Title: Cruel Beauty
Author: Rosamund Hodge
Publisher: Balzar & Bray
Other Reviews for This Author: None
I don't do gif reviews, but I would for this book.
I had no idea that I would read a book that I would clearly designate as one of my favorites of the year so far this early on, especially with how my reading has been going lately. Cruel Beauty promises to be many things based on the marketing; its cover is gorgeous and melodramatic with its endless staircase entwined with the insides of a bloody rose, and the back cover copy uses short, powerful statements in order to make the story seem mysterious. The entire thing suggests a YA paranormal romance. Let me tell you a secret, readers: this book is so much more.
So. Much. More.
This book made my heart ache because it was so much more than I expected. Believe me when I tell you that there is something about this story that is special. It's not just the 'Beauty and the Beast' tale retold; it's a timeless tale all its own, inspired by stories of fantasy and gods. Cruel Beauty is an earthquake.
A demonic prince reigns over a land that was once a part of a larger world. A parchment sky is in place, looming over the villages that fear the prince. He is known for granting favors; they always come with a price. Once upon a time, a man and his wife wanted children, but the wife was unable to bear them. The man went to the demonic prince with the hopes of having a favor granted - compromise would be made so the children and his wife would be safe from unjust consequences. The prince granted the man's wish, and the wife was overjoyed when she became pregnant with twins. As with most fairytales, the birth of the girls was unsettled due to inevitable tragedy: their mother died.
Nyx was one of those twins. She has been trained from a young age to incite her father's revenge in the completion of his half of the compromise. In order for Nyx's father to complete the requirements for his bargain, one of his daughters is required to marry the demon prince. Nyx is the daughter destined for this. Unlike her sister, there is an ever-present darkness in her heart because of the resentment of this marriage. Nyx can never fall in love; she can never go to school to study the magic that makes up her world. Nyx is destined to marry, and therefore she is trained to kill.
She is taken there at seventeen - a sweeping castle that is both archaic and timeless, a dark place where the prince, known as The Gentle Lord to his people, lives untouched by death. Nyx is prepared with a dagger gifted to her by her sister with the hopes that the old tale of a "virgin with a virgin blade" would have some truth to it. Entering the castle presents her with a world much darker than she ever anticipated. Ignifex, The Gentle Lord himself, is a being with strands of evil corseting his heart, yet he doesn't force himself upon Nyx. His shadow servant also appears to be more than a demon in disguise. Nyx finds herself stuck in a world where the darkness and the light within it vie for her attention, her heart, and her vengeance. She will find that evil cannot go unloved, and that revenge must be enacted.
There is nothing more interesting than a take on an old story that fleshes it out into something totally different. Cruel Beauty is that; it is 'Beauty and the Beast' but with more magic and nuance. The first fifty pages of the book are also vastly different from the rest of it. The narration of the story is from a character prone to describing everything, a character who is emotional and extremely frustrated with the dark parts of herself. The first fifty pages thus serve primarily as the backstory/character voice-dump of the story. Moving beyond that is where the story gets true life. It's a deep Italian opera with songs of a pinnacled bass and an airy soprano. The book finds itself exploring the depths of what it means to be good and evil. 'Beauty and the Beast' as a fairytale is one that develops on the polarization of this theme, whereas Cruel Beauty takes this polarization and asks what it means to have nuances. Beauty has as much evil in her as she does good. Beast is evil but with kindness somewhere within the evil. He has his own set of morals. Evil is not total, and neither is good.
I think that Nyx's narration grew on me because she learned to embrace her anger. This fairytale retelling stands out because the female character learns to be angry; she learns that she should not hate herself for thinking bad thoughts, but she should learn to balance those with positive thoughts. It's about learning that being a self-serving person doesn't destroy her as a human being. In some ways, Nyx is a better person for thinking about herself because she is able to focus on her survival and her own happiness. She was never happy as a martyr character because it was never voluntary; Nyx was not given the chance to choose, nor was she given the opportunity to live with complete freedom prior to her " choice". Because of this, she is a forced martyr, and she is forced to put everyone ahead of herself without any true reason. This makes her resentment and anger understandable; it also makes her attraction to Ignifex and his shadow servant make sense. They represent the polarized good and evil, light and dark, shadow and substance. Nyx constantly finds herself learning new things that tip the scales out of balance as she realizes that the perceived morality around her wasn't as black-and-white as she initially interpreted it. I think Nyx's struggles with understanding revenge, fate, and deception were excellent. There was never a time when I thought that she was a character that did something without thinking; there was also never a time when I felt like she only presented a situation in a boring, predictable, one-sided way. Nyx has the ability to perceive things in ways that challenge a reader's preconceptions as to how her romantic story arc will go down. In many ways, her kick-assery as a heroine is perfect because it involves her learning to eschew expectations and embrace the harder decisions found within the darkness of her soul.
I thought that the usage of Ignifex and his shadow servant was excellent because of this breakdown of polarization. There's something brilliantly thematic about using these two prongs of a "love triangle" to explain the ways in which light and shadow work in the human soul. Ignifex stole my heart because he was blatantly evil, yet he respected Nyx when it came to her body. He never practiced the idea of having sex with her just because they were married. He never forced himself on her physically. He still had the darkness of being the one in charge within the captivity fantasy (although we as readers soon learn that his situation is much more complicated than that), but he has good qualities about himself. We also see Ignifex as a character who feels trapped, whose self-doubt and attempts at forgetting the bigger issues in his life make him vulnerable and sensitive beneath his snarky angst. The shadow character, Shade, is interesting as well because he is the character that is presented as the "insta-luv" option, but he quickly becomes something different as Nyx learns more about him and the house. I felt that these two characters balanced each other well with their connections, their ties to each other, and the way they foil each other in Nyx's quest to save herself and the world around her.
Hodge's world is one that is lush, brilliant, and filled with monsters. Shadows and sorcery bleed together in a world inspired by the Greek myths; the inspiration is far more complex and subtle at times than one would think, and it is integrated in a way that seeps into the core of the narrative itself. Fables and stories are themes that come in at every interval - from the library with blackened holes in the pages of its books to the way that myths are retold (both the myths of Hodge's world and the myths of the Greeks). It also asks the questions of who the true causes behind the myths are. What beings are pushing the hands of fate, and why do they desire everything to be filled with consequences and impossible riddles? How is one able to understand these things that make everyone into pawns? Is our world real, or is it one of fantasy, fable, and village songs? The house itself becomes a character as its tricks weave into Nyx's narrative. In many ways, this story is reminiscent of fantasy tales in how it presents its lead character with periodic trials and puzzles to overcome. Fans of role-playing video games may notice a similarity in how these puzzles work; it also has a slight throwback to an anime, too, because of how the characters are presented with such layered polarity within the framework of a quest and puzzles.
Magic works in a system that fits the world as well. It's based on the idea of connecting the four elements, and the connections often are imbued within "hearts", at least in regards to the castle. There isn't as much of the magic in the middle of the book, but it is used often enough to give the reader a solid idea of what the magic needs in order to function and what limitations it has. It's a different way to go about creating a magical system based on elemental affinities and connectivity, and I loved that about it. I find myself wishing that Hodge would have explored the magic more. She's the kind of writer that has unlimited potential within her ideas; readers will undoubtedly love that nothing in this story feels familiar after the pages start turning. In that respect, the plot does take a good fifty or sixty pages to get into because of the voice and the initial set-up, but the story is utter magic once things get rolling. It is fire, earth, water, air; it is the very essence of what a fantasy story should be. There are consequences and tragedies and decisions made by people who have to do the best that they can based on the people that they have become. Hodge has created a world that lives beyond the stained ink on her printed page.
Cruel Beauty is not a damsel that faints into the arms of a beast simply because it has a good heart that matches hers. It is a damsel with a torn dress that knows how to kill; it is a woman that embraces that she does not need to be the moral center of every situation because the world wants her to be; it is Nyx, someone who is more than a martyr or a bride or a daughter. Cruel Beauty is about Nyx becoming herself and, in the process, falling in love with a demon that allows her to look at said self in a new light. It is a book with pitted pages and watermarks, one that will be bent from your tense grip and stained with the tears you'll shed at the final pages. This book is brilliant, unexpected, and one that I will return to throughout the year in thought. Cruel Beauty is the dark side of the tale as old as time.
Cover: This cover is gorgeous because of how it connects the rose and the spiral staircase as images. I think it regulates the story to being interpreted as explicitly romantic, but it captures a strong sense of the atmosphere of the story.
Rating: 5.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!!)