To quote E. K. Johnston’s website
E. K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.
Her books range from contemporary fantasy (The Story of Owen , Prairie Fire ), to fairy-tale re-imaginings (A Thousand Nights , Spindle ), and from small town Ontario (Exit, Pursued By A Bear ), to a galaxy far, far away (Star Wars: Ahsoka ). She has no plans to rein anything in.
2016’s Spindle is a companion novel to E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights .
The spinners of Kharuf fled a demon’s curse, seeking escape in foreign lands that were little interested in helping strangers. Even this was not enough to save all of them; many died of a slow, lingering malady. Yashaa’s dying mother sends Yashaa and his friends on a desperate quest, one that she hopes will allow some of her people to return to their homeland.
Once proudly independent, the small nation of Kharuf has been forced to agree to an arranged marriage between Little Rose and the Crown Prince of Qamih. Yashaa’s mother believes that the Maker King of Qamih, a powerful magician, will be able to lift the curse, which would allow the spinners to return. Yashaa is instructed to humbly beg a boon of the Maker King.
But the Maker Kings are not known for their mercy or kindness. Yashaa has a much better plan: head for Kharuf and deal with Little Rose himself. Yashaa believes that Little Rose is the source of the curse, the reason that Yashaa’s folk have been uprooted. Perhaps she can be forced to lift the curse. Perhaps she can be killed.
But when he climbs the tower in which she has been imprisoned and meets her face to face, he sees that she is just as much a victim of the curse as anyone else.
Others have tried and failed to remove the curse by killing Little Rose. She knows that simply killing her will not end the curse. What, if anything, can end the curse she does not know. But if she can escape from the tower, her flight will at least prevent a marriage to Qamih’s cruel prince Maram. No marriage, no legal pretext for annexing Kharuf.
The Maker Kings did not get where they are by letting their prisoners flee. Maram and his demonic mentor pursue the escapees. Capture may be inevitable. Before she is caught, Little Rose must figure how out how to break the curse. And what the price will be.
I am sometimes wonder if an author whom I think might be local is really truly local. I am certain in this case, because in ancillary material Johnston references not just Waterloo (which could be any number of towns) but the intersection of Westmount and Fisher-Hallman (which seems a combination of street names unlikely to occur elsewhere). She could only be more unabashedly local if her web page or her Waterloo novel contained some pointed commentary about the unfamiliarity of the German settlers of Waterloo region with the standard compass directions1 or perhaps a whimsical observation about the non-Euclidean nature of our roads2.
Johnston’s retold fairy tale is set in a secondary world clearly inspired by the Middle East and Central Asia, but one which has been scrubbed of particulars. Names and geography evoke the region, but the religions practiced are very different. There’s nothing like Islam here. There are folk traditions embodied in myth. There’s no one god with prophets and sacred texts. Nor are there cut-and-dried rules of magic, as there so often are in fantasy tales3. The towering figure who shaped the history of this world wasn’t a prophet, but a Storyteller Queen.
Kharuf’s curse begins, as it does in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, with a birth celebration that goes horribly wrong. Invited guests come bearing magical gifts; an uninvited guest brings a curse. The demon in this story isn’t motivated by personal affront over not getting an invitation. It’s merely that it sees this particular move as a winning play in its long-running game with the long-dead Storyteller Queen. It’s a chance to escape the cage into which it and its kind have been trapped.
The novel is told in the first person by Yashaa. He seems confident he is the protagonist of the story, the one whose bold scheme will succeed when his mother’s plan would have failed. In fact, he’s merely the catalyst to the plot. The true protagonist is the princess trapped in the tower. She needs to learn how to save her kingdom and how to keep the demons safely contained. Little Rose may have been helped out of the tower by Yashaa, but she is not depending on some strange man to save her. It all comes down to seeing what she needs to do and deciding to pay the price. So much for Prince Charming!
I hadn’t heard of Johnston until she was pointed out to me. I will certainly look for more of her work.
1: E.g., Queen Street North and South, which run east and west respectively.
2: King Street and Weber Street, supposedly parallel, intersect somewhere between three and an infinite number of times.
3: The catch being that the rules can be combined in many interesting ways, but the outcomes are inescapable. It’s possible for an adept in magic to find themself manoeuvred into a magical trap by a more adept magician. There may be a way out of the trap, but it will cost. A lot.
I am reminded of chess. Unbreakable rules, but millions of possible games … and many of them end in a checkmate.