Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
HarperCollins Children’s Books, HarperCollins Publishers, August 2019
416 pages, paperback, $16.99 CAN, 978-0-06267-395-4
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
Middle Grade, Fantasy, LGBTQ+
The Fate Spinner’s laughter rattled the sky. “We know what you are, Annalise Meriwether,” the skeletal creatures screamed in the voice of their mistress. “And we will never let you leave!”
The blizzard grew thicker, darker, colder. Annalise no longer felt her great hand or her own monster within, but the horn twined steadily out from within. There was no visible end to this wasteland of ice and space – but she couldn’t give up now.
Trigger Warning: anxiety, discussions of panic attacks
Cursed by the Fate Spinner to be the accidental cause of every bad thing that happens in her little town of Carriwitchet, Annalise Meriwether is singled out and bullied by her neighbors all through her life. Lonely and desperate for a way to fix her destiny, she decides to brave the Labyrinth of Fate to find the Spinner of Dreams, the only person who can defeat the Fate Spinner and fulfill Annalise’s dreams.
Like with a lot of middle-grade fantasy, The Spinner of Dreams has delightful animals, fantastic and allegorical worldbuilding, and a fast-paced adventure with a quest motif that takes the reader through a literal maze of monsters to overcome. However, what caught my attention here was the way Annalise is characterized, and the way mental illness and anxiety are at the forefront of her struggle. Writer K. A. Reynolds does not shy away from having vivid descriptions of panic attacks or the way anxiety can spiral out of control. Annalise’s trauma—and the many emotions it causes, including empathy as well as anger—is fully rounded and complex. She is coded as being neurodivergent, possibly even autistic, her Otherness a literal curse until the end of the book.
What was even more interesting here was the way in which Reynolds has the trauma unfold. Annalise has supportive and loving parents, and before they died, two sets of grandparents who adored her as well. The trauma stems not from within, but from the outsiders’ treatment of them—it isn’t until the citizens of Carriwitchet begin to blame her for her Otherness that she is traumatized. In this way, Reynolds brings out systemic injustice perpetuated towards anyone who is different from the norm, particularly given the way Annalise’s first friend is the queer Mr. Edwards, a fox who is in search of his husband in the Labyrinth.
The allegorical worldbuilding did feel a tad unsubtle in certain places, such as with the monster that lives in Annalise’s cursed hand or the way her Otherness becomes literal magic through the book. However, given its context, and the age of the audiences the book is intended for, I would argue that this lack of subtlety works, offset as it is by the deep complexity of both Annalise’s character and her trauma. The metaphoric language and the fast-paced action will allow kids to celebrate their difference, rather than hiding or being ashamed of it.
To that extent, Reynolds manages to humanize even the antagonist. The Fate Spinner is just as cursed as the people she casts curses on—setup to be constantly hated for her nature as the bring of fate, she is just as desperate as Annalise to be loved. But where Annalise chooses the path of empathy, the Fate Spinner chooses to lash out in pain, sticking true to the age-old adage of hurt people hurt people, ie., hurt people continue the cycle of abuse.
Fast-paced, well-characterized, with both magic and a ton of animals littering the pages, The Spinner of Dreams is a middle-grade fantasy that any neurodivergent, bullied, queer, racialized or any reader who has experienced being Othered by society will enjoy.
Shyamala Parthasarathy is an MA Literature graduate, currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Hailing from Chennai, India, she is currently working on a young adult urban fantasy novel, and can be found in her natural habitat: the corner of a room, typing away on her laptop or angrily glaring at it.