Review: SPINDLE, by E. K. Johnston

Fairy tale re-tellings are hit-or-miss for me; I’m seldom so in love with a fairy tale that I have much patience with hearing it again, and it’s rare that the re-telling provides surprises me with a take on the original that I hadn’t already considered.

SPINDLE, which just came out yesterday, is one of the latter — an old story made startlingly new. You can tell from the title that it’s Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose; this fairy tale is so ubiquitous that it has more than one name). I admit I was not particularly optimistic going in, not least because this tale already has some excellent re-tellings: Spindle’s End, by Robin McKinley is probably the gold standard, but I’m also fond of Linda Medley’s The Curse of Brambly Hedge. Johnston was entering a crowded playing-field, and I didn’t see how she was going to distinguish herself.

But she did, and she has, and it’s mythic and moving. Johnston has taken on the problem of female victimhood — a princess cursed to prick her finger and sleep until she is rescued, who has no say in her fate — and turned it on its ear. A victim, after all, is not just a casualty. She can also be a devotion, an offering, the one who chooses and saves the world.

A note to my trans readers:

It has come to my attention that my very first book — Seraphina, the one with all the good reviews and awards — relies on a trans-phobic trope. This is spoilery, but it can’t be helped: the villain is disguised as a person of another gender in order to fool people.

If you’ve read Seraphina and found this trope hurtful, my profound apologies to you. I love and value my trans readers, as I hope the better representation in Shadow Scale makes clear. I really did not understand that this trope could do harm, but a kind friend explained it to me yesterday.

I had assumed that because the character wasn’t actually trans, the trope could not be harmful to trans people. But apparently that’s exactly the problem: this trope erases trans people and reinforces the idea that they aren’t real, that anyone dressed as a member of a “wrong” gender is a villain who’s trying to deceive people. Young people — the people I write for! — need to see themselves depicted in all their multifarious beauty, not be continuously beaten over the head with the same old villainous parodies.

So. Friends. I am so sorry. Sorry I put it in there without examining it more closely, and sorry for pain and anxiety it has probably caused young trans readers. My friend tells me Shadow Scale makes up for it, but still. I had to say something. Writing for young people is a big responsibility and I take it seriously.

I just have to add: I’m looking for a sensitivity reader for my next book and had just been patting myself on the back for how awesomely diligent and empathetic I am, haha. It was probably inevitable that the world would immediately grab me by the lapels and whisper in my ear: Remember, you are mortal. Many thanks to my dear friend, yesterday’s lunch companion, for telling me.

Drowning my sorrows

In death metal! Isn’t that the usual method?

Sorry for the silence. I had some notion I was going to start blogging more regularly in November, and then the US election happened and, well. It was like my usual November funk times ten thousand.

Anyway, to cheer me up, my husband took me out for our annual autumnal ear-splitting metal concert. There’s usually a good one in November. I don’t know what it is about Vancouver’s damp darkness that attracts– haha, just kidding, I know exactly.

Anyway, this year we saw Russian folk-metal legends ARKONA (yay, Masha Scream). They’ve got bagpipes, too, somewhat reminiscent of our Estonian favourites, Metsatöll. Here’s a bit of their pagan metal goodness:

And then there was an Italian group we’d never heard of, Fleshgod Apocalypse, who were hilariously theatrical. They had an actual, operatic soprano dressed like this, with feathered mask and caduceus. They used a bit too much strobe, and I thought the drums (which were the audio equivalent of the strobe) were too loud, but they were still a lot of overblown fun. Here’s one of their songs (with better balance on the drum volume) —

Anyway, I know this kind of music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I left immensely cheered up. It’s nice to be able to outsource your anger sometimes, y’know. I sympathize that much with certain US voters, I suppose. Nobody’s electing Masha Scream to public office, though. Unless…

NB: I am also aware, in an era when xenophobia is beginning to rear its ugly head again around the world, that metal is and has been a genre favoured by white supremacy. We try to screen the bands we listen to, and neither of these groups are on the ADL List of Hate Music Groups. However, I don’t know everything, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if these groups are problematic (aside from volume issues — we know about those). We’re always looking for the machines that kill fascists, not the ones that help them grow.

More music

The other song we’re learning at madrigals is “I Love, Alas, I Love Thee” by Thomas Morley. You may remember him from such other great Renaissance hits as “Now Is the Month of Maying” and “Those Dainty Daffadillies” (just kidding about the second one, which I’ve never heard of myself, but now I want to go looking for it).

Here’s the King’s Singers — my sisters’ teen idols, back in the day — giving it a whirl:

They’re taking it a fourth lower than we are, I understand, but they’ve got some interesting pauses, and it cracks me up the way they say, “Come KEEZ me then.” It’s a pleasanter vowel to sing, I guess, but it’s still kind of silly.

You probably thought I was dead

I wasn’t, very. To be fair, I do tend to get buried in my own head quite easily. I know you’re supposed to perish first and then be buried, but I’ve never held much truck with doing things in the correct order, apparently.

How am I? Why, y’know what? Pretty good, considering that it’s the first of November. November, you may remember, has historically been The Month That Kicks My Butt, and it got a head start this year with an unusually rainy October. Stupid November, you think you’re so devious! I shall prevail, however, as shall we all, my friends.

So here I am, ready to punch November in the face as per usual. I’m afraid I have work to do and can’t do NoNoWriMo (my lazy alternative to NaNoWriMo) this year, but some of the work will be encouragingly pleasant. I’m expecting copy edits for my third book, TESS OF THE ROAD (formerly known as “Tess in Boots,” if you recall me mentioning it before), and I’m getting started on the fourth book, which might be called “Tess of the Sea,” although the odds are still good that that will change.

Music is always something that helps carry me through the deepening dark (Novemberrr! I know all your tricks!). Here’s the first of probably many, this time around: Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” We’re singing an arrangement of this at madrigals (Yes, we know it’s not a madrigal) and at first I thought it was really boring, but then it captivated my heart:

Happy November to you all!

I wake up for a moment

All right, friends, TESS IN BOOTS is finished.

It really ate my brain. I’m sorry I get so completely immersed in fantasy-world problem solving that I don’t have enough extra brains for this space, but alas that’s how it goes.

I did find a small amount of spare imagination in a very dark corner of my head, and was able to write this short story, out today at the Hanging Garden Summer Fling: The New One. Content warning: this is horror,  I’d say, and not my usual genre at all. You can’t tell from the title, I realize.

It’s fun writing stories full of your own childhood — toilet paper dolls, sundresses, ear of corn, family reunions — repurposed for something horrible. OK, toilet paper dolls were horrible to begin with (and they really exist, if you’ve never of encountered one on a dark night, in a great-aunt’s powder room) (she has to be the kind of great aunt who calls it a powder room, see). Anyway, it was fun to write, and really stretched me in a different direction.

And now to sleep for a thousand years…

O Lusty May

Hey, check me out, squeaking in on the last day of May. Yes, darlings, it’s me. Your long-lost friend Rachel.

I’m on the last pass (barring unforeseen disaster) of TESS IN BOOTS, and will be turning it in (assuming the earth isn’t hit by a comet) in early July, so that’s good news. Someday, when I can look back on it and laugh, I will tell you all the myriad ways this book has almost done me in. The good news (I think it’s good news, anyway) is that I didn’t get depressed this time around. The bad news… aw, whatever. No bad news at this time. I got my Hulk on and muscled through and I’m ok, folks.

I titled this entry in honour of departing May, yes, but also because this is the song with which I scared away coyotes not once, but TWICE this month. It’s super useful, in addition to being merry. Here’s The King’s Singers, gettin’ all preluscient* with it:

*Preluscient is a word from the the song, and seems to mean twilight. The light before the light, I guess.

I am also intrigued that one of the dudes just sits there and smirks through the second verse. That isn’t marked in my music, but then, I seem to be missing that verse altogether, so who knows. You can probably find a reference to it in the literature somewhere: “The possibly apocryphal Smirk Verse is sometimes omitted from performances if none of the singers can manage more than a grimace.”

See you in June!