Robin McKinley's "Beauty" was one of my favorite retold fairy tales ever. I literally read it six times in the first year.
Spindle's End, however, is a bit harder to place.
The fairy-tale being reconstructed is "Sleeping Beauty" and the same basic plot is followed. The world of the Princess Briar-Rose,however, is marvously embellished.
Katriona, a fairy-in-training, lives with her aunt in a land where magic is wild and requires the daily invention of the local fairies to keep it under control. She is a quiet, unassuming girl who shows no sign of magic other than an ability to talk to animals. Were it not for her aunt's insistance that she is a fairy, Katriona would likely live out the life of an ordinary villager.
But all of this changes when the King and Queen give birth (after many long years of waiting) to a baby daughter. In an impulse of generosity they invite one person from every villiage in the land to the christaining of the princess.
And Katriona is the one picked from her villiage.
From there everything changes. As an evil curse descends upon the young princess, another magic allows Katriona to take the baby away and hide her in the woods. There, the young girl and her aunt raise young Rosie (as they call her) into a fine young lady...
But danger still rests over the land. The curse cannot be broken until Rosie's 21st birthday and until then she lives in fear of her life...or at least, Katriona and her Aunt do. The young princess has no idea of her real identity...
The book has a lot of merits. I enjoy Katriona and her Aunt, as well as Katriona's fiance (and eventual husband.) I also like Narl, the blacksmith, who ends up playing a surprising role in the conclusion. However all of these characters are not given nearly enough "screen" time. The "real" heroine of the book, Rosie, doesn't really appear until halfway through. And so even though Katriona has been the heroine, and ought to stay the heroine, we suddenly make way for a new protagonist...who isn't quite as engaging. A bit too masculine- and thus, for me, hard to relate too. A girl can be stubborn without being a tomboy!
The scenery too, though intriguing at first, becomes rather confusing by the end. The final battle lacks description to make it quite clear- things are half described by never quite explained.
The book's strength is it's first half. A world with wild magic, and interesting customs, and engaging, "real" characters make a solid beginning...but the moment the book switches over to Rosie it looses those strengths...such a disapointment.
Still, the first half makes it worth reading. The second half, though a bit scattered, is interesting, and better than no ending at all.
And magic is always...well...magical. Especially in fairy-tale realms, where it is less problematic than in our world.