One of the fun things about reading books that are co-authored is the chance to see how well (or not) author’s sensibilities blend together. Look, for instance, at how Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett each brought their unique sensibilities to Good Omens, creating something that felt truly like a fusion of their voices. And it’s not as though Stephen King is a stranger to co-authoring; even setting aside his short works with his other son, Joe Hill, there’s the double punch of The Talisman and Black House, wherein King marries his voice to that of another horror legend, Peter Straub.
Now, I haven’t read any of Owen King’s solo work, so I don’t know how well Sleeping Beauties represents a true fusion of their voices. But there’s undeniably a lot of Stephen King here, most notably in the rich pacing, which is something that I think Stephen King does better than almost any author I can think of. Like almost no other author, King has a way of starting sprawling and calmly, and slowly tightening the noose until the climax is all but inevitable and stopping reading is a fool’s errand. And that’s definitely the case with Sleeping Beauties, which starts simply enough – one day, women around the world are simply not waking up, but instead, seem to have become wrapped in silken facial cocoons as they sleep; what’s more, you do not want to remove the silk, trust me – but builds and builds to catastrophic levels, with a double-barrelled climax that takes place on two different planes of existence and absolutely flies, for dozens of pages.
More than that, Sleeping Beauties is rich with interesting themes, using its gender-affecting story to explore gender dynamics and relations between the sexes. Even the locations are rich with subtext, from a women’s prison full of no shortage of victimized women to small town politics, from female police officers to attractive reporters being judged by their surface, the Kings manage to take on the issues seriously and thoughtfully, rendering the women characters every bit as sympathetically as the men, even considering the fact that they’re two white dudes. (One can’t help but wonder if the book would change at all with a female co-writer – say, King’s wife?) And as the Kings interweave their massive cast of characters, their story manages to be about male rage and female empowerment, about the clash between “traditional” values and more modern ones, all while telling a gripping apocalyptic tale about a world in which all that’s left are a bunch of dudes – and anyone who’s read Lord of the Flies knows how this could go, pretty easily.
For all of that, there’s something off about Sleeping Beauties, some indescribable X-factor that kept me from being as gripped with the book as I wish I was. There’s a lot I liked here, but it also drug more than most King books I know, and you can’t help but wonder if Owen King’s voice simply isn’t as propulsive as his father’s, or as gripping. It doesn’t help that Sleeping Beauties‘s cast is so sprawling (opening with a list of characters that goes on multiple pages and feels a bit overwhelming), and ultimately, feels like a few threads could have been trimmed. (I’m thinking especially here of a late-book thread about two drug-dealing brothers who escape from prison thanks to the lack of focus on the penal system in the wake of this disease.) It’s a book I still enjoyed, and whose richness I appreciated, but I never really come to love it the way I hoped I would.