Katriona, niece of a fairy and a fairy herself, is chosen out of all those in the village to attend the christening of the new princess. She finds herself rescuing the princess instead, and bringing her back to their little village where she can grow up as Rosie. Rosie grows up among the villagers, believing herself the orphaned cousin of Katriona. She retains an ability to speak to animals, unusual even in that magic-ridden land, becomes an expert horse-leech and forms a close friendship to Peony the wheelwright's daughter. This is all she knows until a short while before her 21st birthday, when an unusual man knocks at the door in the middle of a storm (in keeping with the conventions of narrative and dramatic tension) and her past is revealed.
I take my hat off once again to Robin McKinley, who has managed to retain the fairy-tale feel of a story while filling out the gaps normally indicated by phrases like "and she grew up knowing nothing of her past." The magical elements of the story are variously playful and wild, such as the land's native magic which turns mugs into frogs, and dark and sinister, as in the case of the evil Pernicia's curse upon the princess.
A wealth of details fills out the background of the Sleeping Beauty story: sharp spinning spindles are forbidden, so the people of Foggy Bottom develop a style of blunted carved spindle, which gives rise to its own style of spinning. The children of the land have a baby magic which they cannot control, so Katriona and her aunt take in baby-lodgers whose magic they are adept at controlling and averting. The land in which the story takes place is the first thing you meet in the book and it is described as "thick and tenacious" so that "you had to descale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week". It is a natural and wild magic, and mostly used by village fairies to offer charms to help you find things or to let you appear unattractive to would-be thieves. The sorcerors of the court study the mechanics of magic, but they hardly intrude upon the story at all.
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