A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow is a portal fantasy novella that’s a loosely inspired adult retelling of Sleeping Beauty that’s also steeped in the dissection of the basic formulaic foundation of other classic fairy tales. It follows a young teenager with a terminal illness that just seeks to experience some sort of magical splendour of her own before her ticker stops.
I randomly ordered this novella one evening after a friend of mine recommended it to me. The words “queer” and “feminist as fuck” were tossed around, so naturally I was inclined to indulge. Fairy tale retellings can be hit or miss for me, so I was actually hesitant on reading it after its delivery. A Spindle Splintered ended up so bloody good that I read the whole entire book in a single sitting. I cannot remember the last time I did that with a book. It’s been years.
Reading about the teen and all of her struggles with being terminally ill—not the actual being sick part but the having to console family and friends around her part—was astonishingly relatable. It reminded me of the time I had to go in for open-heart surgery. I couldn’t allow myself to cry or to feel sorry for myself, or even just have a moment where I can yell and scream because I needed to be strong for everyone else around me, especially my parents. It made it so fucking difficult to just deal and make my peace (in case if things went wayward).
Our protagonist shares these anecdotes with a perfect balance of wit, sarcasm, humour, and honesty. She was so likeable and so endearing in her sincerity of thoughts and feelings that the connection I built with her felt so intimate and special. It helped to keep me positively addicted to her search for fairy tale magnificence.
Her best friend is queer and when the protagonist is… given an opportunity (avoiding spoilers), even that experience is laced with questions on the toxic masculinity that reeks off classic fairy tales all about possession and subjugation of women. It’s empoweringly feminist and refreshing but without being dense, dull, or awkwardly and unnecessarily on the nose about what true feminism is (the intersectional kind). It’s effortless to read about, yet simultaneously splendidly smart and clever.
Other things I thoroughly swooned over include the bittersweet finale and the fact that I binge-read this sucker in a single fucking session. When you have a tale of this calibre with the weight of a dying main character, putting a satisfying ending together can feel so fucking daunting, yet our author gave us one that, while not as “happily ever after” as one would expect from a fairy tale retelling, still fits the bill of the overarching theme, the lessons learned on the strange yet lovely journey, and the main idea that life is constantly an unpredictable hot mess, no matter how much we try to prepare for it. It made me long for more, but it also provided me with a nice sense of comfort to end the story on.
So, when you combine awesome storytelling, with bitching fabulous queer characters, and thoroughly empowered ladies amid a truly candid backdrop of overhanging death and desire, it becomes impossible to stop reading. Due to that almost instant connection formed with the leading lady, I just couldn’t stop once I began. I was afraid if I put the book aside for even a second that she would either die or her story would never continue. I know, it’s silly, but that’s how bleeding invested I became. The magic in the pages had spun its spell on my mind and emotions quite thoroughly. It was fantastic.
Overall, if you are a fan of fairy tales and all the retellings and things, and you haven’t read this yet, you need to ASAP (as soon as possible). It’s fucking brilliant. Evocative, inspiring, magical, spirited, romantic, heartfelt, and positively amazing. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Publication date: October 2021
Publisher: Tordotcom (978-1250765352)
Genre: Portal fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling
Page Count: 128
Content Warnings: Some teen bullying and homophobia. Terminal illness representation and brief ablism. Some strong language and mild sexism/misogyny.
Availability: In-print; Hardcover, eBook, and audiobook formats available.