First of all, I’m going to dispense with any expectation to categorically label this novel, beyond the fact that it’s a work of fiction marketed to young adults. I dislike terms like “soft sci-fi” or “sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi”. (And what does that even mean, hmm, Ms Meyer? To me, that makes as much as sense as, “here’s a romance for people who don’t like romance”. Er, okay. It’s probably not a romance then.) My point being, despite the setting and the role science plays in the book, I’m not going to speak to those points, but rather to the book as it stands simply as a story.
[*Phew*. Moving on…]
A Long, Long Sleep is Anna Sheehan’s loose reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, this time set far into the future. However, while there are some parallels thematically and in terms of the main characters, Sheehan’s version incorporates some interesting twists on the fairytale formula.
The further I read, the more I realised that this was one of my favourite things about this book. The usual YA suspects were present and accounted for: the melancholic heroine, the familial discord, the handsome object of instant affection, a thwarted love. Yet Sheehan almost uses these devices against themselves – flipping the reader’s expectations and providing a sound context for the inclusion of these seemingly familiar tropes. Rather than going directly down the obvious path of ‘boy plus girl plus instalove divided by obstacles multiplied by drama equals angst’, Sheehan’s take diverges from the norm, offering a more thoughtful, complex story.
Likewise, Sheehan’s characters and their motivations (though often not revealed until late in the story) are reasoned and interesting. The cast is diverse, and I appreciated the fact that this felt effortless and natural to the world, rather than tokenistic or consciously deliberate.
While I can understand why some readers would not particularly care for Rose as a protagonist, or would find her frustrating, personally, I felt a kind of affinity for her. Her deeply entrenched feelings of low self-worth and the way she absorbed, even expected, constant rejection, really struck me and I found her situation terribly sad. In some scenes, it was only a line or dialogue, or a brief description of her demeanour, but it resonated with me. I felt for her, I believed that she was damaged and broken. I enjoyed the way Sheehan developed Rose, breaking down her flawed thought patterns to reveal a much stronger person beneath.
Ultimately though, it was the way that Rose began to choose to act, both for herself and in behalf of others, that revealed her growth. In the end, she felt like a character who had agency, rather than merely a limp cut-out, buffeted by evil plot devices. In all honesty, Rose’s journey had me all choked up and teary at one or two points.
Far and away, though, my favourite character was Otto, and by extension his scenes with Rose were the highlight for me. The interactions between these two characters were beautifully written, and quite touching. Their “conversations” and the way their friendship unfolded spoke of actual connection and mutual concern, that gave these portions of the story a depth I wasn’t expecting.
This is not to say that the novel as a whole lacks substance. In fact, I’d say the opposite, that I was surprised by the emotion and weight it had.
On the subject of surprises, Sheehan has crafted a plot that packs a clever twist or two. The story itself is not driven by a highly complex or convoluted plot, and it does rely to an extent on the reader’s investment in Rose and her situation (so the pacing may be off for those who aren’t feeling the connection), but the climax delivers some artful and unexpected turns. I have to admire the skill at work here, in creating a tight story that also speaks insightfully about personal value, the (ab)use of wealth and power, cruelty, what it means to be free and self-determined.
While the world building and science may prove a sticking point for some, I found A Long, Long Sleep to be a compelling story with substance. I very much enjoyed Anna Sheehan’s writing, and will definitely read her further work.