This book is the second in a ”Fractured Fables” series by the author. The first, A Spindle Splintered, was a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” that not only takes us through a door [one of Harrow’s favorite tropes] into the multiverse, but switches the story around to be a feminist manifesto with a lesbian slant.
Zinnia Gray knew she was cursed to die on account of environmental pollution by a local corporation. No one who sustained genetic damage had survived past age 22. Thus she identified with the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” Starting in childhood when she insisted on “Sleeping Beauty” character bed sheets, to being a college student majoring in Folk Studies and Anthropology at Ohio University, she made the story the theme of her life. On her 22nd birthday, however, she found a way to avoid what seemed like her inevitable death.
In this sequel, protagonist Zinnia Gray is now 26. In the five years since the previous novel ended, she has continuously moved among universes in an attempt to escape her fate. She has been “diving through every iteration of Sleeping Beauty, chasing the echoes of my own shitty narrative through time and space and making it a little less shitty, like a cross between Doctor Who and a good editor.” She now considers herself not only to be “Zinnia Gray the Dying Girl,” but “Zinnia Gray the Dimension-Hopping, Damsel-Saving Badass.”
She explains that to understand, one should “picture the multiverse as an endless book with endless pages, where each page is a different reality.”
So far, she has met 49 varieties of Sleeping Beauty. Now, however, she suddenly gets pulled into the story of “Snow White.” Zinnia was summoned by the Evil Queen using her magic mirror, because the queen, like Zinnia, also wants to escape her foretold destiny. As she pleads with Zinnia, “Tell me how to get out of this damned story.” She has never even been given a name – she is always just “the villain, the stepmother, the wicked witch, the evil queen.” Zinnia starts calling her Eva, short for “evil queen.”
They start jumping through “Snow White” stories together, and in one, it is Snow White who is evil. Zinnia says: “A confession: I was totally expecting her to be ugly. Which is pretty fucked up of me, but in my defense, Western folklore persistently and falsely equates a character’s physical appearance with their inner morality . . . ”
As Zinnia learns Eva’s story, she gets another lesson. Eva is the way she is for a good reason. Her backstory and her fate are tied into her perceived “failure” as a female. It is a more nuanced situation than the fairytales – recorded by men – ever suggested. Zinnia muses, “Oh, Jesus. I’m suddenly sick of these faux-medieval worlds and their shitty gender politics, all the pretty stories we tell about ugly worlds. A terrible sympathy [for Eva] crawls up my throat and lodges there, just behind my tongue.”
It also seems that Zinnia might be falling for Eva.
Eva confesses to Zinnia: “All I wanted was power. . . . I know how I must sound, what you must think of me, but I only mean power over myself. Power to make my own choices, and arrive at my own ends.”
Zinnia tells her, “It’s called agency. . . It’s like, the power you exert over your own narrative.” She adds: “So, the universe is like a book, right? And each world is like a page. And if you tell the same story enough times, you can bleed through to another page.”
Eva then asks a question that prompts an epiphany in Zinnia: “You mean – I must write down my own story?”
Zinnia comes to realize she has been trying to outrun her own ending, but maybe, just maybe, she can write a different one.
Evaluation: Although this book grew on me as I continued to read, I didn’t find it as satisfying as the first book. Zinnia seemed to be running out of steam, and I got the same impression about the author. Nevertheless, Harrow never fails to be thought-provoking, offering fresh, enlightened perspectives on a number of subjects.
Published by Tordotcom, 2022