Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday! Today we’re looking at the first “Sleeping Beauty” retelling of this feature. So let’s jump right in!
My Rating: 2 stars
Warning: Contains spoilers
As a Retelling:
Hillyer draws from the more well-known Grimm version of the tale called “Little Briar-Rose,” which ends with the prince waking Sleeping Beauty. Earlier versions of the tale, such as Giambattista Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia” and Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty in the Woods,” include a frankly more interesting second half involving the prince’s first wife or mother attempting to murder and eat Talia/Sleeping Beauty and her children. Hillyer chooses not to utilize this plot point and focuses her novel on the familiar and famous part of the story. However, Hillyer does include many embellishments and deviations right from the start. Instead of focusing on a single princess, we have two sisters as our protagonists: Aurora, who is our Sleeping Beauty, and her half-sister Isabelle, called Isbe. We also see the sibling relationship between the main antagonist, Malfleur, and her sister, Belcoeur. While there are multiple romantic relationships, the relationships between these sets of sisters are the source of the major plot points.
This book has the most unique take on the faerie gifts I’ve seen in a “Sleeping Beauty” retelling. In both the Grimms’ and Perrault’s versions, the princess is given gifts by faeries or wise women at her christening. These gifts include beauty, grace, wit, virtue, and musical abilities. In Perrault’s there are seven faeries and in the Grimms’ there are twelve, but Hillyer uses three (as does Disney’s Sleeping Beauty). Whereas the gifts in the fairy tale are given freely, the ones in the book come at a price. The faerie offers the exchange and Princess Aurora’s parents accept or deny it. They thus barter away her voice for beauty and a good temper and her sense of touch for grace. The third faerie’s amendment to Malfleur’s curse comes at a price as well; she requests Aurora’s sight. The queen balks at this and through some tricky wording presents Isbe in Aurora’s place for this tithe. Isbe grows up blind while Aurora grows up mute and unable to feel anything. While Isbe never regains her sight in the book, Aurora is able to speak and feel once she is in Sommeil.
Both Perrault’s and the Grimms’ tales involve a fairy setting the curse on the princess. The curse states that the girl will prick herself on a spindle and die, and this is the same curse Malfleur casts on Aurora. Hillyer creates a backstory for the reason behind the spindle. Malfleur supposedly saved everyone from her sister, Belcoeur, and she feels they have been ungrateful to her and wants the curse to act as a reminder. Belcoeur liked spinning, so she uses that for the curse, and Aurora ultimately pricks her finger on Belcoeur’s own spinning wheel. However, Hillyer does diverge in the amendment to the curse. As in the tales, a faerie who has not yet given her gift comes forward to change it so Aurora will sleep rather than die. However, the faerie specifies that only true love will wake her up. This does not appear in any variation of the fairy tale that I’ve read. In both the Grimm and Perrault versions, the fairy says the princess will sleep for one hundred years. Perrault’s specifies that the arrival of a prince will wake her whereas the wise woman in the Grimms’ says nothing about how it will happen. This change makes sense for the story Hillyer has created, and nixing the hundred years isn’t unprecedented. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty forgoes it, as does Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley.
While the fairies in the tales never appear again after placing the curse, Malfleur is the main antagonist of the book. Though we don’t see her often, she poses a clear threat both to Aurora and Isbe’s country, Deluce, and their neighboring country, Aubin. Due to this, her motivation in cursing Aurora goes much deeper than in the fairy tales. Perrault’s fairy feels she has been slighted because she doesn’t receive the same gold plate as the other fairies, never mind that the royal family didn’t know she was coming because they thought she was dead. The Grimms’ fairy feels insulted that the royal family purposely leaves her off the guest list. It’s an incredibly petty reason to curse an infant. Hillyer makes Malfleur’s motivation much less petty. In addition to wanting to remind the people of her power, she has a deep-seated grudge against the royal family. Her people used to rule everything, and now she has to see those lands taken over by others.
Even though the different variations of the tale are mostly named for the princess, she does very little since she is asleep. Hillyer changes this so Aurora is a more active participant in her story. When she pricks her finger on the golden spindle found in an abandoned summer cottage, she enters the world of Sommeil, which was created by Belcoeur. Here she tries to find a way back, learns about the true story of Belcoeur, and meets her love interest, Heath. While she does all this, her body appears asleep in her own world. In Perrault’s tale the fairy who changes the curse puts everyone in the castle to sleep. In the Grimms’ story, they all just fall asleep when the princess does. Hillyer uses a different take on this. People in Deluce still fall asleep, but it happens slowly and is referred to as a sleeping sickness. It turns out the sleeping spreads through another aspect Hillyer draws from the fairy tale. In the Grimms’ version of the story, a hedge of thorns grow up around the castle. In Perrault’s it is a full forest. Hillyer uses vines that have thorns and purple flowers growing on them. Isbe and Prince William figure out that the flowers give off a poison and anyone who smells it falls asleep, which is an interesting and unique twist on the original story.
As previously mentioned, the spell can only be broken by true love, which does not appear in any variations of the fairy tale. While the Grimms’ Briar-Rose does wake with a kiss from the prince, it is not specified to be true love’s kiss. Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty wakes just from the prince arriving after the hundred years are up. Talia of the earlier Italian tale doesn’t wake when the king comes at all. She remains asleep through sex, pregnancy, and childbirth, waking only when one of her children sucks the flax out of her finger. Hillyer chooses not to use any of these methods to wake Aurora, but she does use the kiss as a fake out. Isbe believes true love means a kiss from the man Aurora was supposed to marry, so she travels to convince Prince William of Aubin to help her. William agrees, but as the two return to Deluce, he falls in love with Isbe instead. Naturally, when he kisses Aurora, she does not wake up. Isbe later returns by herself and kisses Aurora’s forehead, and this was the most surprising part of the book for me. Since the story essentially hinges on the relationships between sisters, I thought Isbe’s kiss would wake Aurora. But it doesn’t. Aurora saves herself from within Sommeil by putting on Belcoeur’s crown. The crown originally belonged to Charles Blackthorn, Belcoeur’s lover who Malfleur murdered. “True love” is engraved inside the crown.
There are some fantastic concepts in Spindle Fire. Tithing away senses for faerie gifts is one of the most intriguing ideas I’ve come across in a fantasy novel this year. It also has some great twists on the original tale, and I appreciated Aurora having more agency and waking herself up. Plus I always enjoy stories about sisters. However, I had a lot of problems that kept me from enjoying the book more.
I felt the story moved too quickly and didn’t give the reader enough time to understand the characters and relationships or learn about the world. I didn’t feel like I knew Aurora or Isbe at all when the action kicked off, and I wanted to see more of their relationship before things began changing. And even once the plot progressed, I never felt a connection with Aurora or even thought she had much of a personality. I found her parts of the story boring, while I was interested in what Isbe was up to. I also had an issue with the book being written in third person, present tense. This is a personal thing, but I have a very difficult time with long works written in present tense. The only time I think it works is when it is paired with first person narration. So even when I was interested in the story, the writing kept me from being fully engaged.
My other big problem was the use of a love triangle. I don’t mind love triangles if they are done well, but they usually aren’t. And the one in this book is no exception. Malfleur and Belcoeur’s backstory boils down to a love triangle between them and Charles Blackthorn. There is jealousy and a bit of resentment on Malfleur’s part before this, but this causes the major break in their relationship. Malfleur and Charles fall in love, but she rejects his marriage proposal in order to put her magic first. When she leaves on a three year long trip to develop her magic more, Belcoeur and Charles end up falling for each other. Malfleur naturally sees this as a betrayal by both of them and later murders Charles, sending Belcoeur his severed head in response to her plea for reconciliation. Honestly, I’m just really over the trope of two sisters being torn apart because they love the same man and it wasn’t developed enough for it to work well anyway. The book also seemed to be setting up for more love triangles in the sequel, possibly between Isbe, Aurora, and William and between Isbe, William, and Gil (who Isbe assumes is dead, but I don’t buy it).
Other Reading Recommendations:
The starred titles are ones I have read myself. The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books. To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to four that I’ve read and four that I haven’t.
Other Retellings of “Sleeping Beauty”:
- Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley*
- The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman*
- Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep by Gail Carson Levine*
- When Rose Wakes by Christopher Golden*
- Thornspell by Helen Lowe
- Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay
- Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
- Beauty Sleep by Cameron Dokey
More Retellings by Lexa Hillyer:
About the Fairy Tale:
- Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner