Dedicated to their daughters, Gaiman’s mesmerizing novella, wrapped in stunning illuminated, gothic illustrations by Riddell, deconstructs two iconic fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Gaiman fractures them piece by piece into a heroine-centric world, weaving them seamlessly back together again to create a complete evolution in both stories. The queen, nameless but recognizable by her blackest of black hair and crimson lips, awaits her marriage and is disappointed by her life after her poisoned ordeal. The sleeping princess in the tower, recognizable by her hair “the golden yellow of meadow flowers” (38), is also poisoned, dreaming an endless dream of her future and awaiting rescue. However, neither queen nor princess are quite what they appear to be. The queen has a suit of armor slouching against the wall in her bower and is about to get married to the prince that woke her from her own sleeping spell. She is underwhelmed by her fate post-sleep, and her resigned metaphysical angst with the reality of her marriage is evident in her grim face, the golden skulls on her bedclothes, how she darkly notices the wedding preparations outside the castle, “Every hammer blow felt like a heartbeat” (14), each beat mapping the way to “the path of her death”.
Meanwhile, her dwarfs, numbering only three, go out under the “unpassable” mountains that separate the queen and princess’ kingdoms, seeking “the finest silken cloth” for their wedding gift to the queen. They are confronted at their favorite inn with horror stories of a sleeping death that is relentlessly seeping over the land from the Forest of Acaire. They are told of a beautiful princess locked away in a tower covered in thorns and roses, that as long as she sleeps the kingdom will sleep. The only one way to break the spell by “the usual method” (16)…a kiss. Many men and women have tried to reach her, they lament, and all have failed horribly. The Inn’s regulars, from the innkeeper to the sot to the fat-faced man to the pot-girl, all fear that it is only a matter of time before the entire kingdom is wrapped in deathless sleep. So the dwarfs race back to tell their tale and their Queen, hearing the siren song of the Hero’s Quest, answers it with glowing, visible relief. She abandons her wedding festivities, kisses her sulky prince goodbye with promises to return, dons her mail and heads to the sleeping kingdom. They reach the inn which has succumbed to the plague, all the sleepers covered in spider webs, as the tallest dwarf points out “The cobweb spinners do not sleep” (26). Approaching the Forest of Acaire, they encounter further strange, spider-web encrusted sleepers that become animated by the queen’s presence yet not awake, and have all the slow, mumbled menace of zombie hoards.
The queen, herself asleep for a year, appears to have a magical immunity to the witch-sleep that is poisoning everyone in its path. And so the band makes their way to the tower, through a hallucinatory mental fog where the queen is visited by spectres of her father, mother and her stepmother, who evokes the original Grimm tale by wearing glowing orange, fiery hot iron shoes that nonetheless do not burn anything on the path. Confronting the impenetrable thorns and skeletons of failed rescuers surrounding the tower, the queen does not take up her sword. Instead she calls for a tinder box and lights her own orange flames to destroy the brambles and enter the tower. There she is confronted with the sleeping princess and a hag who watches over her. And in a magnificent subversive turn, the queen kisses the princess awake.
And to bring the story to the ultimate sticking place, Gaiman gives voice and dark power to the damsel, who is the witch waiting to be awoken after vampiric years of siphoning off the life force of her subjects. The hag is the actual princess, bowed and knotted with age but wielding the one weapon that can rid the land of their cursed princess. The original spindle. And the queen has to decide how to use it.
There are no passive, singing Disney princesses here.