Are men (the gender) really responsible for most of the world’s ills?
What kind of power would – and could – cause all the women in the world to fall into a deep and uninterruptible sleep?
And for what purpose?
This epic-length, but not quite epic, dark fantasy novel from father-son collaborators Stephen and Owen King raises these questions but only ventures far enough to tackle the first question in depth. (The answer would appear to be yes.)
Given that it weighs in at a hefty 700 pages, Sleeping Beauties should at least have given us a more satisfying exploration of the other two questions as well.
What we get instead is a solidly-crafted buildup that takes a worldwide phenomenon – where things only turn apocalyptic after the apocalypse – and focuses on one small town.
Basically, whenever a woman falls asleep anywhere in the world, she does not awaken. And it’s no mere extended nap.
Sleepers mysteriously grow a protective cocoon over their entire body and if this covering should be pierced, torn or cut away, the person underneath goes ballistic – to put it mildly.
While the affliction – dubbed Aurora, as in the famous sleeping fairytale princess – is a global phenomenon, and we are given glimpses of its scope, the story revolves around just one small West Virginia town.
Dooling is not exactly a postcard-perfect place. Its economy is struggling, and its principal employer is a women’s prison. And there are meth cooks operating in the woods, while their hopped-up clients dash around town posing a danger to others as well as themselves.
Let’s not even dwell on the teenagers. No small-town King(s) tale would be complete without juvenile bullies, but the ones here are – in keeping with the gender-antagonistic sub-themes of the book – Law & Order: SVU perps in the making as well.
This odd settlement somehow becomes the focal point of the Aurora gender epidemic after the appearance of a mysterious woman who knows a lot about what’s going on (and can talk to animals, and is strong enough to put a man’s head through the wall of a recreational vehicle).
The first half or so is meticulously woven but the payoff, unfortunately, is not as profound as we hope it will be, judging by the fuss the authors make over their central gender-specific mystery.
There’s a certain aspect of the story that deals with what’s going on with the women who fall asleep, and frankly, the novel could have benefitted greatly from a little less of all that buildup and much more exploration of this other side.
Otherwise, the authors stuff their narrative with observations of gender inequality (some pointed, some delivered with the blunt force trauma of Anecdotes Cal-culated To Shame Ya), men living down to the worst parts of our reputation, a few individuals showing a brighter side to the masculine gender, and more than a few well-deserved comeuppances.
While it is also lacking in the bullet-train momentum of some of the elder King’s triumphs, the book makes up for it with some nicely layered characterisation of its principal players.
This keeps you invested in turning those pages even when the progress of the plot itself does not.
For example, you may find yourself being unable to wait for the explanation behind prison psychiatrist Clint Norcross “unspeakable secret” that he’s been hiding from his wife, town sheriff Lila, because the two of them are so darn human in their relationships, failings and buried pasts.
Or raising an eyebrow at the way Dooling animal control expert Frank Geary, a big man with a terrible temper, ends up becoming a beacon of leadership to some parts of the town’s male population.
(No black and white situations here, folks, it’s all fascinatingly grey.)
Or just what the heck is going on with that mystery woman, Eve Black, and this whole Aurora business, and why Dooling becomes its focus in the first place.
Sleeping Beauties is certainly an ambitious book – the listing of dramatis personae alone will tell you that – but only succeeds part of the way.
I’m no fan of long drawn-out fantasy sagas, but heck, this one really might have been better served as a trilogy. Heaven knows the Constant Readers would have snapped up all three parts, no questions asked.
Authors: Stephen King & Owen King
Publisher: Scribner, fantasy fiction