A Spindle Splintered

by Alix E. Harrow

Cover image

Series: Fractured Fables #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-76536-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 121

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Zinnia Gray lives in rural Ohio and is obsessed with Sleeping Beauty, even though the fairy tale objectively sucks. That has a lot to do with having Generalized Roseville Malady, an always-fatal progressive amyloidosis caused by teratogenic industrial waste. No one with GRM has ever lived to turn twenty-two. A Spindle Splintered opens on Zinnia's twenty-first birthday.

For her birthday, her best (and only) friend Charm (Charmaine Baldwin) throws her a party at the tower. There aren't a lot of towers in Ohio; this one is a guard tower at an abandoned state penitentiary occasionally used by the local teenagers, which is not quite the image one would get from fairy tales. But Charm fills it with roses, guests wearing cheap fairy wings, beer, and even an honest-to-god spinning wheel. At the end of the night, Zinnia decides to prick her finger on the spindle on a whim. Much to both of their surprise, that's enough to trigger some form of magic in Zinnia's otherwise entirely mundane world. She doesn't fall asleep for a thousand years, but she does get dumped into an actual fairy-tale tower near an actual princess, just in time to prevent her from pricking her finger.

This is, as advertised on the tin, a fractured fairy tale, but it's one that barely introduces the Sleeping Beauty story before driving it entirely off the rails. It's also a fractured fairy tale in which the protagonist knows exactly what sort of story she's in, given that she graduated early from high school and has a college degree in folk studies. (Dying girl rule #1: move fast.) And it's one in which the fairy tale universe still has cell reception, if not chargers, which means you can text your best friend sarcastic commentary on your multiversal travels. Also, cell phone pictures of the impossibly beautiful princess.

I should mention up-front that I have not watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (yes, I know, I'm sure it's wonderful, I just don't watch things, basically ever), which is a quite explicit inspiration for this story. I'm therefore not sure how obvious the story would be to people familiar with that movie. Even with my familiarity with the general genre of fractured fairy tales, nothing plot-wise here was all that surprising. What carries this story is the characters and the emotional core, particularly Zinnia's complex and sardonic feelings about dying and the note-perfect friendship between Zinnia and Charm.

"You know it wasn't originally a spinning wheel in the story?" I offer, because alcohol transforms me into a chatty Wikipedia page.

A Spindle Splintered is told from Zinnia's first-person perspective, and Zinnia is great. My favorite thing about Harrow's writing is the fierce and complex emotions of her characters. The overall tone is lighter than The Once and Future Witches or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but Harrow doesn't shy away from showing the reader Zinnia's internal thought process about her illness (and her eye-rolling bemusement at some of the earlier emotional stages she went through).

Dying girl rule #3 is no romance, because my entire life is one long trolley problem and I don't want to put any more bodies on the tracks. (I've spent enough time in therapy to know that this isn't "a healthy attitude towards attachment," but I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.)

There's a content warning for parents here, since Harrow spends some time on the reaction of Zinnia's parents and the complicated dance between hope, despair, smothering, and freedom that she and they had to go through. There were no easy answers and all balances were fragile, but Zinnia always finds her feet. For me, Harrow's character writing is like emotional martial arts: rolling with punches, taking falls, clear-eyed about the setbacks, but always finding a new point of stability to punch back at the world. Zinnia adds just enough teenage irreverence and impatience to blunt the hardest emotional hits. I really enjoy reading it.

The one caution I will make about that part of the story is that the focus is on Zinnia's projected lifespan and not on her illness specifically. Harrow uses it as setup to dig into how she and her parents would react to that knowledge (and I thought those parts were done well), but it's told from the perspective of "what would you do if you knew your date of death," not from the perspective of someone living with a disability. It is to some extent disability as plot device, and like the fairy tale that it's based on, it's deeply invested in the "find a cure" approach to the problem. I'm not disabled and am not the person to ask about how well a story handles disability, but I suspect this one may leave something to be desired.

I thought the opening of this story is great. Zinnia is a great first-person protagonist and the opening few chapters are overflowing with snark and acerbic commentary. Dumping Zinnia into another world but having text messaging still work is genius, and I kind of wish Harrow had made that even more central to the book. The rest of the story was good but not as good, and the ending was somewhat predictable and a bit of a deus ex machina. But the characters carried it throughout, and I will happily read more of this. Recommended, with the caveat about disability and the content warning for parents.

Followed by A Mirror Mended, which I have already pre-ordered.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-12-28

Last modified and spun 2021-12-29