Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.
Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.
With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.
But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle—a shifting maze of magical rooms—enthralls her.
As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex's secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.
First of all, this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling.
Which - despite the weirdness of a young girl falling in love with her captor and all the implied unhealthy mental issues that suggests - happens to be my all-time favorite fairy-tale/Disney story/intelligent heroine. (When you're young, all you focus on is that massive library...)
*breaks out into Paige O'Hara's "Something There" from the Disney soundtrack*
Other B&B retellings I've read:
- Beauty by Robin McKinley
- Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
- A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
- Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Most tend to follow the generic Belle/Beast formula: set in a fantasy world, with a hidden castle deep in the forest, a spunky overlooked, under-appreciated heroine, stuck with two narcissistic, clueless sisters (according to traditional B&B storyline), a father who is predictably cowardly / poor / crippled / otherwise degenerative in affection and/or fortune, and a Beast who is tender-hearted yet calloused by his obvious plastic-surgery-gone-wrong curse...
This book did NOT follow said formula.
Me after the first few chapters:
The ONLY aspect that makes Cruel Beauty a retelling of Beauty and the Beast is that the main female character, Nyx, is betrothed to a monstrous beast, AKA The Gentle Lord (No, I'm not making that name up. And no, I wasn't a fan). We watch as Nyx learns how to navigate through this unseemly marriage, arranged by her idiot father as part of a deal he made with The Gentle Lord years ago, so that his wife could bear children.
That's it. There's the line.
*draws a toe through the sand, Rufio-style*
Everything else I'm about to tell you deviates from this line.
You have been warned.
This is actually a mashup of several different fairytales into one
- The Gentle Lord, AKA the Beast, makes deals with people that end up having a price that no one can pay.
- He tells Nyx that every evening she has the opportunity to guess his name; if she guesses correctly, she will be free
- The demon lord's other wives have all died mysteriously, their bodies kept hidden in the underbelly of his castle.
- By playing a game with him, Nyx manages to get the key that unlocks the room of dead wives.
Cupid and Pysche -
- Hodge herself admitted in the Acknowledgements that C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, inspired her shaping of Nyx as a heroine.
- Till We Have Faces was written through the eyes of Psyche's older sister, Orual, who resents her sister's beauty and innocence compared to Orual's plainness and bitter heart.
This story takes place in Arcadia, an ancient Greco-Roman fictionalized country, complete with the actual gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. There are references to Hermes, Zeus, and Aphrodite at various points throughout the book, and many of the character names are Greek in origin, i.e. Adamastos & Damascus. Families are appointed a certain god or goddess as a familial guardian, in keeping with actual ancient Greek tradition. Nyx is forced to pray to theirs at her family's shrine before her wedding to the demon lord.
Instead of having "magic" wielders (like most fantasy titles), there's a secret organization devoted to a system of magic Hodge calls the Hermetic Sciences.
What exactly are the Hermetic Sciences, you ask?
Well played, Hodge. Well played.
I'm a huge fan of mixing shit up, which meant this was an instant hit in my eyes. Something different. New. Fresh.
So I kept reading.
Nyx - Main Character
Nyx - def., noun: translated as "Night" in ancient Greek, one of the Greek cosmological entities, who, together with Erebus ("Darkness"), begot Sleep, Strife, Deceit, Distress, Blame, and Retribution.
*twists imaginary moustache*
How very interesting...
Nyx is a borderline anti-heroine, harboring an incredible amount of hate in her heart. She hates her mother for being weak. She hates her sister for being so innocent, completely ignorant to Nyx's fate, living a charmed life as the golden child of their father's household.
And most importantly, she hates her father for making that damn deal with a demon lord, for grooming her since childhood to be the savior of her people and the assassin of The Gentle Lord (AKA to act as Arcadia's sacrificial lamb), for defiling her mother's memory by sleeping with the mother's sister, and for loving her twin sister enough to spare her from the demon lord. Enough to slaughter Nyx instead.
Basically, Nyx can't catch a break.
Now, wrap all of that rage into one large shiny Christmas present of angst.
Thus, in the beginning of the book, she is ANGRY. Angrier then any true Belle could be. And I DO NOT blame her for being so bitter. Uncontrollable circumstances have made her into this wild, volatile creature, lashing out at anyone and anything around her.
But her anger is what keeps her alive in Ignifex's Castle.
In a way, her anger is her salvation.
Here's where it got weird
And it just so happens that her beloved Papa is the head of said Hermetic secret organization *cough*predictable*cough*, whose main objective the past 900 years has been to find a way to kill Ignifex (the less ridiculous name for our Beast) and free Arcadia from their curse - which would rid the world of "demons"; monstrous beings who answer to The Gentle Lord's bidding, hiding in shadows, with the ability to make a person go mad by just gazing into their eyes.
Ok. I can buy that.
Because demons hate light, they've taken the sun away from Arcadia and replaced it with "a parchment paper sky, painted with an artifice of the sun".
*cocks head to the side*
And this is a big deal. No, not the demon thing. That kinda sucks. But the fake sun: THAT REALLY drives everyone bat-shit bonkers. To the fictional country of Arcadia, Vitamin D is apparently MUY necesito. Nyx can barely contain herself looking up at that damn "parchment" sky, wishing she could just feel the warmth of the real sun. The entire book.
No, no...it's ok. I'm still in.
So I kept reading.
Ignifex / Shade / Love Triangle
Ignifex is not a traditional Beast.
He isn't deformed. He isn't ugly. He doesn't resemble any kind of animal AT ALL.
And then we have Shade. Ignifex's "shadow" and appointed man-servant.
*deep sigh* Here we have a classic "Good Cop vs. Bap Cop / Split Personality Disorder" scenario. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out, folks...
Seriously, why do authors feel that love triangles like this propel the plot?!
YA fiction does NOT NEED A LOVE TRIANGLE!! And if it does, please make it somewhat original. This does nothing to elevate the protagonist, and - contrary to popular belief - you don't need one to ensure your book is read by younger audiences.
In my opinion, it just makes the heroine appear weak and finicky, going back and forth between the two men, declaring she loves them both, while racked with guilt because instead of doing what she was trained to do - assassinate the demon lord with her Hermetic powers and free her people - she's now sleeping with the enemy.
All of the strength and complexity and rage developed in the first half of the book completely dissolves into a texture-less mash of sappy, incessant kissing.
This is obviously a pet peeve of mine.
Disclaimer: I have nothing against romance novels.
But Rosamund Hodge obviously went to great lengths to build a complex, interesting plot, setting, and set of characters, and researched the various components that made up this storyline, including:
- Greek mythology
- Multiple fairytales
- C.S. Lewis
- T.S. Elliot
...Only to have the second half of the book overtaken by this love triangle... cheapening all her hard work into a teenage soap opera...
This is a unique read.
I normally don't recommend books that I rate under four stars (see my About page for descriptions of my rating system). However, I would recommend this to readers as an act of pure curiosity. To see if I'm biased where the romance is concerned. If the other aspects of the book are redeemable.
Because here's the truth: I read this book in 24 hours. COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. And I read it with my laptop close at hand so I could Google search all the hidden gems that caught my eye. That should amount for something, right?
She is currently working on two untitled pieces, surrounding the story of Romeo and Juliet, which are scheduled to publish in 2016 and 2017.
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