I obtained a copy of Asleep in exchange for an honest review as part of a book review tour.
I love fairy tales. I loved them as a child and although I’m a child no longer (well, opinions might differ on that) I still love them. When I heard that this YA book was a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, and after reading the details, I decided to read it. The fabulous cover also drew me in.
The story of Rose Briar is set in a rather undefined time (perhaps now, but it is not specified and neither location nor gadgets or medications give much of a clue. I guess it is ‘once upon a time’) and starts at a point of crisis. She’s being taken by her parents to a psychiatric clinic, for reasons not completely clear. Although the story is written in the third person, it is told from Rose’s point of view, and we’re not sure her version of events is correct. The psychiatric clinic appears a bit peculiar at first sight, and is connected to Rose’s family in strange ways (her mother’s best friend, Heather, was a patient there years back and she committed suicide shortly after leaving the clinic), but we don’t realise quite how peculiar until Rose starts to experiment strange events, that neither her nor us, the readers, know if are true, or nightmares. Is she being physically tortured? Are other patients locked up and inhumanely treated there? Why does she seem to lose time?
Luckily, she meets Phillip, although he prefers to be called Greg, a boy of a similar age to hers. At times he seems completely out of it, bruised, battered and mumbling numbers, but at others, he is not only protective of her, but insists that she is like him. She can’t help but be intrigued by him at first, and later she ends up feeling the connection he mentions, although she is not a hundred percent sure.
The longer Rose spends at the clinic, the more confused she becomes as to whom she can trust and what the agenda behind her stay there is. The friends she believed in don’t seem to be as reliable as she thought; Dr. Underwood is nice and caring but seems to have a strange attachment to Heather and Rose suspects that in his mind, she and Heather have become connected. He is definitely hiding something. And although she blames her parents, particularly her mother, for her internment, she desperately wants to go back home.
The experience of reading this book is a strange one. I’m a psychiatrist and I was intrigued by the idea of setting the story in a psychiatric hospital. Leaving the horror aspects of the story related to what might be happening at the clinic (and I’m trying not to reveal any spoilers here) aside, the way in which the readers are placed inside of Rose’s head and share her feelings and perceptions make it a confusing and nerve-wracking reading experience. You might not agree with what she does, but you are given no option but to follow her and share in her confusion and her difficulty making decisions. You keep trying to find clues to turn it into a linear narrative, but keep being wrong-footed along the way. At some point, I wasn’t sure if the present or the past were real, or if anything was real at all.
The reading is vivid although being inside of Rose’s head we don’t get the chance to see the place and the people as they are (talk about an unreliable narrator!). We might objectively think we’d never have ended up in such situation, but we join the story at a point where she has not many options, and none of the ones left seem good. Rose’s difficulty expressing herself through her art is a good metaphor for her problems. The author has the eye of an artist and some of her descriptions of the hallucinations and the works of art are beautiful (and sometimes horrific at the same time).
I enjoyed the end, but for me, there were many things not fully explained, and more in keeping with a fairy tale than a realistic novel. If we want to compare it to Sleeping Beauty, this turns the story of the attempts at rescuing her (she had done nothing wrong and it was fate and a bad fairy who played a part in her imprisonment), and twists it into a possible version of what was happening to the princess whilst she was supposed to be asleep. She is no longer the passive female figure waiting for the prince to come and find her. Instead, she has to fight her own demons and she and the prince work together to get free. The character of Doctor Underwood is one of the strongest ones in the book, and it brought to my mind the film Peeping Tom (but again I won’t elaborate to avoid giving you too many clues).
This is a story that will keep people guessing, although it’s not a typical horror story but rather a psychological eerie tale. If you enjoy a reading that will get you out of your comfort zone and challenge your sense of narrative, this could well be it. Ah, and the writing and the cover are true beauties.
The opening story of Castle Waiting, which explains how the castle came to be abandoned, so to speak, is a variation on Sleeping Beauty. Only once the princess is awakened from her century of sleep and the hedge surrounding the castle lets people in and out, she goes off with her prince and pretty much forgets about the place where she slumbered and the people in it. As the years pass, the castle becomes a refuge for various outcasts and odd characters, with the princess' now elderly handmaidens being the only original inhabitants still staying there.
The second story concerns the journey of a mysterious lady, who is revealed to be pregnant, who after travelling for months, arrives at the castle, seeking sanctuary. Once the baby is born, she reveals that the baby's father is not her husband, and while not much is revealed about the baby daddy, the child has green skin and his father apparently had horns, at least, so he's clearly something a bit out of the ordinary. I'm assuming more about the lady Jain and her baby may be revealed in future volumes, it's not actually given that much focus here.
We are also given the story of the nun, sister Peaceful, and her order of bearded nuns. Turns out, Peaceful was originally a tavern keeper's daughter, until she started growing a beard and decided to join the circus. There she discovers they already have a bearded lady (who becomes her BFF) and the two eventually run off and discover the convent of the Solicitine nuns, all of whom have facial hair. My favourite story was probably that of the Mother Superior of the order, and her life before she came to the convent.
Linda Medley studied folklore and it shows in her gentle twist on a number of fairy tales. It's only really the first tale that is a version of Sleeping Beauty. The rest of the book involves more of an anthology of tales involving the various inhabitants of Castle Waiting or people they've met before they came there. The art and lettering is absolutely gorgeous throughout, and reminded me a bit of Charles Vess (who among other things illustrated Neil Gaiman's Stardust and some issues of Sandman). There is a strong feminist theme to many of the stories, with female friendship being an important common denominator throughout the book.
Only the final story of the book, involving a greedy mill owner making things difficult for the Solicitine nuns didn't really work for me. That one was boring. Other than that, there are a lot of quirky and unusual characters making friendships and forming bonds throughout the stories. Found family is absolutely a big thing here. This is once again one of those books that has languished on my shelves for years and years without me ever picking it up. I'm glad I finally did. It was well worth some hours of my time.
Judging a book by its cover: I have a lovely hardcover edition of Castle Waiting, vol 1. The spine is green and the cover image feature all of the various inhabitants of the castle, in a full colour illustration. As the inside illustrations are all in black and white, it's nice to see the characters in colour, at least once.
Note: While this is Book 2 in the collection it works just fine as a stand a lone.
Aleyna has been asleep for decades. The evil enchantress Valeria destroyed her kingdom. The good unicorn wizard Ezralon put Aleyna under a sleep spell to protect her. Now her ghost haunts her ruined castle, though she sees it only as it was when she was awake and living there. Ghost servants assist her in her daily needs and do their best to keep her company. In a nearby kingdom, Darien, brother to King Michael, has taken a bet to explore the ruins and confront the ghost. Darien has an unusual fear of the supernatural, so this dare will not be an easy one to see through to the end.
Ezralon was my favorite character. He’s a gruff old wizard, and also a unicorn. The inherent opposites of those two things tickled me to no end! I also love that he’s protective of Aleyna but also willing to help the right person bring her out of her sleep.
Aleyna was pretty so-so for me. She’s not had much real world experience but she’s still got a little too much fluff between the ears for my taste. She needs assistance with nearly everything for much of the book, though she does have one or two moments when she rises above and accomplishes something. She has these PTSD moments when her memories of the past come back to her and I felt these scenes were given the most weight, defining the character, and making her rather dependent on others. I didn’t feel that she was the hero of the story at all. Darien has a little more meat to him than Aleyna. He falls in love easily and is very chivalrous, etc. That was to be expected and came off as vanilla bland.
Darien’s crew (young noblemen who came with him on this dare) agree to protect Aleyna and her crumbling castle from the hoards of bad things Valeria has brought with her. MILD SPOILER Aleyna has a power of her own that she isn’t fully aware of, but Ezralon and Valeria are. So Ezralon advises Aleyna to use that power to surprise Valeria while Darien and crew make ready for a stronger defense of the castle. This super power is looking extremely fantastic, like radiant, in a nice dress. Yep. END SPOILER. I was pretty disappointed on that one. Really? That’s her special ability? Argh!
Over all, the story was a little too happy and Disney-esque for me. It does have a full story arc and there’s no gaping holes. Yet I wanted more out of the main character Aleyna, a lot more really. In the end, I felt that Valeria had a very bad day and was totally off her game and that had she taken the time to have a cup of coffee, she could have easily defeated Alyena and crew. I do really like Ezralon and hope that he gets his own story one day.
I received a review copy at no cost from the audiobook publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The Narration: Karen Dotrice’s performance was pretty good. She had several different character voices with accents and she was great on getting emotions across to the listener. However, whenever Darien was shushing Helena in comfort, it was just a bit too much sssshhhhhh, to the point where I had to turn down the volume. Also, the name pronunciation wasn’t always clear to me – Helena? Alena? Ezrilond? Ezrimond?