Sleeping Beauties: Old-Time Styles

Want to know a dirty little secret, Internets?

I have never written an entirely original thing in my life. I’m a magpie. I pick up shiny ideas and take them home and throw them into a nest until they turn into a big glittery ball of a novel. I have to pick apart a lot of the ideas before I can use them (… with my beak, this metaphor is starting to fall apart) or turn them into something else that I think will better add to the structural integrity of my new avant-garde jewelry, but I always start from somewhere else.

Usually, I start from a story.

Guardian of the Dead is about stories and the way they shape us, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it engages with so many of them. It explicitly talks about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Orpheus tale, and the stories of Maui and Hine-nui-te-Po, but it’s also a Tam Lin story and a Beauty and the Beast story. I have it on very good authority that it’s a Gothic tale, which surprised the heck out of me, but sure! The Shattering is not about stories, so it doesn’t refer to as many, but it is explicitly and primarily a Summer King story and about the aftermath of that kind of sacrifice, from the point of view of those most harmed by it.

And When We Wake is a Sleeping Beauty story, through and through. I thought I would be a total nerd, and write some nerdly essays on Sleeping Beauty tellings and retellings. “One a month!” I said to myself. “Release one a month until the the publication of When We Wake!”

So let’s start at the very beginning (the very best place to start), with the old European origins of the story I transplanted to future Australia.

sleeping beauty in the wood

The Sleeping Beauty archetype has a looong history as European stories go, probably well over a thousand years long. The earliest written antecedent is thought to be in the Icelandic Volsunga saga, which is one of those sagas the Vikings liked to tell each other on cold winter evenings, of which they had many. It was around in verbal form for centuries before it was recorded in prose from the epic poem – the Ramsund carving depicts events from the saga. But not the part we are concerned with, which features one of my favorite Sleeping Beauty figures, Brynhildr. There are a few variations of her story; this is my favorite.

The Volsunga Saga ~1400 CE/AD (translation here):

The excellent Brynhildr is a shield maiden, and a Valkyrie, and a wise woman who knows a lot about rune craft and sayings of wisdom and power. She’s not a peaceful person at all; Brynhildr is all about riding into battle and slaying her enemies. But one of the enemies she slays is a chosen champion of Odin, to whom the god had promised victory.

Odin, instead of deciding that he maybe shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep, curses Brynhildr instead. He stabs her with a sleeping thorn and curses Brynhildr to never win another battle. He also curses her to be “given away in marriage.” Brynhildr clearly finds this an unpalatable proposition, and counter-vows that she will never marry a man who “knows the name of fear”. Basically, only a man who approaches her awesomeness is worthy of her! She duly falls asleep, fully dressed in her armor.

Siegfried_awakens_Brunhild Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

“Siegfried awakens Brunhild”, Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

Enter Sigurd the dragon slayer! Sigurd, like a lot of heroes from the sagas, is not a hero in the sense of being honorable and noble, as we tend to think has to be the way of heroes now, but he is a hero in the sense of being extremely good at killing things and people. And he is fearless! So he approaches this sleeping warrior, takes off the helmet, and realizes that the dude he thought he was rescuing is actually a beautiful woman.

He cuts her armor off (SIGURD that stuff is EXPENSIVE) and Brynhildr wakes. She recognizes him at once, and is on the whole pretty pleased about the fact that she’s been wakened by such a fearless man (who I suspect was pretty hot, as Norsemen go. Maybe like Eric from True Blood?).

hey there Eric

Well, hey there

Sigurd is like, “Wow, you are amazing, PLEASE TELL ME ALL THAT YOU KNOW.” I love that. They have an actual conversation (in verse!) where instead of being the helpless victim, Brynhildr is cast as a wise and doughty survivor who gives Sigurd a lot of useful information. AND THEN:

Sigurd spake, “None among the sons of men can be found wiser than thou; and thereby swear I, that thee will I have as my own, for near to my heart thou liest.”

She answers, “Thee would I fainest choose, though I had all men’s sons to choose from.”

And thereto they plighted troth both of them. .

Except, oops, this is a NORSE story. You can never assume a happy ending!

Brynhildr sort of repents promising to marry Sigurd, because after all, she is a shield maiden – she is about battles, not babies, and she doesn’t think it appropriate that they get married. Sigurd keeps pressing his point, and eventually Brynhildr’s like, okay, I love you too, but that is not the point! However, he wears her down and they exchange rings, essentially getting married right there. They even have a daughter! The problem is, Brynhildr knows Sigurd is also going to marry a king’s daughter named Gudrun, because she interpreted Gudrun’s dream about Sigurd. The result is going to be death and calamity for a lot of people:

Brynhild answers, “I will arede thy dream, even as things shall come to pass hereafter; for Sigurd shall come to thee, even he whom I have chosen for my well-beloved; and Grimhild shall give him mead mingled with hurtful things, which shall cast us all into mighty strife. Him shalt thou have, and him shalt thou quickly miss; and Atli the king shalt thou wed; and thy brethren shalt thou lose, and slay Atli withal in the end.”

Gudrun answers, “Grief and woe to know that such things shall be!”


brunhilde says no to gutrune arthur rackham

“Brunhilde says no to Gutrune,” Arthur Rackham

Sure enough, Gudrun’s mother Grymhild drugs Sigurd, and he forgets all about Brynhildr, and marries Gudrun as well. Oops. Grymhild then decides that her son Gunnar would be a good husband for Brynhildr (lady, let it GO) and tells him to go a-wooing.

But Brynhildr has set up a magical fire around her castle, and only a man worthy of her can safely cross through the flames. Gunnar can’t do it! So he and Sigurd swap faces (can you see where this is going?) and Sigurd, looking like Gunnar, rides through the flames and he and Brynhild get engaged AGAIN, only this time she thinks she’s getting engaged to Gunnar. They stay together in her castle for three days and nights. Sigurd won’t sleep with her, though, because that would be betraying his friend. Your morals are very SELECTIVE, Sigurd. Sigurd and the real Gunnar swap faces again on the ride home. Gunnar and Brynhildr, unaware she’s been deceived, get married and everyone seems to be pretty pleased about it.



Brynhildr finds out, of course, and is rightfully furious. Both her husbands deliberately deceived her! Her first husband married someone else! And absolutely no one is on her side about this. Everyone thinks she was lucky to marry Gunnar, and tells her to stop moping about and being angry. She tries to kill Gunnar, but is prevented from doing that, and enters what is essentially a deep depression. Eventually she tells Gunnar that unless he kills Sigurd, she’s going to leave him. Gunnar doesn’t want to do the dead himself, so he talks his younger brother into doing it, and Sigurd is duly slain in bed, while Gudrun is holding him.


Brynhildr tries to be happy about this, but it’s kind of a difficult situation!

And Gudrun said, “My kinsmen have slain my husband; but ye, when ye next ride to the war and are come into the battle, then shall ye look about and see that Sigurd is neither on the right hand nor the left, and ye shall know that he was your good-hap and your strength; and if he had lived and had sons, then should ye have been strengthened by his offspring and his kin.”

Brynhildr stabs herself, and is borne out to be burned up on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. These Norse! Everything ends in Ragnorak.

Sun, Moon, and Talia, by Giambattista Basile, 1636:

Brynhildr’s story is one drenched in blood and anguish. There’s a lot of drama and excitement, but it is not what you could call a fairy tale – the loose ends don’t tie up in a handy (and happy!) knot. The story continues with Gudrun’s next husband and her brothers, and Sigurd’s children, to the usual despair and kinslaying. Nevertheless, that whole “cursed to fall asleep; wakened only by the right man” thing has distinct literary possibilities for a fairy tale structure.

the rose bower by sir edward burne-jones

“The Rose Bower” by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

A lot of people no doubt recognised that possibility, but the next well-known version we have is that of Gimbattista Basile, an Neopolitan writer who collected and doubtless edited a collection of fables and literary fairy tales, called Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille, later titled The Pentamerone. In the process, he pretty much invented the fairy tale collection, though Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm (of which more later) tend to get more of the credit for popularizing the genre.

Basile’s version of the Sleeping Beauty trope is about a lord’s daughter named Talia. It was foretold that she would be hurt by a piece of flax. The lord thereby forbade all flax to enter his lands, but in the way of such things, Talia eventually sees an old woman spinning flax into linen, and asks to try. A splinter of flax pricks her finger and she falls into a deathlike sleep. Instead of being buried, her dad puts her in a lovely country manor and then drops out of the story.

the king and his falcon basile sleeping beauty warwick goble

“The King and his Falcon” by Warwick Goble

After a while, a king turns up and spots this beautiful sleeping woman, and here’s where things get awful. He tries to wake her up, but she won’t wake, so, naturally… he rapes her. And then rides back to his own country! And his wife.

And you thought Sigurd was a horrible person.

Still asleep, Talia gives birth to twins, who crawl up her body, and, trying to nurse, suck the piece of flax out of her finger. THEN she wakes up! With these two babies she can’t recall having! Probably lying in a pile of fluids and blood, and oh my god, this is a really terrible story. She names the babies Sun and Moon.

The English translation that I have (Taylor 1847; web version here) bowdlerizes the heck out of the rape and sleep-labour:

when the King saw her, he called to her, thinking that she was asleep, but in vain, for she still slept on, however loud he called. So, after admiring her beauty awhile, the King returned home to his kingdom, where for a long time he forgot all that had happened.

Meanwhile, two little twins, one a boy and the other a girl, who looked like two little jewels, wandered, from I know not where, into the palace

“Admiring her beauty.” Uh-huh.

Anyway, the king remembers that he totally raped this hot sleeping woman, so he goes back to the country manor and finds her awake. He swears eternal devotion etc, but uh, he is already married (Not in the Taylor translation! In that one he is single, and has a wicked stepmother instead! Taylor was pretty determined to cover up any unsavory aspects of his adulterous, rapist hero). The queen, growing suspicious about her husband’s time away, discovers his secret and orders Sun and Moon to be killed, so that she can serve them to her husband FOR DINNER. The cook instead serves up kid goats, and the queen is duly deceived, gleefully feeding her husband with what she thinks are his children.

Then she orders Talia to be brought to her, strips her down, and prepares to throw her into a huge bonfire. Luckily, the king returns in time to prevent this atrocity. He orders his wife executed instead, and is about to kill the cook too, when the man reveals that SURPRISE he didn’t kill the children! Here they are sir, we cool? We cool!

Talia then gets to marry her rapist and live with him and the children of that rape for many years. Yay? Happy ending? Apparently?

The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood, by Charles Perrault, 1697:

French folklorist Charles Perrault was an interesting dude, who didn’t get around to publishing Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé (Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals) until nearly the end of his long career. Before that he was all about advising Louis XIV and picking literary fights in the court of the Sun King, with the requisite intrigue and nepotism. It’s kind of hilarious to me that he was this influential political and artistic figure, who even in his own time, was eventually best known for a collection of stories that he only put together in his late sixties, when he lost his post at court and decided to write something nice for his kids.

In Perrault’s version, the Sleeping Beauty is for the first time officially a princess, not a lord’s daughter or noblewoman. Her parents had trouble conceiving, and so were delighted with her birth, and they held a huge party, inviting all the fairies they could find, which was seven.

After the ceremonies of the christening were over, all the company returned to the King’s palace, where was prepared a great feast for the Fairies. There was placed before every one of them a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, knife and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table, they saw come into the hall a very old Fairy whom they had not invited, because it was above fifty years since she had been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted. The King ordered her a cover, but could not furnish her with a case of gold as the others, because they had seven only made for the seven Fairies

That detail about the golden cutlery is SO court of the Sun King, I can’t stand it. Anyway, the eighth fairy is angry, and after six fairies give their blessings, she pronounces that “the Princess should have her hand pierced with a spindle, and die of the wound.”

At the very instant the young fairy came out from behind the hangings by Harry Clarke

“At the very instant the young fairy came out from behind the hangings” by Harry Clarke

The last, youngest fairy, manages to ameliorate the curse: “The Princess shall indeed pierce her hand with a spindle; but instead of dying, she shall only fall into a profound sleep, which shall last a hundred years; at the expiration of which a king’s son shall come and awake her.”

Of course, the princess hits sixteen, pricks her finger on a spindle, and falls asleep. The good fairy turns up and makes sure everyone else in the palace falls asleep – except the king and queen, who presumably have ruling to do, and can… do it without their staff? I don’t think that’s very practical, good fairy, have you never watched The West Wing? The king and queen leave, and then: “in a quarter of an hour’s time, there grew up, all round about the park, such a vast number of trees, great and small, bushes and brambles, twining one within another, that neither man nor beast could pass thro’; so that nothing could be seen but the very top of the towers of the palace; and that too, not unless it was a good way off.”

A hundred years later, a prince turns up, and the thorns give way. He walks through to find the Sleeping Beauty and falls on his knees before her in admiration (respectful of boundaries! Good lad!) and she wakes up. She’d dreamed of him, so she’s more than ready to fall in love with him, and as they chat about how I love you, no, I love you MORE, the rest of the palace wakes up.

There’s this little detail, which I love: “The Prince helped the Princess to rise, she was entirely dressed, and very magnificently, but his Royal Highness took care not to tell her that she was dressed like his great grand-mother, and had a point-band peeping over a high collar; she looked not a bit the less beautiful and charming for all that.”

She’s a woman out of time. Fashions have changed!

They have a nice meal, they get married in the castle chapel, and then they go to bed where “they had but little sleep”. IF YOU KNOW WHAT CHARLES PERRAULT MEANS.

The prince doesn’t tell his royal parents about his new wife – Perrault doesn’t explain why, but I think it’s assumed, from his point of view, that royal scions can’t just go around marrying people at will, and especially not without their parents’ approval. You’ve got to wed with an eye towards politics, son! Instead, he keeps his princess a secret for TWO YEARS, during which they have a daughter and a son, named Aurora and Day. When the King dies, the prince declares his secret, and brings his wife to the palace to be acknowledged at last.

I will have it so replied the queen and will eat her with a sauce robert harry clarke

“‘I will have it so,’ replied the queen, ‘and will eat her with a sauce Robert’,” by Harry Clarke

His mother, who is part-Ogre, is unhappy about this whole business. When the new King goes off to make war on his neighbor, he makes his mother the Regent (why not his wife? You’re not making friends here, dude), and she promptly decides that eating her grandchildren would be an awesome idea. As in Basile’s tale, the cook manages to hide the children and serve up animals in their place. When the Queen Mother requests a dish made out of her daughter-in-law, he pulls the same trick with a young hind, and mother and children hide in the cellars, until, one day, the Queen Mother hears the kids talking and is furious.

She gets all the hideous poisonous creatures she can find thrown into a large tub, and intends to throw in the young queen, the children, and the cook and his wife, until, dum dum DUM, the young King comes home and discovers all! The Queen Mother throws herself into the tub of poisonous things and so dies, and the story ends like this: “The King could not but be very sorry, for she was his mother; but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife, and his pretty children.”

You can see how this story was gradually getting codified into what we recognise today as the “real” Sleeping Beauty story – a king’s daughter, fairies, a curse, a spindle, a sleep that will last a hundred years, the princess sleeping with all her faithful retainers about her, a thicket of thorns, a king’s son to break the curse (not with a kiss, yet) and, most importantly, the royal wedding! BEFORE the sexy times, please, we are trying to be good Catholics here.

The “real” Sleeping Beauty story in Western consciousness is the Grimm version as filtered through Disney – about which more next month. This is how the Grimm version ends:

And then the prince and Briar Rose were married, and the wedding feast was given; and they lived happily together all their lives long

But Perrault’s story, like Basile’s and Brynhildr’s, continue well after the Sleeping Beauty wakes. She has hardships to face and overcome, and that really appeals to me.

I mean, obviously – in When We Wake I shoot my heroine dead in the first chapter (I swear, that is not a spoiler; it’s on the back cover copy.) I needed Tegan to do stuff after she is woken from a century-long death “sleep”, or it would be a very short novel and my editors would be cross.

But there’s a problem with the Basile and Perrault stories (and not just the obvious rapist hero thing). Talia and Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty are more done unto than people who do things – they don’t have a lot of agency in their stories, which makes me sad. I like it when ladies get to do stuff. And a protagonist in a sci-fi adventure novel obviously has to do things, or the book should be about someone else!

Which brings us back to my favorite, Brynhildr.

brunhilde by arthur rackham

“Brunhilde,” by Arthur Rackham

Brynhildr is done unto. She’s tricked and betrayed by people she ought to be able to trust. She’s placed in an untenable position from which she sees no escape but death – and as you’ll see in When We Wake, Tegan is also faced with that moment of despair. But Brynhildr does stuff too. Grim, bloody stuff, but she gets to make her own choices and deal with the consequences as best she can. Some of her choices are pretty ugly, but that’s real to me; that’s what people do, especially people who are pushed to their limits.

So Tegan wakes up, and her story, which she had thought ended forever, has only just begun. What choices will she make? What limits of will and endurance will she discover? Will there be kissing after her death-slumber?

The answers to the first two questions remain to be seen.

The answer to the last one is, “Yes”.

When We Wake cover final

When We Wake will be available from Little, Brown and Allen and Unwin in March/February 2013. Pre-order through, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound.


Internets, I finally finished Wuthering Heights. It is a work of genius and I hate it.

Fortunately, while I powered through the last two hundred pages, I had my brand new copy of Unspoken, by my bud Sarah Rees Brennan, who has written an awesome Modern Gothic Romance trilogy. This livened up the Wuthering Heights reading immensely.

Now I hate Wuthering Heights, and I love Sarah and Unspoken both. I read Unspoken when it was a baby manuscript and I read Wuthering Heights as part of a New Year’s Resolution. NEVERTHELESS, I am going to embark on a Objective* and Totally Unbiased* Comparative Review of these two Gothic novels.

I really recommend not reading this review unless you have read Unspoken, because I am going to spoil the heck out of everything. I think I reveal nearly every mystery the book holds, including the ending. You don’t have to read Wuthering Heights first, though, you probably picked it up through cultural osmosis.

What Are The Plots?


Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.

There’s a framing narrative device here, but I don’t care about it, so whatever. Dude hears a story told by Faithful Servitor Nelly Dean about the two families she served, and the story is this:

Mr Earnshaw, the owner of Wuthering Heights, brings home a foundling he picked up off the streets, you know, as you do. His son Hindley doesn’t like little Heathcliff much, but his daughter Catherine does. When old Mr Earnshaw dies, Hindley gets married and downgrades Heathcliff to farmhand. Cathy and Heathcliff are still fast friends and roam about the wild and windy moors of Yorkshire.

A posh blond family called the Lintons turn up and inveigle Catherine away with the temptation of pretty dresses and not being muddy. Hindley’s wife dies after the birth of their son Hareton, and Hindley hits the bottle and Heathcliff. Edgar Linton proposes to Catherine and she accepts, because although Heathcliff is the OTHER PART OF HER SOUL, there’s no way she can see herself marrying a wretched laborer.

Heathcliff runs away, returns immensely wealthy three years later, and proceeds to ruin as many lives as he can. He lends money to Hindley until the entire Wuthering Heights estate is mortgaged to him, so that when Hindley dies he inherits everything. He keeps Hareton around as a laborer – as Hindley did to him. He then seduces and elopes with Edgar’s sister (and Catherine’s sister-in-law), Isabella Linton, which puts him in place to potentially inherit the Linton estates too, through any heir she gives him. He verbally and emotionally abuses Isabella before and after knocking her up. I think it pretty likely that he raped her, but it’s possible the impregnation took place with Isabella’s consent, while she was still genuinely into him. Not particularly informed consent, though!

Catherine gets sick, and Heathcliff turns up to clutch at her and bewail his anguished state. They are distraught together, and then she dies after giving birth to Cathy II. Isabella runs away to give birth after Heathcliff hits her. She keeps her son Linton Heathcliff (THE NAMES, EMILY, COME ON) with her until SHE dies and he’s claimed by Heathcliff. Heathcliff then plots to forcibly marry the teenaged Linton and Cathy II. He does! Edgar Linton dies! Linton Heathcliff dies!


HEATHCLIFF NOW OWNS EVERYTHING. Moreover, Hareton and Cathy II, the children of his enemies, are wholly within his control. His revenge is complete!

But his life is a shambles, because the OTHER PART OF HIS SOUL is missing and has been for seventeen years, and he longs only to die (but for some reason won’t kill himself, I still haven’t worked that one out). Fortunately, the ghost of Catherine is still hanging around and starts haunting him to the point where he stops eating and sleeping and one cold night she slips through the open window and kills him/takes his spirit/whatever, it’s a Gothic. Heathcliff is buried beside Catherine. (Oh, there was a gross/awesome episode where he recounts digging up the body to look at her). Cathy II and Hareton fall in love, and it’s cute, and all is well at Wuthering Heights.

unspoken cover

Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan.

Kami and Jared have known and been solidly there for each other literally all their lives, but they’ve never met, because Jared is Kami’s imaginary friend. Kami is kind of the lovable outsider of her small English town, because she’s incurably curious and part-Japanese and talks to this person who lives in her head and wants to be a top-notch investigative journalist. First assignment (that she gave herself): uncovering the mystery of the Lynburns, that Mysterious Family of the Mysterious Manor, Aurimere House. The Lynburns used to be a big deal who apparently ruled over Sorry-in-the-Vale with feudal authority, then they went away, and now, apparently, they are back! Kami wants to know why!

Ash Lynburn shows up and flirts with her, and she is like, excellent, you are now our photographer, also I will get the secrets of your family out of you, huzzah! She goes to the library to do some INVESTIGATIN’. And meets Jared in the elevator.

He is real.

He has, like… shoulders. And a mouth. And a dangerous leather jacket. HE IS PHYSICALLY PRESENT IN THE SAME SMALL SPACE AS SHE IS.

While running away from the HORRIFYING PHYSICALITY of her LIFELONG IMAGINARY FRIEND and MAYBE SOULMATE (???), Kami gets shoved into a well. Jared, of course, shows up to save her. They embark on a messy friendship, complicated by their unease at each others’ bodily presence, Ash’s flirting with Kami and her flirting back, Jared’s Jaredness, and the fact that there is murder afoot in Sorry-In-The-Vale! First of animals, and then attempted of Kami, and then actual of a classmate All this danger and mystery seems to be connected to the secret of the Lynburns, about which Jared knows nothing more than Kami. So what IS the secret of the Lynburns?

They are sorcerers! Jared and his mother Rosalind, Ash and his parents Lillian and Rob. All of them, just as magical as heck. So are lots of other people in Sorry-in-the-Vale, but the Lynburns were the rulers of them all, and they have returned home. Kami and Jared are not soulbonded fated lovers, they are a sorcerer and his Source – the product of a process that makes Jared’s magic stronger, and gives Kami access to it, so that she has power too. Also, if Kami dies, Jared dies (the reverse is not true). Lynburns dun like this whole sorcerers depending on Sources thing. They want Kami to cut the bond, and Kami, to Jared’s horror, seriously contemplates it. But first they have to find out who’s killing people, because that gives sorcerers power too, and Kami rallies her trusty band of misfits to find out what’s going on.

Turns out it’s kindly Rob Lynburn, who would like REVENGE on everyone who’s ever thwarted him, and also to be king of the Vale, as in Ye Times Of Old. But he’d really rather his nephew didn’t die, all things considered, so when he has Kami with a knife at her throat, he gives her a chance to break the bond – which would mean Jared would survive Kami’s intended death. Kami breaks the bond. It’s horrendous for both she and Jared. And then she flings Rob over her shoulder and runs like hell, because that is the kind of girl Kami is. Alas, this is the first book of a trilogy, so we do not expect things to go very well! Our heroes almost overcome, but then Rob starts gathering the sorcerers of the Vale, and all is scary and dim.

Moreover! Jared, now the bond has been broken, is able to look Kami straight in the eye and tell the hitherto most vital person in his entire life that she is “nothing special.” And Kami (and the reader), for the first time, cannot know if he is telling her the truth.

So, those are the stories. How do they comparatively rank, in my Unbiased* and Totally Objective* Opinion? I have decided to compare them in six very important categories.

ONE: How Are The Ladies?

In Wuthering Heights, the ladies mostly hate on each other. Catherine thinks Isabella’s a contemptible silly girl, Isabella thinks Catherine is trying to RUIN HER LIFE, Nelly Dean is a judgmental judgypants, and Cathy II is bright and bubbly enough, but also treats Nelly like a servant. Which she is. But when your servant is saying things like, please can we go back to the house now, we are not supposed to be here, your dad would hate it, I’m going to get in so much trouble, with the undercurrent of AND I DON’T WANT TO LOSE MY JOB, it is not nice to keep willfully indulging your whims. There are moments of affection between ladies but on the whole, not a bunch of fun times. The really affectionate relationships in this narrative are between men and women.

In Unspoken, the three main ladies, Kami, Angela, and Holly, are adorable. Kami and Angela (beautiful, extremely lazy, wards people off so that she will not have to put in annoying effort to TALK to them, ugh) have been BFFs for six years. Holly is a more recent friend to both of them, because Kami has been accustomed to thinking of Holly as one of Those Girls – hot, blond, bubbly, very popular with the boys – and has formed certain misconceptions about her because of this, i.e., that she is stupid. Holly is not stupid, and she has been trying to be friends with Kami for a while, because she likes and respects her. Kami begins to like and respect Holly too, and apologizes for her earlier misdeeds.

Holly and Angela get along very well, and when someone attacks Holly, Angela – the queen of the blank expression – is visibly upset, angry, and caring. These ladies are different, but they like each other a lot. And this is in a book where the main affectionate relationship is between a girl and a boy. Kami and Jared are always each others’ most important person, but Kami has plenty of room for lady feels too.

WINNER: Unspoken.

TWO: Are There Jokes?

In Wuthering Heights, not really, though there’s an occasional blackly humorous observation. In Unspoken, roughly a buttload of jokes per chapter (metric).

WINNER: Unspoken

THREE: How Are We Doing On Race?

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is coded as a racial Other. Though his racial heritage isn’t specified, he’s referred to as a dark-skinned gypsy child, and a “little Lascar”. He’s also described as a black-browed devil, a demon, a fiend, and “as dark almost as if it came from the devil”. Oh, yeah, he’s referred to as “it” instead of “he” before his christening. And whatever language he speaks when he first arrived is “gibberish”. And he’s an awful person. Thanks for making your one non-white character a violent, scheming, barely-human devil man, Emily Bronte! Super classy of you.

In Unspoken, Kami, her father, and her siblings are part-Japanese, and are Othered because of it. (Kami is also Othered because she has a tendency to talk to her imaginary friend and laugh out loud for no apparent reason.) Which is not to say that Sorry-in-the-Vale people wouldn’t be cautious about the granddaughter of an outsider woman of any ethnicity, but the fact that Kami’s Sobo was Japanese engenders some extra crap. However, Kami is our heroine. Her brothers are adorable, and her dad is the best parent in the piece.

Racism is part of the text, but is not condoned by it – when Jared, our hero, thinks he hears his family referring to Kami as a “half-breed”, he is horrified and furious. (They weren’t. They were referring to him. Nice people, the Lynburns.) Kami identifies as both English and Japanese, and some of the Japanese stories she heard from her grandmother affect what happens when the woods begin to wake. Her heritage matters, in ways that have both positive and negative effects on her life in the Vale.

This is not to say there isn’t potentially troubling stuff with race and ethnicity going on in Unspoken that I don’t see. I am a white lady reader; I miss stuff. But Unspoken is clearly seventeen million times better than Wuthering Heights in this department. Would Sarah have done better than Emily in the same time period? I don’t know, and I don’t really care: I’m reading both books now.

WINNER: Unspoken.

FOUR: Would Karen Have A Cocktail With The Protagonists?

Kami: Sure! Although I’m pretty sure she’d only bother if she thought I could be a source for a story, because she is a busy lady with a lot on her mind. Ahahahaha source, I just got that, nice, Sarah.

Jared: Definitely. He is a sullen, grouchy person 90% of the time to anyone who is not Kami, but he’s also a huge reader. We could talk about books, and that is a surefire conversation thriller for people who love books.

Catherine: Actually, yes, but it would be kind of mean? I like Cathy, who scorned to scream when dogs bit her, but I know very well she is not a friendly or trustworthy person. I’d really only be there for the same reason Cady Herron joins Regina George and the Plastics – to sit there and listen to all the appalling things she’d say about other people for my own amusement at the fact she was saying them.


WINNER: Unspoken.

FIVE: Is The Scenery Awesome?

That depends; do you prefer windy, winding moors or rolling hills where the long fields of barley and of rye clothe the wold and meet the sky? And metaphorical weather; would you like some of that? I thought you would!

Both books do scenery very well, with atmosphere evoking emotion and vice versa. Plot relevant weather, plot relevant locations. Neither of these books could be placed in an Anytown, Somewhere; they both had to be set exactly where they were. I love the use of the setting in both books; it is superbly managed and I learned a lot about technique that I plan to steal for my own work.

Personally, as anyone who’s read The Shattering could guess, I prefer fictional places where beautiful, peaceful scenery gilds hidden horrors, so Unspoken gets my private vote. But from an Objective* and Unbiased* point of view they’re both winners.


WHhouse with some moors

SIX: Karen, Stop Fooling Around And Tell Us About The Romances.

Hooooo boy.

Catherine and Heathcliff are incredibly, hurtfully obsessed with each other. When Catherine accepts Edgar Linton, it’s not because she doesn’t love Heathcliff, or loves Edgar more (although she does have an infatuation for him), it’s because she can’t stand the (totally classist but also materially important) degradation of marrying a common laborer who can barely read. It’s a practical Austenian choice in an unpractical Brontean situation; the intensity of the bond between herself and Heathcliff can’t allow for things such as consideration of how she’s going to eat and could they converse about the same things. Choosing Edgar is shown to be a tragic choice that brings heartbreak to everyone involved, and even the next generation of innocents.

Heathcliff’s fierce hatred for Catherine is sourced in his love for her, and her perceived betrayal of that love. Catherine’s pain at Heathcliff’s elopement with Isabella – and his perceived betrayal of her trust – more or less kills her. And when she dies, the anguish nearly kills him:

“And I pray one prayer–I repeat it till my tongue stiffens–Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you–haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts HAVE wandered on earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! only DO not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I CANNOT live without my life! I CANNOT live without my soul!”

Catherine’s haunting of Heathcliff becomes more and more real to him, until he dies. Note that to him in his extremity, she is Catherine Earnshaw, not Catherine Linton. His idea of Catherine is of his first companion; of someone who is always his, who never promised herself to another. Heathcliff and Catherine may not ever have physically consummated their fierce attachment. But they feel that they own one another, that they have an absolute right to possession: “That is not my Heathcliff. I shall love mine yet; and take him with me: he’s in my soul.””

A happy ending for them, and pretty much everyone in the book, can only come when both of them are dead. No longer passionately possessive, they are instead “sleepers in that quiet earth”.

In Unspoken, that level of intense connection, the feeling of living inside another person’s soul, is literalised. Kami and Jared really have been connected since they were born. They can hear each others’ thoughts, sing each other the lullabies they heard in the cradle across an ocean, feel each other’s feelings. (At fourteen, when said feelings turned pretty damn sexy, they started building walls between them, but they still spend most of each waking hour inside the other’s head.) They each thought the other was an imaginary friend, but still the most important person to them, still the most solid and real thing in their lives, despite being entirely made up.

And then the Lynburns return to Sorry-in-the-Vale and Kami and Jared discover that the imagination-only thing isn’t true. The other person actually is solid and real, with a solid, real body. And instead of being a moment of “We are SOULMATES, let us be together FOREVER!” this is complicated and awkward and really very awful for both of them. Jared tries to insist that they are soulmates and should date; Kami is, like Catherine, more practical. She practically suggests that it’s hard to date someone who finds your physical existence incredibly off-putting.

this book will ruin your life poster

They later discover that their bond isn’t a natural occurrence, but something that was done to them. There are very dangerous consequences to the existence of the bond, but Jared resists any suggestion that they should break it. However, Kami wants to at least think about it, to try the idea of being an individual for the first time in her life, knowing that her emotions are entirely her own. She loves Jared, definitely, but is she in love with him? How can she tell? Her self isn’t entirely her own!

“In love. That’s how it sounds, doesn’t it? His heart is my heart, nobody can ever take him away from me; I keep him in here!” She thumped her breastbone so hard it hurt. “People say stuff like that all the time, but they don’t mean it: they mean they’re in love. All except me. I mean it.”

Kami even thinking about cutting the bond terrifies the shit out of Jared, and no surprise there. Kami is not only the most important person to Jared, but pretty much the only person he feels is on his side. Kami has a loving family and dear friends; Jared has a crappy family and no friends. Is this looking familiar? Jared, like Heathcliff, sees the very idea that Kami might break this bond as the most heinous betrayal. When she, like Catherine, actually does – under severe duress, and to SAVE HIS ACTUAL LIFE – he is a total dick to her.

I disapprove of a romance where both partners only find happiness in oblivion. So for NOW the tentative winner is Unspoken. But this is a trilogy. Whether Jared then goes the Heathcliff route of setting out to ruin Kami’s life and the lives of those he sees as taking her from him remains to be seen! Will Kami and Jared find happiness ONLY IN DEATH? Who knows?

(Actually, I do. But I’m not telling.)

The thing is, in the story so far, Jared isn’t Heathcliff in any aspect other than the depth of his attachment to Kami. If anything, Jared is Hareton, who is wild, neglected and abused by his family, who has a longing to be better but hasn’t quite worked out how. He can be rough and cruel and fixed in his ideas, but he’s a romantic soul!

No, in Unspoken, Heathcliff is better echoed by Rob Lynburn. Abusive, malevolent, totally self-centered, convinced of his right to revenge for those wrongs done him (genuine wrongs; you don’t just kill someone’s parents in front of them and kidnap the child to marry one of your daughters and expect the kid to be cool with this) and absolutely dismissive of any impediment to his long-game goals. Rob Lynburn treats Sorry-in-the-Vale the same way Heathcliff treats Nelly Dean. If the non-sorcerer people of Sorry-in-the-Vale do what he wants and follow his instructions and don’t contradict him, he will regard them with an amused contempt and let them go by largely unmolested. If they attempt to prevent him from carrying out his plans, he will smack the hell out of them.

The passion between Heathcliff and Catherine is often read as romantic, and thus Heathcliff is often read as the romantic hero of Wuthering Heights. In my reading, Heathcliff is a horrifying villain. His feelings, and the genuine wrongs done him, do not give him license to attempt ruin on the lives of everyone around him, particularly the entirely innocent children of the next generation. But he waits years to do just that. In Unspoken, Heathcliff/Rob’s motives are laid bare as selfish and repulsive. He’s very clearly identified as the bad guy.

I don’t know if Unspoken was written with Wuthering Heights echoes in mind**, but I read it like that this time, and it really amplified the reading and increased my enjoyment to see Sarah meticulously take apart the idea of “soulmates” and consider just what that might mean in a setting where it could be literally true. And I love love love Heathcliff/Rob as unequivocal villain, with the next generation getting the spotlight as heroes.


Captain America approves of this book

Astonishing, yes?


** On Google Chat, after writing that section:

me: I was just writing about how you wrote Heathcliff as the villain, and that is awesome
Sarah: omg you are awesome
your face is awesome
me: HAH did you do it on purpose?
I wasn’t sure!
Sarah: Oh yeah. 😉
me: I was all, the author is dead, THIS IS MY READING ANYWAY.

So she did do it on purpose! Although, naturally, she could be lying.

Except about my face being awesome.