“Spinning Starlight” an Imaginative, if Inconsistent, Sci-Fi

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.

Marissa Meyer’s “Heartless” Is Fun, But It Ultimately Misses the Mark.

For Marissa Meyer’s Queen of Hearts origin story, Wicked, the Gregory Maguire novel-turned wildly popular musical, is an obvious influence. What if the Queen of Hearts was once a teenage girl who wanted nothing to do with the crown, Meyer’s tale asks, with the catchy edge of an “I want” song looming around the corner. Catherine, a Marquess’ daughter looking down the barrel of an unwelcome marriage proposal, wants a bakery. And a love interest her parents most definitely wouldn’t approve of. And we’re off!

Meyer, ever the fairy tale enthusiast (she’s best known for her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder), has a ball reworking the absurdity in the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a framework more befitting a modern fantasy novel. She keeps the oddities and lets them run wild, but tempers them with a foundation of quest-friendly magical logic underneath. Wonderland still has much to offer those who take it just seriously enough: though Meyer’s take isn’t quite as morbid as the one in the 2010 Tim Burton film (which I seem to be citing often these days), it takes after it in the delicate balance of strangeness and tragedy. By knowing exactly when to play things straight, Heartless can frolic with the tea partiers one moment and reel from a wrenching loss the next––and rarely find itself missing the mark in tone.

Its greatest virtue is in falling back on sincerity, a lesson well-learned in the way Cinder and its sequels burst with wide-eyed joy, and put to good use here. Whatever the consequences (the book is a bit unkind to a few side characters, for instance), Heartless follows its heroine with tireless conviction, grieving when Catherine grieves and judging where she judges, even if it’s overblown; even if the reader can see right through it.

Some care might have been taken, though, in the way Meyer depicts the King of Hearts, Catherine’s unwanted suitor. He’s extremely short in stature in almost all his appearances in modern retellings, shown as squat and a little over half Catherine’s size in Heartless. Going this route isn’t a mistake in itself, but the book wades into messy territory in emphasizing this when it wants to convince us how unattractive he is. In the same way making Queen Levana’s disfigurement a factor in her villainy is a mistake in Cinder, using the King of Hearts’ stature like this is a mistake here. If Meyer planned to go this route in crafting him, she would’ve done well to avoid showing Catherine being openly repulsed at something a reader could reasonably recognize as a real-life disability.

As far as suitors go, Meyer makes a solid but not illuminating mark with the King’s foil, Jest, a court joker who’s more than meets the eye. When he’s not angst-ing over the impossibility of sharing a life with Catherine, he’s interesting enough to watch to keep the pages turning, but underneath, there’s a real dearth of substance. The love story in Heartless, in a searingly tragic turn of events, in other words, hits the same walls that Wicked‘s does––you know: the one between Elphaba and what’s-his-name.

There are bigger pitfalls looming in the offing, though, as Heartless dwindles to its last line. For one thing, Catherine is as different from the Queen of Hearts as they come, but all this serves to do is make the eventual transformation more jarring. Heartless opens on a surprising Point A, introducing us to the young Queen of Hearts as a teenage girl with no royal ambitions, a love of baking, and only the slightest hint of her future tendencies, but from that vantage point, the tragedy about to befall her has no central weakness as a sticking point.

In lieu of this, Meyer’s forced to dish up a series of heartbreaks that, in tandem, are supposed to amount to that fateful day-to-night switch, but ultimately feel more incidental than truly ordained. They don’t reflect on Catherine: they reflect on the her rigid station in Wonderland. Something like this can be a moving tragedy in its own right––but it doesn’t produce the conclusion Meyer is aiming for. Approaching Heartless as a reader, I wanted to watch the making of a villain, but all I got was a hero who breaks spontaneously after an incident of misfortune.

There’s one moment, in the middle of Act III, that, with some tweaks, might have better sealed the deal than most of what the actual conclusion has to offer, but you can almost see the author’s hand shrinking back before it unfolds. The rage Catherine feels in that moment as her parents back her into the proverbial corner is fresher and more in character than the rage that tears through her in the denouement: the only thing stopping this from being the tipping point is hesitation on Meyer’s part.

Its blistering resonance is instead cut short in favor of the real conclusion, maybe because Meyer worried that it was too juvenile or trivial to be truly convincing as the last straw. What replaces it, however, is a convoluted destiny plot that eats up the last 80 pages, breaching an ‘inevitability of fate’ motif that was conspicuously absent from the first 300, and pushing the excessive pulp of a gruesome tragedy to the fore at the cost of something quieter but much richer in character.

The ultimate weakness of Heartless, if I may be so bold as to call it a tragic flaw, is its fixation on the ‘what if’ that spawned the book, more concerned with making a convincing argument than with letting the character change organically. It seems like Meyer opted for the drastic ending not because it suited Catherine in particular, but because it’s an easier ‘what if;’ something an outside viewer would more readily accept as a villain origin story.

In effect, I’m being convinced where I should be enthralled, Catherine’s eventual fate a drag on the story where it should be an asset.

Destiny works in mysterious ways. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.