bugs speak in a kind of clicking code, foxes "generally wanted to talk about butterflies and grasses and weather for a long time while they sized you up," dogs bolster their conversation with lots of physical action, etc. Especially wrenching: Lord Prendergast's best stallion (used as a showpiece and stud, and never allowed to run or get dirty) and the huge white bird that lives in the rooftree of Woldwood, when they speak to her of their yearning to be free of the constraints they live with day in and day out.

Her writing style is unusual. I was struggling with it a bit at the beginning, I kept having to go back and reread paragraphs because I was getting lost in the sentence structure. She favors long sentences with lots of clauses and parenthetical digressions. Then, at some point about halfway through when I was playing online, I ran across this piece from Ursula K. LeGuin, where she draws an analogy between story and movement. There's the running kind of story, where you put one foot down after the next because you can't stop because you're leaning forward, rushing ahead -- page-turners. Then there's the walking story, where "you fall into the flow of the gait and cover ground while seeing everything around you, scenery you may never have seen before; and the walk may end up somewhere you've never been." And finally the dancing story, where you're led on for the simple joy of movement and things might seem pointless but beautiful, "and yet if the dance is true to itself, all the movements are connected and every one follows from the last, not predictably, but inevitably." And there was my problem: I was reading Spindle's End as though it were a running book and clearly it was a walking book. Or she's a walking writer.

Unfortunately the book was marred by a couple of places where there was no good reason for something to happen other than that the plot required it. For example, the fact that the animals Rosie needed all managed to shake off Pernicia's spell. Why?? There was no reason they should have been any more special or immune than the rest of the animals in the castle. Narl's resistance is explained by his being a fairy-smith -- highly unusual -- and working with both magic and cold iron, but the animals have no such protection.

I also took issue with the nature of the ending -- I don't object to happy endings, but the way they achieved it dissatisfied me, and the more I think about it the more dissatisfied I am. Basically Rosie's "princess-ness" is removed, like a kidney, and transferred to Peony in some kind of royalty transplant. It's not plausible and feels just too convenient. First off, I don't think you can do that with princess-ness; it's not a "thing" in that sense. More importantly, it makes the whole ending based on a lie, making the queen (and everyone else) think Peony's really her daughter when she isn't. That seems not only cruel but unjust, to get one's happiness out of dishonesty and, basically, a trick. I would have preferred it if Rosie had simply stood up for herself and said, Sorry, I'm going to stay here and marry Narl, you can have Peony if you like, or just give the crown to my younger brother, and Rowland had said, I'm going to marry Peony anyway, I don't care if she isn't a princess..

The idea of baby-magic (very young children unable to control their powers, therefore a bit of a trial to live with) was clever and cute, like a nicer version of the theory of poltergeists being generated by the pangs of adolescence. I also enjoyed the whole magic-thick-as-chalk-dust ambiance of the place, so that mugs spontaneously turn into frogs and people spend a lot of time asking things to stay what they are (laptop, stay laptop...). The story never explains why the country's that way, though, when none of its neighbors are. There was also no explanation of the roots of Pernicia's vengeful nature -- is she just a Bad Hat, or was there some conflict behind it? A simple insult like not being invited to a christening might suffice for a Disney villain but in a full-length book I expect a little more meat to a rage and fury that's been festering for centuries.

I'd like to try more of McKinley's books to get a better sense of her as writer; one of my colleagues at work has The Blue Sword and one of our interns was a big fan of Sunshine, so maybe I'll give them a try.


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Oct. 26th, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)
I grew up on Robin McKinley's Damar books (Blue Sword and Hero and the Crown) and really loved them at the time. Now that I'm older and a little more cynical, I have problems with Blue Sword especially, as the epitome of What These People Need Is A Honky trope.

I think her best but most gut-wrenchingly hard to read book is Deerskin, which is a sort of feminist retelling of the folktale Donkeyskin, which is about a young princess whose father tries to "marry" (ie., rape) her, and she runs away and bags a prince. Anyhow, I think McKinley really outdid herself on that one--I think by the metaphors you mention I would consider it a "dancing" book, and fairly unusually beautiful given how hit-or-miss her books can be.

I've bounced off of all of her other books--didn't make it even a third of the way through Spindle's End. Like you said, it's a cute premise but I couldn't get into the characters, and it didn't grab me. Sunshine was cute as far as vampire romances go, but I don't consider it particularly noteworthy.
Oct. 26th, 2009 01:54 am (UTC)
Donkeyskin (aka Tatterskin, Tattercoats etc) has to be one of the more seriously disturbing fairy tales; attempted murder of your stepkids is one thing, but father/daughter incest is something else again. Of course a lot of them were considerably more violent and worrisome -- and real! -- than the bowdlerized Disney-sucrose-happy-ending versions so many of us started out on. Thank gods my mom gave me Hans Christian Anderson and Italo Calvino and The Juniper Tree etc to counterbalance it :) I'll have to check out Deerskin, sounds intriguing. Thanks for the suggestion!
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