The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman

The Sleeper And The Spindle, Neil Gaiman, Chris RiddellThis book is beautiful in every way that a book can be – it has gorgeous prose, rich illustrations, and is, in addition, an extremely pleasing physical object. Even the dust-cover is gorgeous, and supports the overall aesthetic. It joins my small collection of books that are almost too beautiful to read.

I didn’t seek it out – I hadn’t even heard of it until it arrived at my doorstep. It came as a present, marking no particular event or anniversary. It was an extremely welcome surprise.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is a fairy tale, but not one of the standard ones. It starts off as a re-telling, but then slowly more is revealed, and the story alters. It begins with a queen preparing to be married, and three dwarves on a journey. It does not head in the expected direction.

The writing is Gaiman at his best – it has a wonderful, dream-like quality to it, while still ladening the narrative with tension, and a growing sense of menace. The first line is wonderfully evocative – “It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it” – and sets the tone for the rest of the story. It is hard to write in the style of a fairy tale without becoming simplistic or overwrought, but there is not a word out of place.

The illustrator is by Chris Riddell, who I’ve mentioned before as one of my favourites. They are frequent throughout the text – there is something on every page, and regular full- or double-page spreads illustrating particularly pivotal moments or setting scenes. All the illustrations are in shades of grey, with very occasional small details – Dwarves’ hats, the eyes of beasts, anthers on particular roses – picked out in gold. It all contributes to the dreamy, quiet atmosphere of the book – after reading it, you want to talk in whispers for a while.

The illustrations themselves are typical of the artist – instantly recognizable, detailed, and evocative, whether he is depicting a shambling crowd or a single withered stare. They bring life to the story’s world, which is useful, as “fairy tale” writing does little to describe scenes in detail.

The story is more detailed than a normal fairy tale, and breaks a lot of the conventions – you can see them coming, but they get subverted. Roles are redefined, clichés are avoided, and assumptions are challenged. I enjoyed the twists on old ideas, the challenges to the standard elements (handsome prince, happily ever  after, curses broken) of such stories. This isn’t a book that transgresses against the idea of what a fairy tale is, à la Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, but one that re-works it, makes you think about what those common elements actually mean, and whether they should be that way. What I’m awkwardly trying to say here is that this is a clever book, that messes with the formula whilst still being aware of it, and that this is an interesting book, that makes you re-examine old ideas.

I couldn’t really praise it higher – this book is exactly what it should be, and what it should be is entrancing and fascinating.

The Amazon link is here. Buy it.

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