A MIRROR MENDED by Alix E Harrow (BUDDY READ BOOK REVIEW)
After buddy reading A Spindle Splintered together, Nils and Beth are back with a buddy read review of the (MUCH ANTICIPATED) sequel, A Mirror Mended.
Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.
Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.
Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?
But for real, how excited were you to return to Zinnia Gray?
Beth: So excited that I feel I might have rushed it a little and I may need a re-read. But seriously, I still think about A Spindle Splintered quite a lot, the way Harrow interweaved the various versions of that story and the different ways she represented it, so I couldn’t wait to find out how she’d put ‘Snow White’ through the same treatment. Safe to say, although it’s not exactly what I was expecting (I mean, the same, basically, but with Snow White instead of Sleeping Beauty), it absolutely did not disappoint. What were you expecting, Nils?
Nils: Like you, Beth, I was expecting much of the same as A Spindle Splintered. I mean, I was properly excited to get back to Zinnia’s princess saving antics and I knew that Harrow would add a feminine twist to Snow White, but I never expected that we’d get to explore the various versions of the ‘evil queen’ rather than Snow White herself. This was a pleasant surprise because it added something fresh to this otherwise well known tale.
Beth: Yes exactly! I thought Snow White would need saving. Instead, the Evil Queen needs saving…
What were the strengths of the story? And which were your favourite parts?
Nils: I always say this about every novel or short story I read by Harrow, but her prose is truly exceptional.
Beth: YES 100%
Nils: There is so much meaning held in every sentence, yet her character’s voice and tone flows so easily, and Zinnia remains her snarky humorous self.
“You have no idea what it’s like to fight for your own right to exist. To know yourself doomed, yet to keep striving—”
I throw a wad of leaves at her.
“Cry me a fucking river, woman. You just found out how your story ends last week. I’ve spent my whole life under a death sentence.”
I really did enjoy the humour this time around, there were certain lines which completely caught me off guard and made me burst out laughing. We had a lot of fun Whatsapping each other certain quotes, didn’t we Beth?!
Beth: Just like we did with Spindle Splintered! The moment just before your quote really made me laugh:
“Tell me, and I swear I’ll stop.”
“Now is not the time for your crude fantasies!”
That’s the best part of buddy reading brilliant books with you though, there’s someone to share the jokes with!
Nils: Yes exactly, and the pain!
Of course, Harrow packs in a ton of emotion too, which became some of my favourite parts, when Eva and Zinnia started to understand and even sympathise with each other. What about you Beth?
Beth: I absolutely loved the dynamacy of that pair and I could happily spend this review delving into it but I don’t want to spoil anything D:
So, in terms of strengths… Harrow makes us look at stories we think we know in different ways. This is definitely a strength of Harrow’s, one that keeps coming back to surprise and delight me in new ways.
Nils: This! Exactly this! Harrow is just always so clever with her narratives.
Beth: A Mirror Mended is an exploration of the narratives that women get trapped in, just as A Spindle Splintered, but this time focusing on the negative narratives, the vain and jealous queen, the old crone clinging to youth and power. Harrow made us stop and consider that maybe these women need rescuing too. There was a moment in particular that really resonated with me (Ffion and Rowan’s mum, Ken’s wife, Adrian’s daughter…):
“You were right, of course,” the queen says, conversationally. “I am the villain, the stepmother, the wicked witch, the evil queen.” Her face is racked with furious grief, lips twisting with something far too dark to be humor. She leans past me, so close I can feel the heat of her cheekbone against mine, the slight stirring of my hair as she whispers, “I don’t have a name.”
Nils: I remember you loving that bit. It was quite a poignant moment.
Beth: It really was. Women being stripped of their voices and agency and even their names and identity is a common issue, so I loved Harrow confronting that so boldly.
My favourite part? Well Harrow does give the fans what they want to a certain extent – there is some Snow-White-narrative jumping like there was in A Spindle Splintered, and we get to see various versions of the story and their reactions to it, and I loved the sheer fairy-tale-geek cinematic feel of it all. And this bit, I loved this bit:
“Zinnia! Tell these ruffians to unhand me!”
I shout back without turning, “Tie her up tight, boys, she’s super dangerous.”
What did you find was unexpected this time around?
Nils: As I mentioned, I didn’t expect the story to centre around queen Eva and not Snow White, but this was a pleasant surprise.
Beth: Agreed, I wasn’t expecting the evil queen to be the focus this time, but I loved it. I also wasn’t expecting to find myself upset with Zinnia. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, so I’m really not sure how to phrase this… Zinnia was actually hampering something and I was staggered by the selfishness of that. Suffice to say Zinnia’s actions were unexpected!
Nils: I also don’t want to spoil too much, but I wasn’t expecting the bleeding of different fairy tales into the Snow White universe. It was a great narrative point as it added a further cause for Zinnia to protect the multiverse and for her to consider the bigger picture rather than just her own fate, but it came unexpectedly, to both Zinnia and us.
Beth: That’s a brilliant point Nils, before going into this I did wonder how we were going to cross from Sleeping Beauty to Snow White. The idea of fairy tales turning up in real life and crossing narrative borders was actually a little scary. It reminded me a tiny bit of Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, with the wolf confused and upset about why he can suddenly walk upright and talk…
What kind of themes did you particularly enjoy?
Nils: I think we both enjoyed the theme of character agency, didn’t we Beth?
Nils: I think that was the point where we messaged each other discussing how thought-provoking that concept was because no matter which version of Snow White you read, the queen is always reserved to being an archetype. She’s constantly the female figure in the background used only as a point of conflict.
Beth: Absolutely. She isn’t really given the agency to be anything else, is she? She’s written into a corner from which she has extremely limited choices. There were some beautifully poignant moments concerning this.
Nils: That’s exactly it, she has no choices.
Beth: I felt another big theme in the story was this idea of trying to run away from or escape your narrative, your story, and how detrimental that can be. We had Zinnia on the one hand insisting Eva couldn’t just keep escaping her own story, whilst blatantly ignoring the fact that that was exactly what she was doing with her own. I thought Harrow employed some really powerful imagery here with the iron shoes haunting Eva.
Nils: Oh yes! I hadn’t thought of the symbolism of the iron shoes!
I also really liked this theme and thought it was fitting as A Spindle Splintered was very much a book about changing your story into a better one, and so it was great that A Mirror Mended was that you can’t always escape your story, sometimes you need to face it.
Beth: Omg Nils. Yes. Face it…. Like in a mirror!
Although this is the final instalment in the Fractured Fables duology, if Harrow ever decided to write more in the future which fairy tale would you love to see her retell and why?
(Beth: Is it definitely the final one?? Nils: As far as I know!!)
Beth: I love this question so much Nils! I guess the two outstanding biggies would be Cinderella and Beauty (and the Beast) right? But personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for Red Riding Hood. I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber for As Level English, and loved ‘The Werewolf’.It prompted me to later use my dissertation course in my degree to explore various versions of the story, so naturally I would love to hear Harrow’s take on it!
Nils: That’s a great choice Beth, I would love to see Harrow put her feminist twist on Red Riding Hood. I’d also like the same treatment to be done to Beauty and the Beast, I’ve read quite a few retellings of this one and haven’t quite been satisfied with them.
Beth: Why not? What kind of thing would you prefer to see?
Nils: In most of the retellings of Beauty and the Beast I’ve read, “beast” has always dominated over Belle, he’s always been portrayed as this dark and mysterious captor, and often been kind of rapey. I want to see him done differently, and I want to see a more equal dynamic between him and Belle. Or maybe even have Belle be the captor! What do you think Beth?
Beth: I think you make a really valid point there Nils – I wouldn’t really know where to begin tackling that particular fairy tale and putting a better (butter?!) spin on it. Belle capturing the Beast in some form of metaphorical sense might be an interesting angle! Certainly better than some of the other retellings out there. It’s pretty difficult to see past the whole trapped and captured aspect!
Nils: Exactly, and we both know Harrow is a genius. If any author can do this tale right, it’s her!
This is Alix E Harrow, so naturally you have favourite quotes. What were they?
Nils: I found these two quotes so beautifully written…
“There’s a rightness to the shape they make against the light, two silhouettes repeated in a thousand variations of a thousand stories: the old woman welcoming the weary traveller, the witch inviting the child inside, the fairy godmother sheltering the maiden.”
“The shape of them—this family trapped in this god-awful horror movie of a world, surrounded on all sides by bad endings, still clinging stubbornly to one another—makes my heart twinge, so I look away.”
Beth: Excellent choices Nils!
I absolutely loved this picking apart of the concept of the happily ever after:
“I used to love them, but lately they just feel saccharine, tedious. Like an act of collective denial, because everybody knows that happily is never really ever after. The truth is buried in the phrase itself, if you look it up. The original version was “happy in the ever after,” which meant something like “her, everybody dies and goes to heaven in the end, so does it really matter what miseries and disasters befall us on this mortal plane?” Cut out two little words, cover the gap with an -ly, and voila: “The inevitability of death is replaced by the promise of endless, rosy life.”