A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A common thread running through Alix E. Harrow's work is the power of stories and the myths and fables humans share. This theme is front and center in this fantastic novella, dealing with a multiverse of Sleeping Beauties that subvert the fairy tale --"pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it," according to the very first sentence--and rescue each other.
Our protagonist is Zinnia Gray, a young woman dying of a genetic disease. The book opens (after an introduction explaining why "only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty") on her twenty-first birthday, and she does not expect to see her twenty-second. Her best/only friend, Charmaine Baldwin (known as "Charm," heh heh), throws her a birthday party in their small Ohio town, in the tower of an abandoned prison. Charm even brings a spinning wheel to the top room of the tower for Zinnia to prick her finger, following the script of her favorite fairy tale. After a bit of snappy repartee (the dialogue throughout is excellent), Zinnia half-drunkenly does so, expecting nothing to happen. Instead, she slides into the multiverse:
And the faces I see don't belong to me. They belong to a thousand other girls reaching out towards a thousand spinning wheels or spindles or splinters. Other sleeping beauties, in other stories? I want to stop them, shout some kind of warning--stop, you boneheads!
One of them seems to hear me. She looks up at me with eyes that are an impossible shade of cerulean, her face framed by locks of literal gold, her finger hovering a centimeter above the spindle's end. Her lips frame a single word: "Help."
The world stops smearing.
Zinnia lands in the fairy-tale alternate world of Perceforest, where the Princess Primrose, under a curse, has similarly just passed her twenty-first birthday. (Zinnia also still has cell service to Charm, which of course defies all the laws of physics, but go with it. It's a nonsensical bit of worldbuilding that makes perfect sense as the story progresses.) Zinnia has stopped Primrose from following through with the rest of the story, pricking her finger and falling under an enchanted sleep for a hundred years. The remainder of the book focuses on Zinnia and Charm's efforts to free Primrose--and Zinnia and several other Sleeping Beauties--from their fairy-tale-decreed fates.
As usual, Harrow's prose is gorgeous. This 119-page novella could easily have been a full-length novel. But even stripped down to its essence, Zinnia's voice--a dying girl who has crawled back into her shell, refusing to connect with other people and content to run out the clock, until the quest of freeing Primrose reignites her own desire to live--and complex character shine through. The pacing is flawless: the nine pages of the first chapter sets up the theme, backstory, characterization of both Zinnia and Charm, and the stakes, and everything flows steadily from there, with not a wasted moment. Zinnia and Charm come up with an idea to save Primrose by pulling in other Sleeping Beauties from their stories to hers:
My hand finds Charm's and I haul her toward me. I feel her body land beside mine on the dungeon floor, smell the slightly chemical citrus of her hair, but I remain in the whirling in-between. I look out at all those hundreds of sleeping beauties, trapped and cursed, bound and buried, all alone. I wonder if they'll even be able to hear me, and if any of them will answer; I wonder how badly they want out of their stories.
The void between worlds is nibbling at my edges, tearing at my borders. I don't know what'll happen if I linger too long, but I imagine it's the same thing that would happen to a chickadee who lingered in a jet engine. I reach my hand out to all the sleeping princesses and whisper the word that brought me into Primrose's world, that sent both our stories careening off their tracks: "Help."
I land back on the cold cell of my floor, surrounded by roses and rot. My last bleary thought before I slip into true sleep, or possibly a coma, is that some of the beauties must have heard me.
Because some of them have answered.
There follows an exciting, fast-paced rescue run, and Charm, Zinnia and the other beauties pull Primrose back to our world. In the process, Zinnia nearly dies, and Primrose fulfills the promise of the fairy tale by kissing her to wake her up. (Although Primrose and Zinnia aren't together at the book's end; as you might have suspected from the name, Primrose ends up with Charm instead.) Due to the laws of physics that Charm admits are slightly twisted for each universe, this means that the protein plaques clogging Zinnia's organs are removed, and her lungs are wiped clean. The underlying genetic disease isn't cured--new xrays reveal the damaged DNA is beginning to produce the proteins again--but Zinnia is granted a reprieve. A reprieve she plans to make the most of: taking her multiverse-traveling splinter of a spindle and rescuing the other sleeping beauties. "The girls in other worlds who are dying or trapped or cursed, who deserve better stories than the ones they were given. Who are all alone."
I have been impressed by everything I've read from Alix E. Harrow, and this is no different. This is a fierce, beautiful story, and it should not be missed.
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