I happened upon this beautiful Gaiman-Riddell collaboration from 2014 in the Cambridge branch of Forbidden Planet, and was looked upon strangely when I bore it back to my friends in triumph. I explained that since I live abroad I have fewer ways of finding out what is creeping into bookshops without notifying me, and their look of ‘so you don’t Follow NeilHimself’s feed, then?’ diminished, slightly. I was abashed, but I can’t follow every author I like, can I?
The Sleeper and the Spindle may have been marketed as a children’s book, and I no longer dare buy my children books in case they already own them, or look at me pityingly for getting it wrong. The Sleeper and the Spindle is, of course, a retelling of ‘The Sleeping Princess’; thorns, sleep, enchantment and all. Chris Riddell’s stunning line art has enchanted me ever since my children were reading the Edge Chronicles on repeat, but this is the first time I’ve bought one of his books for myself. The dustwrapper is translucent, so you look through the thorns to see the sleeping princess beneath. There are pictures everywhere, so this is a Riddell book with captions by Gaiman, really.
Gaiman has done his usual tricksy thing of reversing every damn element in a story to catch the reader out. This is ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ interbred with ‘Snow White’s Revenge’ to create a very unsettling plot that owes far more to Grimm than the Ladybird Fairy Stories. There are dwarves carrying a precious jewel to buy provisions. There are two countries barely half an hour apart as the crow flies, but the crow doesn’t fly that way because of the immense and spiky mountain range. There is sleep, great billowing masses of it, creeping slowly towards the frontier. There are thorns covering acres of land, old and dead near the castle walls, and crisply festooned with armoured skeletons nearer the outer edges. There is an old woman hobbling about the courtyard, and there are not many of the castle’s sleeping animals left. A young woman sleeps easily and peacefully on a damask bed, and there is a spindle on the floor.
None of the above is what you will expect it to be, and the knight riding towards the castle with the dwarves to show her the way has long black hair and a determined expression. There will be a kiss, but it will not have the effect we think it will. It’s tremendous, and it’s beautiful.
Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, The Sleeper and the Spindle (2014, Bloomsbury Books)