Oh, how wonderful is the sense of relief when you fear that you are stumbling into a sterotype-laden YA insta-romance and it turns out you discovered something beautiful and original. Brigid Kemmerer’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast may not be perfect, but it did a great job at subverting most of the tropes that retellings and YA romances tend to use.
A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY
by Brigid Kemmerer
Published by: Bloomsbury YA, 2019
Hardcover: 496 pages
Series: A Curse so Dark and Lonely #1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: There is blood under my fingernails.
Fall in love, break the curse.
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.
Break the curse, save the kingdom.
A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.
This could have gone so very wrong. It could have been just another tale of a pretty girl and an arrogant prince who is reformed by her love, set in a shiny castle with or without magical servants. And while A Curse so Dark and Lonely ticks all the boxes it needs to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it has such a nice layer of originality to it. And, most important, it has characters that stand out, that aren’t just cardboard cutouts saying “prince” and “beauty”.
Harper lives in DC and is snatched away by a strange man who wanted to kidnap another girl, but Harper intervened and now she’s the lucky gal who gets to find out there are other worlds than hers. She arrives at the castle, is introduced to Prince Rhen and his loyal guardsman Grey, and she also learns pretty soon what is going on. There is a curse on Rhen – one of the things I liked most in this book! – that makes him relive the same season until he manages to fall in love with a girl and have her return that love. There is a Groundhog Day vibe about Rhen, the total despair of having tried everything, having killed himself in numerous ways, only to wake up to the same hell again and again. I thought as curses go, this one is much more terrifying than the original, because it makes Rhen hope over and over again that this time, really this time will be different and he’ll break the curse. He gets no closure, no way to accept that he’ll live as a beast and come to terms with it. He can’t even kill himself to end it all.
I loved Rhen as a character, even more than I loved Harper. The one thing that annoyed the shit out of me though was that Harper is the perfect cliché of the “special girl” who is “not like the others”. I mean COME ON! Rhen has tried his luck breaking the curse with over 300 girls, yet Harper is the only one to stand out? Not only is it highly unlikely that she is the very first to talk back, try to escape, want to go home and nothing to do with him and his castle – but what bothered me even more was that those “other girls” are presented as somehow less worthy or valuable because they enjoyed dressing up in the beautiful gowns provided by the castle, or eating the delicious food. I don’t believe for a second that 300 girls taken from our modern world would all just sit down meekly and play dress-up all day and even if they did, that doesn’t make them in any way less than Harper. Liking stereotypically girly things is not bad! Stop writing fiction where only girls who are “not like the others” are the good ones who get the fairy tale ending.
To me, Haper’s actions were not special at all – they were relatable! Sure, she may be braver than your average girl and that’s great, but what she does or plans to do is not special at all, it’s logical and understandable.
Let’s stick with Harper for a moment and the other things I enjoyed about this book. The pros far outweigh the cons for me, so I am willing to forgive the author for putting down girly girls. Harper is also a wonderfully proactive protagonist. Instead of sitting around waiting for Rhen to dictated her day, she gets up and gets shit done! It may not always be the right shit or even smart shit but at least she does stuff. Harper is the kind of girl who may think to herself while she’s stuck in this magical world, she may as well make herself useful and spend her day doing good and learning things. She also finds out very soon what Rhen has to do to break the curse (because it’s never a big secret) and although she’s convinced it’s not going to happen because she finds Rhen arrogant, she is aware of it.
This supposed arrogance that Harper always sees in Rhen was another thing I didn’t quite get. There is no moment where he comes across as anything but kind and worried for his people, maybe a bit reserved and careful with strangers, but never ever arrogant or mean. I fear that the writing is to blame for this disconnect between what is said and what is shown in the story. The writing in general was simplistic and at times annoyingly repetitive. I stopped counting the moments when characters were “just a breath away from touching” or when Rhen put a strand of loose hair behind Harper’s ear. I have nothing against these moments, against the tension they create, but using the exact same words to describe them makes them feel a lot less special.
And again, the writer does a good job showing us what happens and what the characters feel. But somehow, the characters themselves tell us things are totally different from what we just read ourselves. There is no reason for Harper to dislike Rhen at all other than that it’s convenient for a Beauty and the Beast kind of plot.
Another bonus point for this book: Harper has cerebral palsy and for me, this was the first time reading about a character like her. As Harper states herself, she is rather lucky and her life isn’t too restricted. Other people with cerebral palsy can have difficulty talking or suffer involuntary muscle contractions, yet others can live without much restriction and simply have a limb or two that doesn’t grow the way it should. Harper falls into the latter category. She walks with a bit of a limp because one of her legs is affected.
I was unsure for the longest time on how I felt about this. On the one hand, I would have liked to read about a heroine with a disability that actually prevents her from doing a lot of things we able-bodied people take for granted. Because there aren’t enough protagonists like that and because I’d really like to learn more about it and put myself in someone else’s shoes through fiction. So giving Harper nothing but a slight limp felt like a cop-out. On the other hand, who the hell am I to say how disabled the disabled protagonist is supposed to be? And I definitely think it is better to include a disabled heroine like Harper than not to write about disability at all.
So, after stewing over this for a while, I am really happy that I got to read about a girl with cerebral palsy. Especially because Harper doesn’t let it hold her back. She climbs things, she rides horses, she runs when she thinks she needs to – never once thinking that there is anything she can’t do because of her leg. Her agency is a delight to read and I wish more YA protagonists were like her!
The plot was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Harper taking action, although I felt that certain things at the end were a little convenient. I can’t say anything withouth spoiling but there was one instance where the author took the easy way out because anything else would have been really difficult to write (I get it, I wouldn’t want to have to think my way out of this), but it still felt reather cheap. As for the plot twist – it definitely came as a surprise but it felt very much like a quick way to set up a series rather than telling a standalone story. I have no idea if Brigid Kemmerer already has a plan as to where the series is going. If she does, I’ll be happy to follow her characters and find out what’s in store for them (I have grown quite fond of Harper, Rhen and Grey), but if there is no plan other than “write a sequel” I worry that the next book won’t be anywhere near as good as this one was.
There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll definitely be reading A Heart so Fierce and Broken (set to release in early 2020). Despite my nitpicks, this book was a lot of fun to read, the romance worked pretty well and I’m just so happy to have a protagonist with agency and a cast of characters with personality for a change. Well done.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good