The Gates of Sleep by Mercedes Lackey, part of her ELEMENTAL MASTERS series, is a fun, harmless read based loosely on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
Growing up, I had always been drawn to Mercedes Lackey books, mostly because of the lush cover art, usually drawn by Jody Lee. But then, unfailingly, I’d read the blurb and decide not to read it; they usually sounded too involved, too conspicuously “high fantasy,” or otherwise cheesy and formulaic. (I love high fantasy, but I must have been a hipster when I was a kid because I couldn’t stand it if the book seemed like it was trying too hard.)
So I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging I found this book. Lee’s artwork is the perfect companion to Lackey’s prose, which is rich and descriptive. The world she creates for The Gates of Sleep is set in the English countryside and is replete with rushing brooks, dappled forests, and bright flowers. It feels like the work of the Pre-Raphaelites set in prose, which is no accident, given that Marina Roeswood, Lackey’s protagonist, spends the first sixteen years of her life living with her godparents in what amounts to a provincial artist’s colony. Lackey spends a lot of time setting the scene, describing the paintings, tapestries, carved wood furniture, and pottery that Marina’s godparents surround her with.
Her godparents aren’t only artists, however. Each of them is an elemental mage. They can channel spirits of specific elements — fire, earth, air. Marina, as her name suggests, is a budding water mage who also has an affinity with the element of air. She spends her days posing for her painter uncle, cooking, reading, playing music, and hanging out outdoors with the sylphs and undines that correspond to her magical powers.
Unbeknownst to her, Marina was cursed at her christening by her aunt Arachne, who was not supposed to have magical talent. Her estranged parents and devoted godparents have spent sixteen years looking for a way to counteract the curse while hiding Marina away. Just before her seventeenth birthday, however, Arachne’s minions show up and whisk Marina away to a huge estate where she is watched night and day by Arachne and her son, the “odious Reggie.” Their sinister plan is to drain Marina of her magic while also gaining access to her money and land, inherited from her parents (killed mid-book by Arachne).
I listened to The Gates of Sleep on audio, read by Kayla Fell. Her narration was good, but not exceptional. I’m not an expert on regional English accents; most of the book she read in an accent that, hard-pressed to describe it, I’d call “northern” or even “Yorkshire.” She kinda sounded like Ygritte from Game of Thrones, drawing out long vowels — “Yooo knooooow nothing, Jon Snoooow” — which was fun. But she mispronounced a couple of words, and I felt unconvinced by some of her character voices.
I liked that The Gates of Sleep kept surprising me, heading one way when I was sure it was going to go another. For instance, I was sure that Odious Reggie would be reclaimed and turn out to be Marina’s Prince Charming… until his extracurricular activities made it clear that no amount of reclamation would make him a suitable mate for our heroine. I also really appreciated how much time was spent discussing the system of magic; Lackey established early on what methods the mages used, and what limits there were to their magic. Her characterization, too, was deep and heartfelt. I felt as if I knew Marina and her family, and I liked them.
Unfortunately, the villains were not as well drawn. Madame Arachne and the odious Reggie were like cardboard cutouts of villains. Arachne reminded me of the stepmother from Cinderella, all icy propriety. In fact, her role visavis Marina ended up being more that of the wicked stepmother than the malevolent fairy, since they were thrown together in the same stately manor and Arachne was charged with grooming the girl for society. Reggie was even worse than his mother. Everything he said was so fatuous (which was partly the point) that it seemed difficult to swallow that he was really involved with a complicated magical bid for revenge. For instance, he kept addressing Arachne in Latin — “mater” — which made me imagine him as the kind of dude who has a pencil mustache, a linen suit, and a monogrammed cigarette holder. (Incidentally, Kayla Fell was really good at making Reggie sound like an awful douchebag.)
The other big drawback to The Gates of Sleep was how complicated and rushed the ending was. The culminating battle introduced so many new rules and methods to Lackey’s carefully drawn magical system — We can fight in dreams now! And if I kill you in a dream, you die! — that it was like a whole host of deuses emerged from the machina. And the inevitable romance between Marina and a humble but magical country doctor came out of nowhere. As in, “she suddenly realized that she loved him,” when there had been no significant flirtation or discussion of burgeoning feelings beforehand. Maybe this is just the effect of reading a fair amount of chick lit, but when I’m reading a book with several detailed descriptions of dresses, I expect an equal proportion of emotional play-by-play. Marina’s situation in the big, lonely house watched over by unfriendly relatives was too much like an Austen or Bronte heroine for there to not be any corresponding relationship angst.