Mercedes Lackey has done a delightful job of transplanting Sleeping Beauty from the Middle Ages into class-conscious 19th century England. The Gates of Sleep opens dramatically with the traditional christening of Hugh and Alanna Roeswood's infant daughter, Marina, capped by a death curse spun by Arachne, Hugh's bitterly estranged sister. The part of the good fairy is played by Lady Elizabeth Hastings, an Elemental Master of Water. Though unable to revoke the evil spell, she manages to mutate the death fate to a curse which, if it does not fall upon Marina by her eighteenth birthday, will rebound upon the caster. To protect Marina, her parents consign her to the care of Sebastian, a powerful Fire Master, and his wife Margherita, Elemental Master of Earth.
So young Marina grows up in bohemian freedom in Blackbird Cottage in the wilds of Cornwall. She learns her Greek and Latin, helps Margherita in the kitchen, poses for Sebastian's Art Nouveau paintings, and reads poetry to the Undines who live in the brook. She practices the basics of magic under Sebastian's tutoring, and enjoys the visits of traveling poets and artists who drop in to visit her guardians, whom she thinks of as her aunt and uncle.
Ignorant of the stifling constraints of Victorian etiquette, the great estate at Oakhurst to which she was born, and the curse that hangs over her, Marina passes a happy childhood. Once she leaves girlhood behind, though, she begins to yearn for the glittering life she reads about in the society pages of the London Times. She day-dreams of fancy frocks and gala balls. Her lessons begin to seem frustrating, boring, and stale. She yearns for something more, without quite knowing what. Sebastian and Margherita have greater concerns, though.
Marina is now seventeen, and in more peril than ever before because Arachne must move soon if she is to bring her curse to fruition before Marina comes into her inheritance, both earthly and spiritual. For Marina shows signs of having tremendous potential; not only do the Undines socialize with her, but she is attended by Sylphs of the Air as well. Her guardians decide it is time she had a teacher of her own Element, and bring Elizabeth Hastings to Blackbird Cottage.
Fans of Caroline Stevermerís A College of Magics or Anne McCaffrey's Rowena series will enjoy Lackey's detailed accounting of Marina's struggle to master her Gift under Elizabeth's tutelage. Along with the lessons in magic, Elizabeth brings the wider world to Blackbird Cottage, and Marina learns of the Suffragist movement, and the environmental and magical damage being wrecked by the new factories. She proves an apt pupil, and by the time her teacher goes home for the Christmas holiday, Marina has learned the first principals of Water magic, principals that will soon be put to a shocking test.
Then terrible news arrives: Marina's parents died in a tragedy at sea without leaving a will, and her Aunt Arachne has been awarded legal custody of her and the estate. Stunned and terrified, Marina is wrenched from the only home she has ever known and delivered forthwith into Arachne's power.
To survive, she must summon resources of guile she never suspected she possessed, and marshal both her wits and her fledgling magical skills to win allies among the downstairs servants and the village folk. To her surprise, she finds not only loyal friends, but true love as well.
Lackey charmingly recreates the rustic lifestyle of Cornwall at the turn of the century. Without overdoing dialect, which rarely translates well onto the printed page anyway, she imbues her supporting cast with period-perfect eccentricities and superstitions. The bucolic setting is made more realistic by the introduction of trains, electricity, and industrialization from Marina's wide-eyed perspective. Lackey makes effective use of stereotypes; Arachne's odious son Reggie is so perfectly the shallow upper-class snob that we can believe Marina is really oblivious to his sinister side. The one thing I found disconcerting was the narrative's shift in perspective after Marina had been delivered into Arachne's clutches. Had the author let me puzzle out Arachne's evil plans along with Marina, rather than revealing the plot from Arachneís point of view, I would have found the ending more satisfying. As it was, however, I soon became impatient for Marina to clue in and catch up. That not withstanding, this lavishly-detailed revision of a beloved old classic made for a very enjoyable afternoon by the pool.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu