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A Mirror Mended coverA Mirror Mended is Alix E. Harrow’s second novella featuring Zinnia Gray, a folklore student from present-day rural Ohio who discovers an ability to travel between the numerous dimensions in which princesses from different versions of the same fairy tale are calling for her help. She subsequently dedicates herself to helping them escape the patriarchal forces that constrain them in those classic versions of the tales we know. The first novella in Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, A Spindle Splintered, introduced Zinnia through her efforts to repair the story of Sleeping Beauty, on behalf of a princess she meets on the other side of a portal opened after she touches an enchanted spindle on her twenty-first birthday. The corresponding object in A Mirror Mended gives heavy hints to any reader familiar with Western fairy tale traditions that this time Zinnia will be confronting the story of Snow White—though in fact it is the figure of the misunderstood evil queen that will turn out to be in most need of repair.

Zinnia’s affinity with the tale of Sleeping Beauty in Spindle came from her own experience growing up with a life-limiting illness. Zinnia’s is a fictional genetic condition which she and forty-six other childen live with, after they were exposed in utero to contaminated tap water in their area of late-1990s Ohio. Nobody has ever survived the condition past the age of twenty-one. Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Sleeping Beauty in a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, given to Zinnia when she was six years old, fired the young Zinnia’s imagination by letting her see something mythic and beautiful in her own “curse”: after all, the one pronounced over Briar Rose at birth came true, but in the book’s final illustrations her eyes are open and she is still alive. (Illustrations referencing Rackham’s—described as “unavoidably harmed, fractured, and splintered during the design process” in the front matter of Spindle—grace the print editions of both that first novella and Mirror.)

By the beginning of Spindle, Zinnia has since her childhood read and watched every version of Sleeping Beauty she can find, collected every item of Sleeping Beauty merchandise she can afford, and graduated high school early to enrol in an accelerated folklore and anthropology degree at her state university, specialising in representations of disability and chronic illness in European fairy tales. Through Zinnia’s chatty and snarky first-person voice, Harrow is able to integrate observations from critical folklore studies into her storytelling from the very beginning of Spindle. Zinnia complains about Sleeping Beauty having the most passive and chauvinistic story of all: the princess in the Disney version, for instance, is only given the minuscule number of eighteen lines to speak, “fewer than the prince, the villain, or any of the individual fairy godmothers.” Harrow’s text expects its readers will feel just as aggrieved. In all this, Zinnia echoes the arguments of the eminent folklorist Maria Tatar, whose work she would undoubtedly have read while studying with her overworked sapphic professor, Dr Bastille: Tatar begins her 2014 article “Show and Tell: Sleeping Beauty as Verbal Icon and Seductive Story,” for instance, by observing that “[f]eminists have targeted Sleeping Beauty as the most passive and repellent fairy-tale heroine of all, and many have done their best to make the story go away.”

With both Zinnia and the expected reader so familiar with the tropes of Sleeping Beauty—and how to subvert them—that it would be difficult to wring enough narrative tension from them for a second book, A Mirror Mended throws the action into a different shape of story altogether by basing itself on the tropes of, and feminist problems with, Snow White. Indeed, this second novella in what may or may not be a longer series opens up space to tell a further story by fundamentally changing the parameters of how Zinnia relates to her travel between dimension—and to the life she leads in her home world.

The Zinnia of Spindle was only just learning how to survive in a traditional European fairy-tale setting, with no other assistance than the messages she can still receive on her smartphone from her best friend Charm—never mind working out how to go home. The Zinnia of Mirror, on the other hand, is so practised at hopping into new versions of the story, be they set in space or castles or caves, that she now skips the balls, weddings, and receptions which celebrate every princess’s happy end. Indeed, the happy end for Primrose, a Beauty with a key role in Spindle, was to come through to Zinnia’s world and fall in love with Charm. Now Prim and Charm have married and moved to a Midwestern city; Perrault and Disney might never have pictured “Sleeping Beauty marrying a hot butch with an undercut and a Superman tattoo,” Zinnia remarks at one point, but the Fractured Fables are written for readers who very much can. Zinnia has moved with them to work as a substitute teacher, but she also continues to liberate Beauties across the multiverse, and sell “the world’s most convincing medieval fashion and ephemera” at Renaissance faires.

In the starkest difference to Spindle, Mirror’s Zinnia is five years older, and no longer living with the knowledge that she is imminently doomed to die. The rules of interdimensional physics in this storyworld allowed her first “curse” to be lifted with a princess’s kiss in another dimension. It is metaphysical lore that gives those kisses such power, and the terminal organ damage she has lived with all her life has been reversed, though the underlying vulnerability in her genetic code is still there to manifest again some day. [1]

Ever since touching that enchanted spindle, Zinnia has also been able to travel between dimensions via the power of “narrative resonance,” gained through her equivalence with the Sleeping Beauty myth. Mirror finds Zinnia inside a loosely-adapted, telenovela-style variant of Sleeping Beauty where the “princess” Rosa has seen her bridegroom struck down by a sleeping curse caused by a poisoned apple. Having facilitated their restorative kiss, fended off the wiles of Rosa’s wicked aunt, and enjoyed a passionate night with a handsome groomsman, Zinnia is preparing to travel to her next dimension via the hotel bathroom when another woman’s face, black-haired and red-lipped, appears in the bathroom mirror and pulls her further across the multiverse than she has ever travelled before.

Transported to a room in the red-lipped woman’s tower, Zinnia’s knowledge of fairy tale puts her through the same moves the reader is likely to make in working out where she must be: once we spot a glossy red apple and a mirror, and realise the woman who has summoned her is not a princess but a queen, we too could comfortably “bet [our] left lung there are seven dwarves living deep in the woods.” Like Zinnia, we understand she has fallen into the clutches of the antagonist not the heroine, and we also know that neither the rules of travel nor the beats of narrative that have structured Zinnia’s storyworld ever since Spindle apply any more. Somehow this queen has obtained a copy of Zinnia’s own favourite childhood book, the Rackham edition of Grimm, and wants Zinnia to help her cross over into an alternate dimension of her tale so that she can escape the brutal fate the Grimms foretold for her—being forced to dance to her death in a pair of red-hot iron shoes.

In basing this second novella around Snow White, Harrow is engaging with a tale that has already gone through much more reclamation and retelling than Sleeping Beauty, which might well have seemed the most unrecoverable fairy tale of all. Zinnia’s education as a critical folklorist again allows her a voice to remind the reader of how contemporary creators and academics have interpreted and transformed the focal tale. Even as Zinnia’s gaze is playing over the queen’s alluringly feline movements and strikingly sharp collarbone, she is remembering “that fucked-up Gaiman short story where Snow White is a vampire” (presumably his horror retelling “Snow, Glass, Apples,” told from the stepmother’s point of view), then, “even more unhelpfully […] an undergraduate lecture about the inherent homoeroticism of Western vampire literature.” Perhaps inevitably after such an aside, in this new set of dimensions where the old set’s narrative rules have been broken, the protagonist who was romancing the princess in the first volume of her story ends up finding herself falling for the villainous queen.

Explaining the queen’s envy of Snow White through the power structure of the royal court, and pointing out that the classic tales never even humanise her enough to note her name (Zinnia dubs her Eva), Mirror joins the many contemporary retellings that make the older female antagonist a figure of tragic sympathy. Harrow has been concerned with this trope since Spindle, in which a character reputed to be Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy turns out to be an older version of another Beauty variant, Zellandine (whose tale, Zinnia reminds us, makes explicit the sexual violence that later versions have sanitised away). Zellandine makes her own cameo in Mirror—but in the dwarves’ woodland hut, which Zinnia describes for us as “cottagecore with a witchy edge.” The hut can canonically materialise throughout the Sleeping Beauty worlds, but is now encountering traces of tales it should never be able to interface with. Zellandine tells Zinnia that, one morning not long ago, she woke up to find the roof made of gingerbread and the window panes made of boiled sugar—a hint that somewhere in the multiverse exist dimension-strands reflecting Hansel and Gretel, and quite possibly every other fairy tale. Similarly, other echoes of folklore have started to manifest in Zinnia’s home world by the time the novella ends: a pie is full of blackbirds, and dancing shoes turn to glass … and Zinnia and Eva find themselves responsible for a runaway shepherd-girl called Red.

Together, the novel’s heroines discover that their travels have led them into a setting of a tale “darker and wilder and much older” than the Grimms’, in which a truly wicked queen sends out her huntsmen to capture children who are never seen again. The story’s second half develops in some dialogue with Gaiman’s reinterpretation of Snow White, though it proves both less explicit or graphic. Dialling back Eva’s own villainy, this section of the story allows her to express a desire to break out of her predestined character arc altogether, and even motivates her into heroic behaviour. Zinnia starts acting on her attraction to Eva only once the queen has shown this growth, and their consensual desire contrasts with a much earlier moment when Eva has threatened Zinnia with torture and Zinnia tries to protect herself with an “undeniably weak … nonconsensual” kiss (as a failed attempt to activate a Sleeping Beauty trope escape Zinnia’s world). What Eva goes on to learn from Zinnia about the idea of “agency” in feminist fairy-tale critique even equips her to strike one of the decisive blows against this new setting’s other predatory, irredeemable queen.

As in Spindle, then, Zinnia’s narrative role in Mirror is by no means that of a solo saviour. To change the worlds she visits, she relies on the skills of the heroines (and sometimes anti-heroines) she meets, and it is her ability to see past how patriarchal folklore has framed them as passive beauties or cackling villains that raises their own awareness so they can change their lives: the most politically significant act in Mirror, a revolution led by Red against the wicked-queen Snow White, even happens off-page.

Readers of Harrow’s novels, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019) and the historical fantasy The Once and Future Witches (2020, set during the US campaign for women’s suffrage in 1893), will already know Harrow shares Zinnia’s views on the gender politics of magical narratives. Her Hugo-winning short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: a Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” (2018) set out her stall in a feminist, socially conscious metacommentary on the genre that Ten Thousand Doors and Fractured Fables both exemplify. If the “splintered” spindle of the first story showed Harrow breaking down the fairy-tale genre to demonstrate how many variant stories swirl around the storybooks and Disney plots that readers collectively know best, this novel’s “mended” mirror points to the next step in her mission, illustrating how they can be repaired.

Zinnia’s learned critical analysis is woven lightly but integrally into her voice: one moment she may be remarking about what the name “Snow White” suggests about racialised beauty standards in Western fairy tales, and at another moment she may be satirising the Eurocentrism of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktale types. The novella’s end resolves the arc within its pages; but the novella is ambiguous as to whether it is really possible to completely reclaim what Zinnia describes at one point as ”these faux-medieval worlds and their shitty gender politics, all the pretty stories we tell about ugly worlds.” Through layers of metatext, Harrow speaks through Zinnia to the feelings her most likely readers probably have towards these tropes, and the critical and intertextual understandings that some readers already have and others may learn afresh.

Beneath Zinnia’s sarcastic, knowledgeable voice, A Mirror Mended—just like Spindle—keeps up a serious critical engagement with the tropes of Western fairy tale, and puts its characters through exacting arcs while keeping to novella length. With more complexity in fleshing out the different worlds’ settings, or a wider range of characters with their own folkloric subplots to fulfil, each book could have been a novel on its own. As novellas, both tell Zinnia’s story—and convey just enough of the critical framework she applies to these tales which have shaped her—to suggest that there would be much for her to fix in the worlds’ other tales, too.

Endnotes

[1] Here, Harrow has had to negotiate a fine line between finding a way to allow Zinnia to have new adventures and avoiding the ableist trope of the “magical cure.” She does so with the aid of expert consultant Ace Tilton Ratcliff, whom Harrow thanks for their advice in the acknowledgements of Spindle: Zinnia is still living with her condition, it still leaves her with symptoms to manage, and it remains part of her identity; but the impairment has eased sufficiently for her to be able to contemplate a future she was never able to imagine when her story began. [return]



Catherine Baker was born in London and lives in Hull, UK. She writes, in various combinations, about books, pop culture, history, feminism, queerness, mythology, and magic. She tweets at @richmondbridge and blogs at http://littlequeerideograms.wordpress.com.
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