“A beautiful princess lies in a sleep so deep it is close to death. Was Sleeping Beauty revived by a prince’s kiss? What really happened in that tower so long ago? While Beauty Slept re-imagines the legend through the lens of historical fiction, telling the story as if it really happened. A Gothic tale of suspense and ambition, love and loss, it interweaves the story of a royal family and the servants who see behind the glamorous facade, following the journey of a young woman as she lives out a destiny that leads her to the brink of death.”
While Beauty Slept was quite enthralling in many respects, and I read large chunks of it in short amounts of time. It got less good as it progressed, but I definitely enjoyed it, and I loved some aspects of it.
Retellings of fairy tales have always appealed to me; now they’ve become sort of a cliche themselves, with people telling them darker or telling the other side of the story. Increasingly it’s a struggle for writers to come up with new angles, but although While Beauty Slept borrowed many elements from previous retellings it also came up with some new twists and turns, and a fully fleshed out main character who is not in the original tale. Her name is Elise. She is a country girl who through a stroke of luck both good and bad rises to become the queen’s personal attendant, and she is a forgotten witness to all of the events which have since become so muddled.
The book opens with Elise beginning to tell her great-granddaughter Raimy the truth of what really happened in the castle. From there, we enter a world of the wealthy and the poor; the good, the evil, and the in-between. Thinking back on it, the fantasy world this book is set in isn’t very compelling or well developed, but that didn’t bother me. There’s also no outright magic, although there are hints of occult practices, blasphemous to the Christian inhabitants of the realm. I liked this; it made the story more grounded in reality, as if it might have actually happened at some point in medieval times. There are no fairies, there is no enchanted sleep, but the book still closely parallels the Sleeping Beauty myth – up to a certain point. The ending is a sudden twist I wasn’t expecting at all, but it was quite fitting given how Rose was developed.
The only thing I didn’t enjoy about this novel was Elise’s own story, specifically her romantic life. A lot of it didn’t make sense, and I would have preferred it left out. Both of her romances weren’t developed well; both were sudden and random, and it’s because of this that I didn’t absolutely love the book. Also, it was too graphic, not fitting the rest of the story. I could have done without this, or with a better developed, more convincing portrayal.
A lot of this book was actually quite thinly developed, but it fit with the fairy tale original, and certainly a lot more of the characters’ lives were shown. And Millicent, the villain of the title, is shown as a complicated woman, perhaps the most developed character in the novel; she could have been great, but because she was denied this she became bitter and full of hate. She is the greatest tragedy of the tale.
I enjoyed the writing; it’s in a somewhat older style, but still really readable and absorbing. Since Elise is recounting the events many years later, there’s lots of foreboding along the lines of “If only I had known this” or “Had I known this” or “This could have been prevented if”. This can get a bit annoying, but it also has the intended effect of making one keep reading.
Overall, While Beauty Slept was a well written and compelling fantasy novel, and I await Blackwell’s next work, although whether I read it depends on what it’s about. I received a review copy of While Beauty Slept from Putnam Books.