Spindle's End by Robin McKinley (2000)
At last the king and queen have their long-wished-for child, and no less than twenty-one fairy godmothers will be at the baby princess’s name-day to give their blessings. But one wicked fairy was not invited, and she is flaming mad about it…
In the world of Spindle's End, fairies are commonplace, found in every village, living alongside the non-magic humans. Some fairies have only the power to descale a kettle of magic dust, while others are very powerful, but the rulers of the kingdom must not be magical. Very Important.
So when the evil fairy who gate-crashed the princess’s name-day proclaims she will curse and destroy the princess before she (the princess) reaches the age of twenty-one, and take over the kingdom—that is bad. Very Bad.
The queen’s most powerful fairy and magician conspire to save the royal infant by sending her into hiding. She will grow up tucked away in the delightfully named village of Foggy Bottom with two ‘ordinary’ fairies, to live an ordinary life. When her 21st birthday has passed, and she has evaded the curse, then she can return to her rightful place. But until that day, no one must know who she is.
The world building in this novel is rich and dense with sensory detail, creating a deliciously immersive setting. It's a world where magic is so common it leaves dust in the air, yet people go about their ordinary business, taking magic in their stride. I loved McKinley’s animal characters (I enjoyed her humans and fairies too). The natural world is as magical as the supernatural one. Animals act as nurses to the baby princess, and also as her guardians, friends, and helpers. As the secret princess grows, she develops a powerful gift of animal-speaking, a lovely magical gift if she were an ordinary dweller of Foggy Bottom, but in her case, not lovely, because the rulers of the kingdom cannot be magical. Bad, Very Bad, though none except the fairies raising her realise this.
Also Very Bad is the problem of the princess being not very princess-ey; she won’t wear dresses and those delightful blonde curls they blessed her with on her name-day she insists on hacking off. Those fairy blessings of being skilful at embroidery and light on her dancing feet–forget it! She works with horses and has fallen in love with a seemingly ordinary man; how will she transform into a graceful princess and marry her betrothed handsome prince? More Very Bad stuff.
I won’t spoil the ending; suffice to say that it's appropriate for a quirkily subversive fairy tale retelling. I was sorry to leave the world of Foggy Bottom and the life of Princess Rosie—always the sign of a great story. In fact, Spindle’s End is now my favourite McKinley novel thus far, but I’ve still got a few more to enjoy—Yay!