A Spindle Splintered
(Fractured Fables #1)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — October 2021
ISBN: 9781250765352 — Hardcover — 128 pp.
Today is the publication date of the second book of Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, so I’ll have reviews of both novellas today in celebration. I first encountered Harrow’s writing with some of her short stories and immediately felt drawn to their intelligence and passionate zeal. Even when they fell within a sub-genre of fantasy that wasn’t among my favorite, like the fairy tale, I still found them to be interesting perspectives riffed in a fun, inventive way. I read her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January feeling the same, and her next novel sits on my purchased TBR shelf.
The Fractured Fables series is excellent because it distills the best of Harrow down to the novella length. I was once a complete novella skeptic, but I’ve realized works like this can do it well, giving characters and worlds a chance to breathe, but limit unnecessary padding.
A Spindle Splintered introduces readers to Zinnia Gray, a young woman about to celebrate her twenty-first birthday, the upper limit of years her doctors expected her to survive. Zinnia has a genetic disease brought on from industrial pollution, a ribosomal (chaperone-associated?) disorder that leads to cellular accumulations of misfolded proteins throughout her body. Her curse of a young death has led to a personal affinity with the story of Sleeping Beauty, even though it is “pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it,” and pursuit of a degree in folklore.
Zinnia’s life-long best friend Charm arranges a Sleeping Beauty inspired party for Zinnia’s monumental birthday, held in an abandoned factory tower, complete with an antique spinning wheel – even if the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and original Grimm tale predate its invention. When contact with the prop causes Zinnia to black out and fade into a faux Medieval Europe setting, complete with a confused fantasy Princess named Prim, a version of Sleeping Beauty with a hyper-real, idealized radiance. Zinnia wonders if the misfolded proteins have finally obliterated neurons into hallucination, if her body is simply in the process of giving up the ghost.
But no, all signs point to this being real, and Zinnia finds she’s even able to text on her cell phone to Charm, seemingly across universes. She and Charm reason that Zinnia has discovered the ability to shift across a multiverse of fairy tale universes through some sort o object-induced narrative resonance. Zinnia knows the fate that awaits Prim: one curse of lost agency broken by another, marriage to a man she neither knows nor desires. Zinnia can do nothing to save herself from biological fate, but she realizes she just might be able to do something to save Prim from Prim’s curses before trying to return to home reality. And one thing Zinnia has learned to do well is running from her own problems by focusing on fixing others.
The premise of Zinnia’s fantasy adventure here is utterly absurd, defying logic in ways that the characters – and Harrow – readily admit. Charm comes up with ‘explanations’ for what is happening to Zinnia, how the magic of multiverses works. But really, it’s all a big MacGuffin (as admitted in meta call-out in the sequel novella) to facilitate the adventurous fun. With Mystery Science Theater 3000 music in your head: “If you’re wondering how she hops ‘tween worlds, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself it’s just a farce, I should really just relax.”
The obvious large theme of the fun romp that is A Spindle Splintered would be the feminist one: a sisterhood of support between female characters who each face their own particular curse or demon that tries to hold them back, that tries to eliminate their agency as individuals with any choice in their futures. For the novella length, Harrow does remarkably well balancing character relationships, and their growth (particularly Prim’s.) We get the friendship between Charm and Zinnia, the partnership between Zinnia and Prim, and as the novella goes on, a budding romance between Prim and Charm.
But, another aspect of that sisterhood comes up with a visit by Zinnia and Prim to the ‘evil fairy’ who originally put the curse on Prim. Here, we see Harrow’s focus on the untold stories of secondary characters in classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. These tales give little to no motivation to characters, and usually no background history. This leads to the reader forming assumptions. As a student of folklore, Zinnia knows all the stories, and knows the caveats. Yet, she also cannot help but make assumptions. The Fractured Fables sequel to A Spindle Splintered plays with this idea even more, but we get hints of it here as well.
Retellings of fairy tales in modern ways is nothing new, and ‘modern’ of course is relative as time continues on. Harrow acknowledges this within the multiverses of Sleeping Beauty stories by at first mentioning, and then literally brining in, the ’90s era retellings featuring ‘strong women’ who kick ass. I became reminded as I read A Spindle Splintered of the anthology series of fairy tale retellings edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling, starting with Snow White, Blood Red in 1993. At the time, many of the stories in that were viewed as cutting edge, attempts at casting less problematic versions of the classic fairy tales, ones that inverted or ‘righted’ biases and inequality. Of course, viewed now many of these now have their own problematic issues that remain from the older tales, or that were created anew through the reimagining.
And that brings me to what I see as the second major theme of A Spindle Splintered, and the series as a whole: the concepts of ‘saving’ someone and ‘agency’. How do these play together? Who deserves to be saved? Are there actions that make someone no longer worthy of being saved? Does saving someone – even with the best intentions – create other problems? How much of saving is interference, and when does that interference act to inhibit agency in the other? Is one’s personal agency reduced if allowing oneself to be saved by another?
From A Spindle Splintered to its sequel A Mirror Mended, Harrow begins to show just why this series is called Fractured Fables. Zinnia’s activities in helping trapped women find freedom is still an interference that disrupts other things. I’ll get to this more in the review for A Mirror Mended, but it begins here in the first book. Just as Zinnia’s well intentioned changes have imperfect effects, so too are retellings of fairy tales to try to make them less problematic an imperfect endeavor. Assumptions still remain, characters are still short-changed. What seems to work now, may still have issues reveled in retrospect. One can’t do everything in a story with absolute equity. So too can Zinnia not save everyone, or completely save herself.
But, that doesn’t mean the effort is not worthwhile, that the adventure shouldn’t be had, that righting injustices and fighting for others to have choice over their lives should be abandoned.
Harrow’s start to the Fractured Fables series begins to explore this all, to ask these questions of its characters and its readers. But, no clear answers are given; I don’t think clear answers even exist. It’s about the exploration and doing one’s best. And that, at its heart, is what A Spindle Splintered is about, even on its surface level of entertainment, of celebrating supportive female relationships. It’s an exploration of possible worlds, of characters finding their way through hardships to do the best they can not just for themselves, but also for each other.