So, I was saying how I love retellings of fairy tales?
Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series is that, precisely. She’s created an Earth-analog world where a powerful force, called the Tradition by those in the know, manipulates human lives quite literally, shoehorning them into stories wherever possible. Her books chronicle the lives of some of those in the Five Hundred Kingdoms who fight the Tradition, who warp it, who bend it to their own needs — knowing that The Tradition doesn’t just like happy endings. It likes tragedy just as much. All it cares about is the dramatic quality of the story being lived out; the ultimate end is a null set, as far as the Tradition is concerned.
The Sleeping Beauty is the fifth in the series, and a return to more traditional Western-European-centric stories (books Three and Four, Fortune’s Fool and The Snow Queen, explored Russian, Scandinavian, Japanese, and Arabic tropes, among others). As the title suggests, the character in question, Rosamund, seems destined to be a Beauty Asleep — except that the godmother of her nation steps in way ahead of time. Godmother Lily, in charge of the tiny but effusively wealthy kingdom of Eltaria, has had centuries of practice manipulating the Tradition, and she heads off the trouble at the christening early on. Unfortunately, nothing she could do could stop Rosamund’s mother dying when Rosamund is sixteen, setting off a chain of potentially disastrous events. Her father, the King, goes off to try and prevent all five of Eltaria’s neighbors from invading simultaneously, and in his absence, Rosamund is nearly kidnapped and flees into the woods — only to be snatched up by the “Snowskin” (or Snow White) tale rather than Beauty Asleep. The seven dwarves she ends up with, though, are not at all as nice and cheerful as the Tradition would generally require them to be. Godmother Lily has to extricate her in a way that the Tradition will find suitable, but without accidentally marrying her to a rescuing prince who she might not actually be compatible with. And from the back of the book, you’d rather think this was the whole plot, but I was presently surprised — it zips through this in the first few chapters, bringing us to the real meat of the story: Godmother Lily, after the King gets himself killed, decides to hold a contest for Rosamund’s hand, inviting princes from all over (including from the invading neighbors) — thus providing herself with an awful lot of well-born hostages. This keeps anyone from invading, lest they bring the countries belonging to the other princes down on their heads, and buys the ladies some time to figure out how to end Rosamund’s story both happily and in a way that will satisfy the Tradition.
We do also get a healthy dose of Norse mythology as well, brought to us by Siegfried, who is desperately trying to escape his fate as a Doomed Hero — doomed, in this case, to fall in love with his Shieldmaiden aunt, then betray her, leading to a round of homicides and suicides and possibly the twilight of the gods. Siegfried happens upon Rosamund (while Lily’s freeing her from the Snowskin entrapments) at the same time as another princeling, Leopold. Siegfried is the stoic warrior type, a lot of brawn but a fair bit of brain as well. Leopold is a dark and handsome charmer, a preternaturally talented gambler, kicked out of his own kingdom by his father for being too popular. They decide to join the competition for Rosamund’s hand. They also decide to team up to help each other through the first few rounds of challenges, agreeing to part amiably when it comes time for the final test, and it creates a wonderful Odd Couple dynamic. Their interactions are some of the best moments in the book — quick, funny, and clever.
One of the flaws of these books, especially as they’ve gone along, is that there can be a lot of telling and not a lot of discovery. When your characters already know how the Tradition works, when they’re so adept at avoiding its entanglements, what you get is a lot of explanation. I can understand how Lackey wouldn’t want to re-introduce the Tradition each time, because reading as characters discover it over and over again could be just as tedious in a different way, but, it is a narrative flaw, in my opinion. I wanted her to show more, tell less.
I also find myself wishing that the romance were a bit more pronounced — which isn’t particular to this book, it’s how I feel about the series as a whole. It’s marketed as a fantasy romance, it’s published under the fantasy wing of freaking Harlequin, for heaven’s sake… but the romance is always very lightly handled. Certainly not any heavier (or steamier) than in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series (which is not similarly categorised). So I always feel it’s a bit misleading to promote these as having a romance angle. This one was, for very PG-rated romance, actually better than others in the series, as we do get to see Rosamund considering her suitors — but there’s definitely no sizzle whatsoever, and Rosamund spends less time with her suitors (Siegfried, Leopold, and another talented-but-unsettling stranger named Desmond) than she does with Lily, figuring out how to thwart Tradition. There’s also an odd and only ever half-explained romance between Godmother Lily and the spirit in her magic mirror.
Lackey does avoid another of her usual flaws, though; her books have a terrible habit of cramming the climax and the denouement all into about the last five pages. She draws things out more nicely here — still a little rapid at the end, still crashing into the climax rather abruptly, but at least she gives the wrapping-up bits enough space to breathe in. (Apparently she also continued the story of two of the side characters in a short story, which I now sort of want to locate).
Overall, this is a fun, light read. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s not entirely forgettable either. If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll enjoy this (and the rest of the series) — finding all of the references is a fun game to play while reading, and if your head works anything like mine, you’ll like thinking about the twists and turns of the Tradition and following along with how a clever, knowledgeably person might outwit it. Probably on sheer technical merit, this book only deserves 3 stars, but I laughed out loud a few times and it left me feeling happy, and I’m proud of Lackey for avoiding some of the problems that have irritated me in the past, so I bumped it up another half star on credit.