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Newbery medal-winning author Robin McKinley is well-known for her novel-length adaptations of fairy tales, such as Deerskin, Beauty, and Rose Daughter. This wonderful fantasy book is her version of “The Sleeping Beauty.”
It takes place in a certain country where magic settles out of the air like dust, and where some people–fairies and magicians–make a living controlling the rambunctious magic that permeates everything. In that country, a king and queen invite 21 fairies to be godparents to their long-hoped-for infant daughter. But on the child’s nameday, a wicked fairy named Pernicia turns up uninvited and puts a curse on the child. On or perhaps before her 21st birthday, goes the curse, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle’s end and fall into a sleep from which there will be no waking.
Katriona, a 15-year-old apprentice fairy from the small village of Foggy Bottom in the backward corner of the land known as the Gig, having been selected by lottery to attend the princess’ name-day, witnesses this dreadful curse…and impulsively intervenes. Before she quite knows what she has gotten herself into, Katriona is fleeing from the capital city with a stolen, infant princess in her arms, using her ability to talk to the animals to provide the child with milk. Then, aided by her Aunt, she raises Rosie herself.
The princess grows up to be a headstrong, active young woman, whose gift of talking to animals surpasses that of any fairy, and whose greatest success is to befriend the tightlipped village smith, Narl. While soldiers, wizards, and rumors circulate throughout the country trying to save the princess from a curse that is still in search of her, an unconcerned Rosie grows up to be a horse-leech, a whittler of the knobby, ornamental, wooden kind of spindle-ends that have become fashionable since that dreadful name-day, and best friend to a lovely wainwright’s niece named Peony. She hasn’t the slightest idea of who she is or what her destiny may be.
But the long-lost princess’ one-and-twentieth birthday draws nearer, and as it does so, menacing signs multiply. Finally a mysterious messenger, reciting a cradle-rhyme as a secret password, comes to unmask Rosie to herself and to the world, and to prepare her for a final gambit, a final showdown against the brooding evil of Pernicia. The climax of the story is a tour de force of fairy-tale fantasy, with an ancient manor-house that thinks vast thoughts, and a bunch of animals that cooperate together to help their princess, and bizarre creatures of evil, and a dread poisoned sleep, and a living barrier of briar-roses, and more.
This is a book in which the fantasy is fantastic, the horror is horrible, the romance is romantic, and the magic is magical. The animals are compelling characters, a host of fairy-tale clichés are transformed and renewed, a scintillating new magical world is convincingly created, and a truly awesome young heroine dominates the scene. And best of all, it is told with whimsy, wit, and warmth–it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I can think of but a few books whose first and last pages were as close to perfection as this book’s. And here’s a passage that I just can’t help quoting to you:
Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic–which was what all magic was–it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on your knee and purr. Magic never sat on anyone’s knee and purred.