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.)