Neil Gaiman‘s latest offering defies the conventions of your typical fairy tale not just in content but format as well. You won’t be able to sit down and read this to your child in one sitting as despite the multiple illustrations, for the story is lengthy and the font small.
Perhaps then it’s better described as a fairy tale for adults, though I’ve always shied away from putting age restrictions on these types of stories. Let’s go with calling it an illustrated short story that will be highly enjoyed by people of all ages with an interest in dark and twisted fairy tales.
The Queen of a faraway land is about to be married, at least until the arrival of three dwarfs bringing her news of events in the neighbouring kingdom. A sleeping curse has been laid upon a fair princess, but rather than the spell remaining confined to the castle in which she slumbers, it is slowly seeping out into the rest of the world.
The Queen orders her mail shirt, sword, provisions and a horse to investigate, guided by the three dwarfs. As they close in on the castle they must pass through villages full of sleeping citizens and the terrible barrier of thorns strewn with the remains of unlucky predecessors. And all the while, an old enchantress waits…
Naturally there’s a twist in the tale (this is Neil Gaiman we’re talking about) but the story itself is beautifully rendered, filled with all sorts of enigmas in the otherwise straightforward tale. The Queen for example is never given a name, but there are several clues as to her identity scattered through the story, and other strange and unexplained passages that help convey that dark fairy tale atmosphere.
Chris Riddle’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to Gaiman’s story, caught somewhere between John Tenniel‘s work for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tony DiTerlizzi‘s for THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. Less grotesque than the former but sharper than the latter, Riddle uses black-and-white metallic ink (with some gold overlay) in all his illustrations, portraying dark-haired beauties and squat little dwarfs and haggard old women and skeletons dangling among the rose bushes.
This is a book to be saved until you have the time to read and absorb it properly, with no interruptions or distractions. It’s dark and creepy, but also funny and thoughtful, and sure to be a favourite for anyone who’s already a fan of Gaiman’s work.
Neil Gaiman took one of his twisted, rather creepy fairy tale stories and turned it into a 66 page picture book with wonderfully whimsical and detailed illustrations by Chris Riddell. A queen is (reluctantly) about to get married, but when a sleeping sickness spreads through a neighboring kingdom and threatens hers, she sets aside her plans, puts on her mail shirt and sword, and heads off with her dwarf friends to take care of the problem herself. There’s a fascinating, gradual reveal of who the queen actually is, and Gaiman deftly interweaves details about how her past experiences inform her present decisions.
Occasionally it seems like Gaiman is pandering just a bit to readers:
She called for her fiancé and told him not to take on so, and that they would still be married, even if he was but a prince and she a queen, and she chucked him beneath his pretty chin and kissed him until he smiled.
It feels as if he’s trying to display how much he supports female empowerment, which is a great thing except when it gets in the way of the actual story. And I can’t say I’m all that sympathetic to the queen’s feeling that, because she’s getting married and ruling a kingdom for the rest of her life, she has “no choices” and “the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.” Seriously?
But there are some very nice touches to the story: the queen’s decisive action when she comes up to the Sleeping Beauty castle, surrounded by deadly thorns that have killed many adventurous men, had me thinking, why didn’t any of the guys ever think of doing that? A suitably creepy note is added when it develops that the people struck by the sleeping sickness do more than just sleep. And the detailed pen-and-ink illustrations with touches of gold really made the story. I loved the skull motif, which subtly changes at the end.
This story may not be amazingly unique ― there are a lot of dark fairy tale retellings out there ― but between Gaiman’s fantastic use of words and imagery and Riddell’s gorgeous illustrations, this is a pretty easy 4 star book for me.