In Alix Harrow’s books, women move between worlds, sometimes because they find enchanted doors (The Ten Thousand Doors of January), sometimes because they rediscover and rekindle ancient magics (The Once and Future Witches), and sometimes because their own story echoes an archetypal story — and they want more from destiny.
In A Spindle Splintered, that archetypal story is “Sleeping Beauty,” and protagonist Zinnia Gray has been drawn to it since she was a kid. So much so, that she graduated early from high school and earned a degree in folklore studies from Ohio University, all before turning 21. But unlike Sleeping Beauty, Zinnia isn’t “suffering from a curse so much as fatal teratogenic damage caused by corporate malfeasance.” There’s been an industrial accident, and no one born with what the book calls Generalized Roseville Malady reaches 22. When Zinnia’s best friend Charm throws her a Sleeping Beauty-themed 21st birthday party in an old tower — complete with actual spinning wheel — she’s in a strange headspace.
Zinnia stabs her finger on the spindle and sees a vision of many girls, different girls, all reaching for the inevitability of that spindle. She tells them to stop, and when one girl does, saying “Help,” she yanks Zinnia from Ohio to Primrose’s fairy tale kingdom. Primrose is a quintessential gorgeous Storybook Princess whose narrative seems all set to match most of the beats we associate with the tale: castle, roses, bad fairy, enchanted sleep.
Together, they attempt to save Primrose from her curse and return Zinnia to her world (with a little help from Charm, whom Zinnia can still reach via cell phone). Of course, where magic is possible, Zinnia begins to hope that perhaps there’s a solution for her own “curse.”
This is a slender novella but it spins a strong and captivating tale. It’s funny, sharp, queer, and deeply loves its source material. One day, I’d love to sit down with Harrow and discuss story, narrative, myth. I don’t think I’d be surprised to learn that her heart is actually a portal into the birthplace of myth, and her blood is storytelling, and she swims every Friday in the Fountain of Tales, which gives her fingers enchantment so that we can have these captivating stories where story is so often what saves us. These stories don’t shy away from ugliness. They don’t diminish hardship. Choices people make matter deeply, even when that person seems trapped inside a narrative. For a book about magic curses and world-hopping, there’s a lot of hard science talk; this is one of A Spindle Splintered‘s strengths, as enchantment echoes modern science and helps ground Zinnia’s adventure in our reality.
Harrow’s writing is always lyrical, but Zinnia’s matter-of-fact vinegar, her insightfulness, her funniness and her sense of herself as someone a little separate from the world — since she’s always had one foot out the door — makes for a memorable protagonist and a poignant story. Her voice is so easy to want more of; her genre savvy is good fun and never crosses the line into irritating, just as the tropes never become twee or rote. I want more Zinnia. More Charm, Zinnia’s stubborn and badass lesbian friend. More Primrose, who sometimes surprises Zinnia and the reader. There is a moment early in the novella where Zinnia recognizes “the exhaustion of being unsavable” in Primrose and, reader, my heart. There are so many small details and fine turns of phrase which bring the worlds inside this excellent portal fantasy to life. Another: “The idea leaps from my skull fully formed, armored and Athenian and deeply stupid. I love it.” So do I, Zinnia!
A Spindle Splintered is unapologetically self-aware, but it is also earnestly romantic. It’s an easy read, over too soon. The copy I have has Arthur Rackham silhouette illustrations scattered throughout and incorporated into the work, and I can only imagine how good this will look in the finished copy. “Sleeping Beauty” has always been my favorite fairy tale, and Alix Harrow’s treatment of it is a worthy addition to the body of work inspired by it. This novella pushes against the hopelessness of inevitability; it dares us to believe in sympathetic magic; it tells us we’re connected through story. It might dent your heart a little, but it’s good fun.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.