A double review today, for a pair of novellas that are so good, I’m almost angry I didn’t write them…
Books: A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended by Alix E Harrow
Publication dates: 5th October 2021 and 14th June 2022
Ownership: I bought my own hardback copy of A Spindle Splintered; e-ARC of A Mirror Mended sent free of charge via NetGalley. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Prominent themes of death and terminal illness; medical trauma; minor violence and injury; mentions of cannibalism; brief mentions of suicide; societal misogyny and homophobia (though overall very queer-positive).
It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.
Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.
Although I want to discuss the two books together, because I think they make a perfect set, I’ve only provided the blurb for A Spindle Splintered above, because the blurb for A Mirror Mended is minorly spoilery. I will do my best not to give anything too spoilery away, but as always, it’s really difficult to talk about series without at least mentioning who survives book one, so if you want to go into this completely unspoiled, perhaps come back to this review later…
So after a slightly wobbly experience with The Once and Future Witches (wonderful book; slightly scarring – check out my review here if you missed it) I was a little nervous of starting A Spindle Splintered, but I really didn’t need to be. I was completely hooked from the opening pages, mostly thanks to Zinnia’s fantastic narrative voice, which is modern without being overly try-hard, and instantly compelling thanks to her arch wit. The story itself is relatively simple – Zinnia pricks her finger and finds herself transported to a fairy tale world – but it’s so very entertainingly told, with dry humour and so much cleverness that it barely even feels like reading. Zinnia as a whole feels so fiercely real and likeable – it’s not quite a situation like A Deadly Education where she sounded like my own thoughts, but it was close, and I certainly found her an extremely natural character to identify with. I could say I wished these books were longer, but I think that would be doing them a disservice, because they feel like they’re exactly the length they need to be – just perfectly formed stories that take the exact amount of time they need.
I really loved the world(s) Harrow has built here. There’s a rather meta element to the concept of the parallel worlds where different versions of fairy tales play out (and the meta comes to the fore even more so in A Mirror Mended) but while that could be annoying and pompous, it’s done in such a down-to-earth way, full of Marvel references and jokes about narrative structure, that I found it very enjoyable. You can text between dimensions, for goodness sake! What I truly, truly loved about these books, though, is that fairy tale knowledge (both in terms of the content of fairy tales and in terms of scholarship and reception of them) is tossed around as if it’s a perfectly normal part of conversation, which was incredibly validating for me, a lifelong fairy tale nerd and scholar – if you, like me, are someone who knows the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index back to front, and gets frustrated when people can’t hear the word ‘fairy tale’ without thinking ‘Disney’, then I urge you to read this book. It’s like having the most fulfilling conversation with a like-minded friend.
There are, as with all of Harrow’s work, strong themes of feminism and letting yourself be who you’re meant to be, not who other people tell you that you are. In Zinnia’s case, this comes with a large helping of medical trauma and thoughts about her terminal illness, so I do advise reading with care if these are sensitive subjects for you; Zinnia often treats them flippantly, but you can tell there’s a very serious undercurrent underneath. I didn’t find it disturbing, but I can see how people might. But it isn’t all doom and gloom, at all – these are mostly upbeat books. There’s a small amount of romance (again, more in the second book) which feels seamlessly woven in with this; I adored how it panned out and I am massively, enormously here for “at least three-quarters straight” Zinnia just being fearlessly confident about her sexuality however things pan out. More bi characters who don’t need to have exactly equal attraction shown to be valid!
These are Tordotcom novellas, and as such they’re ridiculously expensive for the page count, but even though I had an e-ARC of A Mirror Mended, I’m absolutely going to be shelling out for the hard copy, and I do think that for me, at least, they’re totally worth it. I can already feel them becoming favourites and comfort reads. And that’s not even to mention how pretty they are – the hardback of A Spindle Splintered is chock-full of doctored Rackham art that adds a wonderful touch (I assume the second book will be too, but the e-ARC was plain text).
Listen, the only thing I didn’t like about these books is that I didn’t write them first. Ten out of five cats!