Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

Archived Review: Black Thorn, White Rose edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on Septembe 1, 2011

Overall Rating: **** (4 stars)

Dearest readers, you may have noticed that my usual method of posting little star ratings of plot, character, and whatnot is suspiciously missing from this review.  This is not because I simply can’t be bothered, I assure you.  It is due to the fact that Black Thorn, White Rose is a collection of re-told and re-imagined fairy tales by several different authors, and it would be difficult indeed to rate the myriad of characters and plots therein.  Some of the writers, like Jane Yolen and Patricia C. Wrede have been favorites of mine since the beginning of my fairy-tale-reading days.  A few of the stories have the distinction of being the author’s first publication, but few of them seemed amateur or forced.  The collection is marketed as fairy tales for adults – though I found it in the YA section of the library – so many of the stories have amped up the sex and gore and adult themes.  I was not super fond of the overtly-sexual stories, as my Victorian sensibilities are fragile as all hell, but the violence and darkness in the more Gothic re-tellings were right up my proverbial alley.  Below, I shall go into more detail on a few of the stories which stuck out in my memory for one reason or another.

Stronger Than Time by Patricia C. Wrede:  A sweet take on “Sleeping Beauty” which, despite having only two major characters, contains a significant plot twist and one very gruesome thorn forest.  The main character is an elderly woodcutter who has lived in constant wariness of the imposing tower near his home.  When a young and adamant prince-on-an-errand requests the woodcutter’s help in a quest to reach the tower and save the sleeping princess within, the old man grumbles most amusingly but concedes.  The story is mostly the two men talking and then their perilous adventure to the castle, which involves some pretty nifty magic, but it is the denoument which made me realize that the tale was so good.  I shan’t spoil the ending, but at that point the traditional Sleeping Beauty storyline is twisted around in a most spooky and satisfying manner.   It wasn’t the sort of story I normally expect from Wrede, as her Enchanted Forest series is more lighthearted and full of grouchy dragons and strong female characters, but it was a good read nonetheless.

The Brown Bear of Norway by Isabel Cole:  This story appealed to the teenager in me, for it involves doomed love, Scandinavian magic, and a young narrator whose stoic acceptance of a shape shifting boy she knows only through pen-pal letters succeeded in melting my cynical little heart.  I wasn’t familiar with the “animal bridegroom” folklore tradition on which Cole’s story was based, but even so the fairy tale elements and the power of Northern magic combined into a likable story which fit very well into the collection.  The narrator is in high school, which may alienate some readers who have put those years resolutely behind them, but the story is sweet and well written enough to bring us wholeheartedly into her quest across the ocean to find the boy who turns into a bear.

Granny Rumple by Jane Yolen:  I was surprised by this story, for though I had figured out from the title that it would be a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin it contains little to no fantasy.  Instead, the story features a money lender and his wife living in a Jewish ghetto in the town of Ykaterinislav.  The money lender is small and ugly, though his wife (the eventual Granny Rumple of the title) is supposedly stunning.  When he meets a woman in the Christian part of town who is all bent out of shape because her father told her fiance that she could spin gold, he offers to help. That rumor does not lead where one might expect, for instead of spinning it himself the money lender simply gives her some cash to buy gold cloth and, as the rumor persists, dresses.  In the end, the myth of the little imp who threatened to steal her baby is perpetrated by the women the money lender helped when his wife shows up after the wedding and demands payment.  Disaster ensues.  Though lacking the well thought out magic for which Jane Yolen is renowned, this historically religious take on Rumpelstiltskin is clever and important.  Its narrative style; that of a legend passed through the Yolen family, adds the element of myth which would otherwise be missing.

Godson by Roger Zelanzy:  This may have been my favorite story in the entire collection, though I had never heard of Zelanzy before in my life.  I’ve always been a big fan of Death as a character, be it the narrator in The Book Thief or or Terry Pratchett’s character who speaks in booming capital letters.  In this short story, which has since been performed as a three act play, a man rejects both god and the devil as voluntary godfathers to his son David, claiming that neither are trustworthy.  Death, “he who makes all equal” meets the man at a crossroads and is deemed a worthy godfather.  (Any tale which involves making a deal with Death at the crossroads is bound to be good, and Godson does not disappoint.)  The godson knows Death as “Morrie” and is never surprised by Morrie’s ghastly abilities or inexplicable appearances at death scenes.  Morrie gives the David a talking bicycle which happens to contain a human soul, several good chats about football, and a plant which can restore a person to life.  My favorite part of the story was when David and Morrie have a birthday dinner in Morrie’s lair, where each living soul is represented by candles, easily snuffed out.  Unsurprisingly, there are some mortal consequences regarding the use of this miracle plant; when David cheats death another candle is put out before its time.  As David grows older and tries to escape Morrie’s influence, he has to make some serious choices, and the story throws into perspective the difficulties of choosing between a father figure and moral right.  Godson is a modern and entertaining story.  It could be included in an anthology of contemporary fiction just as easily as it is in this fairy tale collection.  In it can be found a mix of everything good: a charmingly dark entity, humour, tension, inanimate objects which possess the power of speech, difficult choices, betrayal by loved ones, suspenseful altercations, and a mostly happy ending.  That is, as happy an ending as one can expect when Death and mortals watch MTV together on the couch.

Sweet Bruising Skin by Storm Constantine:  At first, I found it very unlikely that any re-telling of “The Princess and the Pea” could be dark and mysterious, since the fairy tale about princesses being hard to please never appealed to me much as a child.  Somehow Sweet Bruising Skin manages to be both, with mixed results.  Narrated by the prince’s ambitious and cunning mother, Constantine’s story incorporates alchemy and gross zombie-style-magic into a spooky tale of a Queen trying too hard to control her son.  The writing is good, better than I had expected after reading the rather trashy-sounding title, and the characters are memorable.  The queen’s alchemist is sleazy, the chancellors are stuffy, and the beautiful – though uncanny – princess who appears during a storm freaked me out entirely. This story reads like a thick fantasy novel; it’s about a made up country with archives full of magical laws, and for those readers who like their fairy tales resolutely starring a royal cast of characters it may become a favorite in the collection.  I found myself wishing that Sweet Bruising Skin had been written as a novel, maybe one with a better title, because it seemed like the sort of disturbing tale which could go on for hundreds of pages.  That’s a good sign, I suppose.

These were just my favorite stories, the ones which I’ll be carrying in my twisted brain for a good while.  There is something for everyone who likes fairy tales and folklore in Black Thorn, White Rose.  Do you like regency romances?  There’s a story for you.  Sci Fi stories with inter-species pairings?  Check.  Women struggling with painfully low self esteem?  Two vastly different stories of that sort.  I was not wild about the poems, but since I know next to nothing about modern poetry I will let other readers form their own opinions about those two inclusions.  In short, one might read only a few stories in the collection – looking out for their favorite authors and original fairy tales – or one might race through it cover to cover as I did.  Either way, or any way in between, Black Thorn, White Rose is a worthwhile anthology compiled by editors who clearly love what they do, and I look forward to perusing the other volumes of the series.