By Stephen King and Owen King
Published September 2017 (Orbit)
Oh wow, this was a huge book. 700 pages, but I listened to it as an audiobook, so nearly 24 hours of narration there. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised. After all, it’s a Stephen King book; it is going to be a huge doorstopper. But this isn’t just a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is a collaboration between King and his son Owen, with the idea being Owen King’s. The two authors wrote the book in such a way that you can’t really tell which parts come from who, but the result is a book that is very Stephen King, but also a bit different to his usual stories.
Sleeping Beauties is a story about what would happen to our world if all the women were gone. A suspected virus wraps a cocoon around any woman that falls asleep, and she can no longer wake up. This has some huge consequences on the world, and allows some interesting discussions about some of the unfairness the world dishes out to women (a topic which I think the Kings handled very well) and the different ways men and women act (which I think had a few issues.) The Kings do a great job at showing us the rapid changes to the world from many viewpoints, and in getting us into the heads of a range of characters. Having over 70 named characters did make things a bit confusing at times, but I feel I got a very good understanding of the most important characters. Not only that, but everyone was very sympathetic, even one of the main “villains” came across as a man who loved his daughter and wanted to do the right thing despite his anger issues.
Well, maybe not everyone was sympathetic. Some characters are just arseholes. Bonus points to this book for getting me to hate Don Peters so much, while also making him feel like a real person. I’ve seen other reviews call some of the more antagonistic characters cardboard cutouts, but unfortunately a lot of the viewpoints expressed by such characters are all ones that get expressed in the real world.
One thing that bothered me was the idea put forward by this book that men are inherently violent whilst women could theoretically build up a much more peaceful, fairer society. Aggressive, unreasonable or cruel women are seen as an exception, rather than the norm. It surprises me that the man who wrote Carrie can put forth such a vision without more deconstruction. True, there is some biological truth to the fact that males tend to be more aggressive, but these differences are exaggerated in Sleeping Beauties.
At one point a man in a bar preaches to the drinkers that women serve the same function in society as boys employed by coal companies in days gone by to pour water over the machines: they stop everything from catching fire and becoming destructive. An argument for this viewpoint is that women don’t start wars. My first thought was ‘What about Catherine the Great?’, but the point was never really argued against in universe. My problem with this reasoning isn’t just that it’s inaccurate, but that it assumes that women have had equal opportunity to become warmongers and tyrants. Or heroes for that matter. Or that history has remembered the contributions of women as well as those of men. Oh, and there is also the problematic suggestion that without women men would just be violent monsters shooting everything and everyone in their path.
But on the other hand…,
Everything the characters do can be explained in universe by factors other than ‘no women so now we go crazy’ or ‘no men so now we’re free’. As the women fall asleep, the men are left in a world where basic infrastructure is falling apart due to the lack of half the population. They must deal with this while fearing for the safety of their lost loved ones and facing an uncertain future. In this context, the aggression we see is to be expected. Meanwhile the women who become isolated from the men (don’t really want to explain this, kinda spoilery) have their small-town community connections, lack of outside enemies, and are able to pull together to rebuild like so many other communities do in the face of disaster. With all these elements, it is quite reasonable to expect them to act more rationally and kinder. The World of Men is falling apart, whilst the World of Women requires rebuilding and co-operation for survival. If the two worlds were not segregated by gender, I could see then both going down similar paths anyway. Maybe the reason why none of the characters bring up these factors is because in their world (and in ours), the perceived division between the sexes is such a huge thing that the search for answers stops there, rather than taking a more nuanced look at human nature and circumstances.
I’ll be thinking about this book and its message for a while. Whilst the aforementioned small issues exist, over all Sleeping Beauties is a call for equality, that gets a lot of the issues women do face. The message isn’t overbearing either; this is simply a good story, with characters that interested me and a plot that kept me invested for that whole 700 page trek. I never felt like it was dragging.
Despite how much I enjoyed this book, I felt annoyed that we never got any real answers to what caused the sleeping incident or why the small town in this setting was so special. That could just be me being accustomed to science fiction stories where everything makes sense. Asking for more explanation than what we got could be asking too much: after all, the reveal in Under the Dome wasn’t that satisfying.
It is also worth praising this book for the battle scene at the end. I’ve often read Stephen King books where the final battle was built up well, but then the battle itself fizzles out rather quick. Looking at you, Wolves of the Calla. That was not the case here. Maybe it’s because storming a fortified position is a longer process than a pitched battle, or maybe this is Owen King’s influence shining through. Either way, I was hooked through every process of the battle.
Now that I’ve typed that review, I just realised that it has been a long time since I read anything by Stephen King. I went back through my old blog posts, and the most recent King book was Doctor Sleep, all the way back in January of 2015. I think that has been my longest gap between Stephen King books. As for Own King, I have never read any of his work, and whilst I feel that he is the reason why this book was so much better than Doctor Sleep and other more recent King books, I probably won’t be reading any of his stuff. Read the blurb for Double Take and his short story collection, and just doesn’t seem like my thing.
I better finish this review before I get completely off topic. I liked this book a lot, and the narration on the audiobook was amazing.