A MIRROR MENDED by Alix E. Harrow

A Mirror Mended
(Fractured Fables #2)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250766649
— Hardcover — 144 pp.


With A Mirror Mended, Harrow hits all the right notes of success from A Spindle Splintered, and then surpasses them with additional fresh melodies of complexity. The second novella the Fractured Fables series picks up five years after the end of the first. Zinnia has spent that time traveling the Sleeping Beauty metaverse, saving Princesses in distress wherever possible. With the years of her predicted lifespan reset by the magical clearing of her misfolded cellular proteins, Zinnia has been able to go on living fearlessly, not having to worry about her own inevitable cost.

But, her activities saving Sleeping Beauties across the narrative realms has come with some costs. Zinnia’s become estranged from her former best friend Charm, who continues to live a happy life with Prim. Zinnia has become exhausted of the constant movement, the reiterations of the same story, slightly changed. She can begin to feel the effects of time passing on her health. And the universes have begun to show signs of becoming increasingly fractured and intertwined in inexplicable ways, fairy tales bleeding in to ‘normal’ reality, with elements even outside Sleeping Beauty.

Celebrating the rescue of her latest princess, Zinnia gazes into a mirror to see an unfamiliar face staring back, and she suddenly is drawn into another universe. It’s one she quickly realizes comes from beyond the Sleeping Beauty cluster. Somehow, she has ended up in a world of Snow White. And the strange face that she saw in the mirror that pulled her there is none other than the Evil Queen.

What makes A Mirror Mended so successful is that Harrow doesn’t simply rehash the types of adventure and themes found in A Spindle Splintered. Readers quickly figure out that Zinnia is not here to rescue Snow White at all, but to help the Evil Queen. The immediate question for Zinnia is, should should save an Evil Queen? Of course, Harrow deftly shows that this narrative is based on a ton of missing information on who this villain really is. Why is she villainous? Why does she not even get a name?

So begins a novella that is an adventure like the previous one, but also a tale of connected self discovery. Zinnia most come to terms with what she has been doing, and the risks they might entail. This includes some critique of her assumptions/actions in the first novella, as well as the collapse of her core friendship with Charm.

The imperfections that remain even when trying to ‘cleanse’ a problematic fairy tale of all its offenses become more clear, serving as a sort of meta analysis of Harrow’s series itself, or the idea of retelling fairy tales in general. Harrow ups the meta joy in A Mirror Mended, having absolute fun with the zaniness of the novella’s premise and its play with narratives and character agency within a narrative that Harrow controls. This really rounds out Zinnia’s journey to a next step in this book two.

Self discovery is also central theme for the Evil Queen, who Zinnia chooses to name Eva. Eva must discover how far she is able to go to ensure self-survival, particular when she suddenly realizes there are other people who may actually care about her. Eva is a fabulously multidimensional character that drives the novel forward and ends up saving the woman who has played the savior heroine these last five years, Zinnia. And only through letting herself be saved does Zinnia save Eva.

This is all so meta! A recursiveness and eternal knot formed by the two women. The struggles within each of them become entangled their relationship. That entanglement is itself they key for the progression of each to self resolution. It’s an absolute inversion of the saving trope that was the focus of the first novella, one that was predicated on someone saving another so that the other can have personal agency. Here, full agency is only achieved through a partnership of sorts, a giving up of agency. It’s meta, an apparent absurd contradiction. Yet, it is also the basis of the concept of marriage.

A Mirror Mended succeeds on so many levels, even down to that symbolic level that the title evokes. It’s a love story of Zinnia and Eva, the foundation of a true partnership without the loss of choice or control for either party. The individual shards (lives) of a fractured mirror become united into something whole that reflects back an image of the other – just like that moment that initially pulled Zinnia into Eva’s seemingly hopeless story – staring into a face that is not your own, but that together make a tale for the ages.

I’ve probably drifted way too far here into the realms of analysis over that of review, forgive me. But this is what I really, really loved about A Mirror Mended. It’s simply brilliant on multiple levels, meta and all.

Even without all that, A Mirror Mended is simply an entertaining adventure filled with great language, rich characters, humor, and deep human emotion. Harrow’s choice to make this more about the villain than simply another princess in distress story is essential to its success. But atop that I also adored her inversion of the Snow White tale by having Zinnia and Eva end up in a universe where Snow White has become the one-dimensional villain of the story, like some Disney aesthetic Lady Bathory.

Another final detail of A Mirror Mended that I really enjoyed were the original silhouette illustrations by Michael Rogers. I forgot to mention that style of illustration that appeared included in A Spindle Splintered. That first novella included doctored illustrations whose originals were done by Arthur Rackham, a fairy tale illustrator often mentioned in that text by Folklore nerd Zinnia. I had no prior familiarity with Rackham, or fairy tales in general. I don’t think I could even explain what the plot to Sleeping Beauty is prior to reading Harrow’s first novella. Though I enjoyed the whimsical alterations to Rackham’s silhouettes, they didn’t quite fit with the text of the novella where they were placed. In A Mirror Mended I liked that a similar vibe could be attained without having to use pre-existing ones inverted and fractured.

Somewhere I noticed mention that this would be end to the Fractured Fables series. I’m not sure if that’s true, or I misunderstood, but I would hope that if Harrow can find new directions to take the idea, or new themes to delve into, that she would. A further fracturing and entanglement of fairy tale metaverses could prove interesting if used symbolically for new relevance. But if not, I will continue to reread and enjoy these two little gems.


A SPINDLE SPLINTERED by Alix E. Harrow

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.


FOR THE WOLF by Hannah Whitten

For the Wolf
(Wilderwood Book 1)
By Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780316592789
— Paperback — 437 pp.


To escape the will of the Kings, they fled into the far reaches of the Wilderwood. They pledged that were the forest to offer them shelter, they would give all they had for as long as their line continued, let it grow within their bones, and offer it succor. This they pledged through blood, willingly given, their sacrifice and bond.
The Wilderwood accepted their bargain, and they stayed within its border, to guard it and hold it fast against the things bound beneath. And every Second Daughter and every Wolf to come after would adhere to the bargain and the call and the Mark.
Upon the tree where they made their pledge, these words appeared, and I have saved the bark on which it is written:
The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.

Thus opens the first volume of Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood series, a modern and atmospheric romantic fantasy that draws from deep folkloric roots of the “Animal as Bridegroom” archetype. As the first royal second daughter in centuries, Redarys (Red) has accepted her sacrifice to the monster within the mystical forest, taking in faith that the stories entwined with her fate are true. In contrast, her elder sister Neverah (Neve) skeptically pleads with Red to resist, and with their mother to stand up against the religious traditions.

Though wary of her uncertain future, Red feels equal fear at the prospects of staying home. She wrestles with her obligations to longtime friend Arick who harbors romantic feelings that she cannot bring herself to reciprocate. Even more, she worries about a mysterious power within her that once boiled to the surface in a dangerous moment that almost left Neve dead. Red remains uncertain of who she is, what she is. And, if the Wilderwild is indeed a part of that puzzle, she is ready to discover what that means. Perhaps she can even succeed where second daughters of the past have apparently failed: in convincing the Wolf to let the imprisoned Five Kings go free.

With Red’s entry into the Wilderwood to meet her destiny the novel steps into a rhythm of sets of chapters that focus on her third-person point-of-view, broken up by interludes from Neve’s. Though Red serves as novel’s protagonist, Whitten makes her sister’s importance clear. I imagine this will bear more fruit with a focus on the first daughter in the sequel For the Throne that is coming out this June.

Once in the cursed forest, Red comes upon a ruined castle and a man within. He is Eammon, the warden, the wolf, son of the original couple that made a pact with the mystical wood. She discovers that the myths she has learned don’t speak the entire truth. And she begins to explore powers within her that might not just keep her and Eammon safe, but also protect the Kingdom and the world beyond safe from the real monsters that are eager to spring forth from their containment. However, forces gather back in the Kingdom in the meantime to take exert control over Neve and block either her or Red from reaching their potentials.

For the Wolf is a novel that’s about two young women discovering not only what they are capable of, but what they want. It’s about learning to make difficult choices, but also embracing the freedom of having the agency to be able to make those choices for oneself. To really be in power, rather than needing another to provide it or permit it. If not already apparent over the course of the novel, Whitten transparently summarizes it within the novel’s climax:

It was time for choices. [Red] could see only one.
“Arick.” Her voice was hoarse.
“At his name, Arick’s eyes closed tighter. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “We were all just trying to save you.”
“Come here.” Tears choked her. “Come here, please.”
A pause, then a lurch as he moved over the darkened ground. Red fought to keep herself steady against her childhood love’s broken stance and the sure knowledge of things vast and terrible stirring beneath her feet.
She reached up when he came close enough to touch, gently laid her fingers on his bloodied face. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No. But I didn’t care what was going to happen, not then.” There was shame in it, just barely. “I only wanted you safe.”
Red’s lips pressed white. All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
“I am safe.” Her hand left his face, fell to her dagger. She tried not to think on it, tried to let her body work without her mind’s direction. “I love Eammon, and he loves me. That’s safe.”
Another roar ripped through the grove. “Do you love he’s become?”
“We’ve both been monsters,” Red whispered. “I’ll love him, whatever he is.”
“You loved me once. You never said it, but you did.” Arick’s dry throat worked a swallow, eyes still pressed shut. “Didn’t you?”
“I did.” It was barely a whisper, this gentle thing that existed beyond truth and lie. Her fingers closed around the dagger hilt. “Not the way you wanted me to. But I did.”
His eyes opened. “Do it quick, then.”

The cover of For the Wolf, along with Red’s name, may lead readers to believe that the novel is a take on “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it really draws more from “The Beauty and the Beast”. Also, I would not characterize it is ‘dark’ fantasy as Jodi Picoult does in her cover blurb. It may not be bright or optimistic, but neither does it lie very close to horror. Brooding romantic fantasy would be a more apt description, and it’s an important consideration.

For the Wolf is well written, with fantastic prose and exceptionally lush visual imagery. The themes are great, and the world building is enticing. But, for my tastes Whitten emphasizes the style and plot to the neglect of fleshing out characters or the potential of that world building. The romance at the heart of the novel is not a sub-genre element I gravitate toward, because it’s a complex bundle of emotions and social patterns that get so often simplified to cliché. This seems particularly true with young love written all angsty and brooding. Eammon fits the mold perfectly, a rough and gruff exterior hiding a puppy dog core. The relationship between Red and Eammon reads very much like the bits I’ve read from YA fantasy formulas. Though Red is well developed, all other characters lack significant attention. I found this particularly unfortunate with secondary characters who give glimpses of interesting histories and personalities.

The magical system of the Wilderwood series, and the reality of its mythology become slowly revealed over the course of the novel, right on up to its close. Paradoxically, information is both repetitive and lacking in that Whitten provides some details multiple times while leaving other matters unanswered or unaddressed. Partially this comes from the character’s own ignorance and confusion on how the Wilderwood and its magical pacts work. But that also easily confounds the reader. I remain uncertain about the limits and possibilities of magic here, of the nature of the Five Kings, or the Shadowlands, or even the forest. I just know that somehow the union of Red and Eammon, and the supporting sisterhood of Red and Neve will somehow keep the world safe from evil.

Thus, there are a lot of individual elements to For the Wolf that make it an interesting novel, they just don’t come together in a way I found really satisfying, or emphasize the complexities and details I find most intriguing.

However, if you like a good romantic fantasy, made up of a tried-and-true formula done well, then this would certainly be a novel that you might love. Whitten’s writing is evocative with a stress on the magical atmosphere of the novel’s sylvan setting. The novel’s central themes are fantastic. I just yearned for something a bit more complex in character interaction and clearer in world-building from that foundation.

I still plan to read the sequel, For the Throne, which I’m scheduled to review in June for Fantasy Book Critic. I can imagine Whitten writing something that was more in my wheelhouse, even within this series, but regardless I know there is an audience for this, even if that’s not me.