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Perchance to dream - ‘Sleeping Beauties’

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A haunting collaboration from Stephen & Owen King

Writing is largely a solitary pursuit. The act of storytelling tends to be a relatively isolated one; narrative as singular vision and all of that. This makes collaborative efforts tricky to manage, though one imagines that closeness between the writers in question probably simplifies things.

And it doesn’t get much closer than father and son.

Authors Stephen King and Owen King have come together to co-write “Sleeping Beauties” (Scribner, $32.50), 700 pages of story that manages to be evocative of the elder King’s popular, powerful voice while also reading as something that is very much its own.

One day, the women of the world simply stop waking up. When they fall asleep, they become encased in cocoons generated by their own bodies, cocoons made up of equal parts normal bodily secretions and unknown material. Should anyone disturb the gentle gauze of their cocoons, they snap, becoming blindly and brutally violent and lashing out at those who have disturbed them.

In the small Appalachian town of Dooling, the gradual succumbing of women to the cocoons of sleep has left the men of the town confused, frightened and with plenty of violent tendencies of their own. Due to some gruesome circumstances, the women’s prison there plays host to one particular woman; she calls herself Eve Black and it soon becomes clear that she is anything but ordinary.

For instance, she can still wake up after falling asleep.

Clint Norcross - prison psychiatrist and husband to town sheriff Lila - finds himself unexpectedly serving as a guardian of sorts, and not just to Eve, but to all of the women of Dooling Correctional. But not all of Dooling’s men are willing to wait and see – especially when rumors of a woman immune to the plague (dubbed Aurora after pop cultures most famed sleeping beauty) begin to spread.

No one knows what is happening and everyone is afraid. Women everywhere are making every possible effort to stay awake, using everything from coffee to cocaine. But sleep is inevitable. And the men who don’t know when – or even if – the women will ever wake up again? Many wind up traveling down some dark, dark paths.

The world starts to crumble. In just days, society threatens to crumble into chaos. But somehow, more than anywhere else, it is what is happening in Dooling that matters most of all. Dooling is the key … but why?

And what about Eve Black, hovering in the center of it all? Is she the savior or the villain? Or is she something else entirely?

Full disclosure: I read this book over the course of approximately 24 hours. It was so hypnotic, so captivating that (CLICHÉ ALERT) I really couldn’t put it down. The propulsive storytelling that is a King hallmark apparently runs in the family, because at no point did this book lose its relentlessness. And while there are a few instances that feel decidedly like the work of the elder King, for the most part, you simply can’t see the seams, which speaks volumes to the talents of the younger writer.

Bear in mind, there’s a lot going on here, a fact that is rendered abundantly clear from the get-go; before the story even starts, the reader is given a four-page list of dramatis personae. There are a lot of characters here, a lot of moving parts – 70-some names in all. Some inhabit huge roles, serving as the fulcrums upon which the larger story pivots. Others play their parts in mere moments before floating away, their purpose served. But all of them are important, which is rather stunning to think about when you consider the sheer size of the cast.

Of course, that’s a big part of what makes “Sleeping Beauties” such an exciting read. It manages to be complex without becoming convoluted. Despite having numerous plot threads to follow at any given time, the Kings find ways to weave them together – sometimes so subtly that the resulting tapestry comes almost as a surprise. That smoothness is impressive; there are none of the fits and starts that one might expect from a collaborative novel. Too often, collaborations are either clunky and unwieldy patchworks or transparent cash grabs that are “collaborations” in name only. There’s none of that here – there is a single unifying voice that carries through.

So yeah – it’s a good one.

“Sleeping Beauties” is a rip-roarer of a story, but it also carries within it some engaging thematic seeds. Elements of feminism and tendrils of environmentalism wend their way into the picture. The realities of small-town life – the good and the bad – are laid bare. And the good/evil dichotomy is rendered with a murkiness that imbues it with a real and unsettling power; the amount of gray at play here creates a flexibility that is far more interesting than the initial signifiers of black and white.

For a plot this thick, pacing is vital. Too slow and the reader is bogged down. Too fast and said reader can’t keep up. It’s a tight line to walk for one writer, let alone two. Yet the Kings are unfailingly sympatico on that front, teasing us along at just the right rate. They give us what we need when we need it, never overloading or underdelivering.

There’s something for everyone here, from the visceral to the emotional to the cerebral. There are sinister machinations and heroic deeds. At any given moment, this book might knock the wind out of you with a punch to the stomach … or it might bring a tear to your eye with a gentle, unanticipated breeze of love. It is a 21st century Greek tragedy: challenging, smart and thoughtful, marrying ideas and action into a story that begs to have its pages compulsively turned.

But perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is this: “Sleeping Beauties” is a book that I wish I could read for the first time all over again.

Hail to the Kings.

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