The author of Stitching Snow, (Snow White in space with cobbled-together droids as the dwarves, a deeply underrated favorite of mine) returns with an inventive science fiction fairy tale retelling in Spinning Starlight, an alien-rich, portal-traveling take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.”
Though the tale lacks the conviction and focus of Stitching Snow, R. C. Lewis still has a truly promising eye for the weirder staples of sci-fi and where they fit. For various reasons, teen sci-fi tends to play it pretty safe: for a long stint in the early 2010s, the niche was taken up by fairly grounded dystopians in step with The Hunger Games, and later in the decade, when space adventures saw a small boom, things were similarly tame––aliens were limited, concepts for worlds and technology didn’t stray too far from the expected, and weirdness was rather solidly contained.
This, like every ebb and flow in publishing, produced some wonderful books, but I found myself longing for the truly zany, something like what you’d find in the vast, chaotic, oddball universe of Star Wars, with a comfortably familiar hero’s journey framework set against the strangest of supporting characters and set pieces.
Spinning Starlight, for all its faults, is at least that: where we start isn’t all that strange, but the later setting boasts a galactic milieu, with quirks in worldbuilding that veer towards the abstract and a space-opera sensibility that shines through even when we’re standing still.
The fun Lewis has in crafting the world of Spinning Starlight is the book’s greatest asset––besides, of course, the clever integration of the fairy tale. (With just a few tragic missteps, alas!)
For a popular story like Cinderella or Snow White, the twists and subversions are there to enrich every reading experience, but here, the reflection doesn’t come into full relief until you get your hands on the source material. Where “The Wild Swans” features a princess who must free her brothers from a curse (and can’t speak in the meantime, at pains of putting them in danger), Spinning Starlight swaps the princess for a tech heiress in Liddi Jantzen, and in place of a curse, traps her brothers in limbo between dimensions with a malfunction in the conduits, a system of efficient interplanetary travel.
What’s really of note, though, is how the elements in the middle of the fairy tale, not integral to its setup nor strictly necessary for its resolution, find their place here in turn. In “The Wild Swans,” the princess finds herself in a soaring mythical kingdom, bound by a not-entirely-honest relationship to its king, and the shifting trust between them makes a fascinating appearance in the middle of Spinning Starlight, with an ethical and spiritual dilemma that heightens the tension between Liddi and an intriguing supporting player. Instead of a crown, Lewis gives him a position of power on different terms, forcing him to grapple with the accompanying responsibilities in a way that both comments on and enriches the third-act threat in the original fairy tale.
Sadly, though, some weaknesses are carried over in the retelling as well: Liddi’s brothers, though they all have names in this version and there are eight instead of twelve, blend together in their limited page time into a dull character soup. There are some attempts made, in interludes of flashback, to give us glimpses of the specific brothers and reinforce the bond Liddi’s supposed to feel with her family, but they’re clumsy, brief, and jarringly different in style from the rest of the prose. I didn’t skip any on my way through the book, but they felt utterly skippable.
Lewis’ take on the Evil Queen, a character who is only mentioned and never shown in “The Wild Swans,” is mercifully sparse, but her flatness and lack of life is so potent that it sucks almost all the vigor out of Act III. Not entirely surprising, as villains tend to be the Achilles’ heel of these sorts of things (Queen Levana of The Lunar Chronicles comes to mind), but Lewis’ noble effort to make the distant conflict in the fairy tale an immediate conflict in the retelling results in a deafening irony: had Spinning Starlight followed its inspiration and pushed the Evil Queen to the background instead of bringing her to the fore at the opening and end, it would’ve benefited by what is ostensibly a structural weakness.
In contrast, “The Wild Swans” does something unconventional yet deeply satisfying with its ending. Where most fairy tales in its stride come full circle and confront the bringer of the original curse, “The Wild Swans” is more interested in the heroine’s place in her new world than a triumph and return to order in the old one.
The princess’ story hinges not on her defeat of the queen who put her brothers under the curse, but on the trust of the new kingdom where she makes a life in the middle of the story. Her greatest danger lies in the fact that her subjects will turn on her if she doesn’t dispel the false charges brought upon her by a misunderstanding––the belonging she risks losing in this is Andersen’s chief concern as a storyteller.
Spinning Starlight bucks this opportunity, likely for the very good reason that readers would find it frustrating to watch a main character fight for the respect of her love interest’s home above that of her own, but Lewis’ vision of that world far outshines the one we start with, and things dry up as soon as we step back through the portal to face the Evil Queen.
Much of the tale, of course, is skillfully adapted, but that one omission comes at a steep price: Spinning Starlight, for all its imagination, fumbles the ending. And if you know fairy tales, you know that that’s fatal.