Jan/Feb 2015 Reviews & Interviews

The Sleeper and the Spindle

The Sleeper and the Spindle
Neil Gaiman.
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Bloomsbury. 2014. 70 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 964 3.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Here is a fairy tale which is as un-fairy-like as it is possible to be. In the tradition of the grimmest tales collected by the Grimm Brothers, it is scary and gruesome, and Chris Riddell's graphic drawings—black-and-white but touched with metallic gold—are suitably detailed, gothic and dark. The whole book is thrilling to look at, to read and to handle. It is also tells a thoroughly modern story, mixing and re-inventing some elements of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but in a unique and very quirky way.

On the front cover of the book, a sleeping princess is just visible beneath a transparent loose cover decorated with blossoming gold rose briars. On the back, under a tangle of bare thorny branches, we glimpse a skull. Inside the front and back covers, a Tolkien-like map depicts a country in which rolling hills and valleys are separated from a land of thick forests by and impossibly high rang of mountains. These mountains, we learn, divide the pleasant kingdom of Kanselaire from that of the darker Dorimar. Only the dwarfs can penetrate this mountain barrier, and they do it by travelling through tunnels underneath.

As the story begins, three dwarfs are hurrying along these dark subterranean paths, intent on reaching Dorimar to buy the finest silks in the world for the young queen of Kanselaire, who is to be married in a week's time. In Dorimar, however, they meet an innkeeper near the border who tells them that a sleeping sickness plague is advancing rapidly across the kingdom. An old story is told by the people of a princess cursed long ago by a bad witch, so that she and everyone in her castle palace fell asleep. Only a kiss, it was said, could wake her. Brave men who had come to try, got caught and died in the rose thickets which had grown up around the palace (a skeleton in armour hangs in thorny tangles in one of Chris Riddell's drawings). But recently, the sleeping sickness has begun to spread around the kingdom and is approaching the border, moving faster and faster. "Go and look" the people in the inn say. So the dwarfs do.

When they report back to the young queen in Kanselaire, she happily cancels her wedding (she was dubious about the whole marriage thing anyway), dons her armour and rides out, intent on reaching the bewitched palace, kissing the princess herself and saving the kingdom of Dorimar. After all, why should it have to be a prince to do that?

Many things happen along the way. Some are funny, some magical, and some are totally unexpected and terrifying. In the end, of course, the young queen, with the help of the dwarfs, succeeds in her quest. But being a thoroughly independent young woman what does she do next? You will have to read the book to find out.


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