Beauty | A Wicked Sleeping Beauty Tale

by Sarah Pinborough

So I went out of my way to read The Land of Green Ginger in meticulous detail, breaking my reading into sections. I was going to do the same thing for Sarah Pinborough’s Beauty, which I had bought recently. Instead I read it in one night.

That probably gives the impression that I enjoyed the story. Truth be told, it was definitely a page-turner, but now that I’m done and can look back on it as a whole, I’m not sure what I liked in the story.

I know I really liked the intermingling of the fairy tales, especially in the first two chapters when “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood” were the most prevalent. I mean, any story that, at the beginning, tells me how,

“Perhaps she’d sneak out again tonight and see if she could hear the plaintive howling that sometimes carried quietly over the briar wall on the breeze. The sound might have terrified men and children alike, but something in it called to Petra and made her heart ache. For a while she had just listened, but then one night she’d thrown her hood back and howled in response and the forest wall itself had trembled as their two voices became one. It had become a song between them, a delicious, private secret that made her shiver in ways she didn’t really understand. But she longed to see beyond the wall and find the other half of her duet. What manner of beast was trapped there? Why did it sound so lonely? And what had made the forest create such a daunting, impenetrable fortress that no man had tried to break through it?” (24).

is going to have me hooked. A wall of briars, a mournful howling, a beast (or wolf) behind a briar hedge? Yes, please. There were so many ways I thought this was going to go in the story.

The wolf could have been guarding the sleeping princess to keep her safe. The wolf could have been the cursed one and instead of falling asleep the princess became a wolf. The wolf could have been cursed (maybe for spurning or being rude to a fairy – or witch, since that’s what this story uses for women who have magical curses?) and a wall of briars rose up to protect an enchanted garden (a la “Beauty and the Beast”).

None of those plots happened. The story went its own way. The wolf had no link to the sleeping beauty, nor it did have any relation to the “Beauty and the Beast” theme. All of which I thought was a shame.

Also, the wolf Petra hears is technically a werewolf, who only turns into one during the full moon because he spurned a witch’s romantic/sexual advances. So that was disappointing.

Before I say anything more about the plot, here’s all the fairy tales that are either explicitly used in the plot or are alluded to in the story:

  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Rusalka
  • Rumpelstiltskin
  • Rapunzel
  • Peter and the Wolf
  • Bluebeard
  • The 12 Dancing Princesses
  • (maybe) Cinderella

I liked how the “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Rapunzel” stories interweave with the larger story. Even though you can see it coming. I mean, if Rumpelstiltskin cared so much about his daughter that he didn’t want to leave her in the kingdom when Beauty had one of her Beast phases (I’ll get to that below) and he has to visit a witch in a tower to find a cure for Beauty and his entire fairy tale is about wanting a child…

Yeah, he has to leave Rapunzel with the witch in exchange for the cursed spindle that will kill Beauty. The witch says he can have his daughter when the spindle has done its work. The trouble is that the spindle’s work will take a hundred years, as one drop of blood after another drips out of her finger until she dies.

(What will happen to everyone else in the kingdom once she dies? Will they keep sleeping? Will they wake up? Will the briars depart?)

As I said, yes, Beauty and the Beast are the same character. She has something of a Jekyll and Hyde set up, as a result of her mother’s water-witch blood. Beauty is sweet, loving, and kind. The Beast is cruel and uninhibited, inviting young people to the palace for orgies and performing extreme torture and blood-letting; she drinks and dances in the blood of specially chosen victims. She even has the dungeons set up with equipment “designed, as far as he could make out, to cause the maximum agony while keeping someone alive” (76).

None of these things are necessarily bad. In fact, the dual nature of Beauty kept the pages turning and it was very engaging. I’m just not sure I liked much else. I didn’t come away liking any of the characters.

But the worst parts were 1. How women were characterized 2. How women were used in the plot, and 3. How romance and sexuality was portrayed.

Crones are bad news and not to be trusted. Beauty is either pure and good or debased and evil. It’s like an extreme Madonna/whore dichotomy. And this extreme polarity of female characterization is never resolved. I was hoping Petra would find a way to resolve Beauty’s duality, maybe show how a love between a human and water-witch isn’t condemnable. But Petra and the wolf just re-prick her finger so she can die. But it’s okay, cause they love each other and get to spend a hundred years together. Which leads to women in the plot.

Petra’s only role in the story is to have “true love” with Toby, the werewolf. She has one scene at the beginning where she saves the prince and the huntsman from a giant wolf by shooting it with an arrow. That never comes up again. She’s called over the fence because they’re totally meant to be. In contrast, the “true love” the prince feels for Beauty, while possibly real to a small extent, is implied to be part of Beauty’s witchcraft. Like sirens, everyone can’t help loving her. Especially men when they kiss her.

See what the story did there? First, the women who is not-completely-good (Beauty) doesn’t have a real “true love” like the other women (Petra). Second, it automatically correlates a man to those who want to kiss Beauty. The story doesn’t say whether any woman kissed her and what would happen if she did; it’s simply a mute point and reinforces the belief the man + woman = “normal”.

But that’s not to say there was no lesbian sexuality in the story. This is probably what broke the book for me and why I’m considering if I want to keep it or not. Eventually, the prince stumbles onto one of Beast’s nightly party orgies, which she doesn’t partake in. And of the three sexual descriptions given, two feature women in some form of sexual intimacy.

So you know what this tells me? Sex between women can be used to show “beastly” and debauched behavior. Ugh. While the heterosex between Petra and Toby (which honestly comes out of nowhere; so your tongues met, that doesn’t make you want to have sex in a flash) is presented as good with real  “True Love”. Gag me.

It was actually when I got to the orgy scene that I knew I’d probably finish the book. Cause there was no way I was going to bed after reading that.

Words / Metaphor / Quote:

None, if only because I wasn’t as charmed by any quirky language or the ways the characters spoke like in The Land of Green Ginger. But there were certainly very visceral and vivid scenes.

Like when Beauty’s Beast persona first appears and she uses scissors to try to cut the skin off her pet kitten Domino (and consequently murder him) when he won’t change his colors like her. Beauty’s hair is usually black with two blond streaks; this reverses when she’s Beast. Domino matched her Beauty colors, being prominently black with blond specks. So she was angry when he didn’t swap colors like her. And that he scratched her.

So yes, it was a visual book but it wasn’t the language, so much as the visceral shock of the images it produced my mind. It’s definitely very much in the horror genre.

But the Princess Beauty should have been left to her eternal slumber.

Works Cited:

Pinborough, Sarah. Beauty A Wicked Sleeping Beauty Tale. London: Titan Books, May 2015, Print.


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