Fresh from the fever that torments and almost kills her, Elise Dalriss watches as her mother becomes disfigured by massive swelling that stains her lips red with blood. With all of her family now dead from the plague, and in in an effort to make her mother proud, she takes shelter in the town of St. Elsip and the beautiful castle. She is placed into the service by loyal Aunt Agna as a Lady’s maid to King Randolf and his beautiful Queen, Lenore, “a true lady of sorrows.”
Relieved to find a place of employment as her mother once did but also uncertain as to her actual place in the household, Elise becomes a chambermaid, spending each morning lighting fires, emptying the chamber pots and “doing whatever needs to be done,” as befits her station in life. When she’s put in charge of the queen’s rooms, kindly housekeeper Mrs. Tewkes tells her to be aware of the invisible spirits in a landscape where power is the true currency of the court and those who have it brandish it without mercy, “be they servants or knights.”
Blackwell creates Elise’s sense of daily life in a period that is obscured in favor of presenting the timeless fairytale and the terror of Millicent, the King’s maiden aunt who unleashes a flurry of revenge on poor, beleaguered Randolf. Once young sweethearts, for eight years the King has waited in vain for an heir while Lenore, begging intercession from the saints, spends her weeks in the company of Madam Millicent. Only prayer in a freezing chapel can perhaps cure Lenore’s barren womb.
Amid a labyrinth of dark, narrow corridors with walls pierced thick with layers of gossip and intrigue, benevolent, generous, King Randolf remains supremely confident that only an heir will brighten the future of the kingdom. Yet Randolf remains as obstinate as Millicent, and it is her cunning ability to mold others’ actions to her own purposes that gives much drama to the well-known tragedy and heartache. Millicent knows Lenore’s weaknesses and will not hesitate to use them against her, the curse leaving a permanent scar on the queen who fears that Millicent’s dark arts will ultimately triumph over her husband’s precautions.
Adding an unexpected twist that left me reeling in ways both familiar and unexpected, and creating a heroine who craves nothing more than her own “happily ever after,” Blackwell tells of the way destiny shapes our lives. Untethered from her past, a stranger in this new world, Elise wants so desperately to belong to this magical place of learned women and chivalrous knights and the “lady of sorrows,” kindly Queen Lenore, who will eventually transform this innocent maid’s life. But Elise is also captivated by Millicent, the witch in question who constantly reinvents herself and creates a new life as time marches forward. Suddenly exiled by Randolf to the outer reaches of the land, Millicent forever keeps an eye on her very personal villain who trails her throughout the ages.
Blackwell’s images are familiar to us as Elise becomes our eyes and ears to the events made famous by the legendary fairy tale. There are plenty of twists and a lot of heartache, along with deep betrayals and complicated emotions. Elise believes that her dreams have finally come true when she marries, but she ultimately learns that being one of fairest lady’s maids doesn't ensure her “happily ever after” moment. First she becomes a guardian to Rose, who by the age of fifteen is stunningly beautiful. From her bedroom high in the tower, Rose’s desire for a simple outing plants a dangerous seed in Elise’s dealings with her. Forbidden by Queen Lenore from leaving the castle, Rose and Elise confide in Flora, the other, kindlier aunt who remains secluded in the North Tower. Flora knows her evil spinster sister’s dark past and sees in Rose the face of her dead rival, a woman she perhaps inadvertently had a hand in banishing.
Frequently overwrought, with a plot that sometimes gets lost among a surfeit of florid description, Blackwell’s novel works in a fashion similar to Caroline Sturgeon’s fantasy tales with their mesh of both the original fairy tale and a deviation of the author's own imagination. We come to understand so much about the woman destined to be “The Sleeping Beauty.” We finally see why she thinks and feels the way she does, but mostly we emphasize and root for her as we witness her heartbreak and the bitter act of revenge which will finally allow her to fulfill her own deep and shadowy destiny.