Beauty and the Really Nice Beast: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely

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

Refreshingly charming: T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher has worked her way into my readerly heart really fast with no intention of leaving again. No matter what story of hers I pick up, they all give me some hours of enjoyment and when I finish them, I am wrapped in a blanket of happiness. Kingfisher’s fairy tale retellings have become something of a go to comfort read for me.

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2015
Paperback: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.
But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?
Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most retold tales out there, but I think it is also one of the most difficult ones to make both interesting and not creepy. Fairy tales are, by their nature, simple stories with characters who don’t have much personality, if any – another difficulty in retelling them. But not for T. Kingfisher, who can do both really dark (see The Seventh Bride, her Bluebeard retelling) and humerous. Bryony and Roses definitely has its dark moments and it doesn’t end the way a Disney movie would either, but all things considered, it is a rather fun book to read and made me chuckle quite a lot.

Bryony is a gardener. She and her sisters live alone and have to make ends meet somehow. It is because of her passion for plants and gardens that Bryony and her horse almost freeze to death, only to stumble upon a – you guessed it – enchanted castle. The corner stones of the fairy tale are all there. The castle magically provides food and clothing, although unlike any other retelling I’ve read before, it seems to have a mind of its own as well. The castle definitely has a taste in clothing and décor because while it’s nice that a place cleans itself up after you mess it up, that doesn’t mean everything has to be cleaned into an explosion of pink. 🙂

Bryony also encounters the beast who is, much to my delight, a really nice beast and not a creepy dude keeping a young girl prisoner in his home. I mean, sure, Bryony kind of has to stay at the castle but the beast is both a nice conversation partner and even tries to help her with setting up a little garden of her own. In this retelling, their friendship and, later, romance, is believable because they are just two people (well one human, one beast) who get along really well and find shared interests.

But as many books, this one stands or falls with its protagonist. Bryony is resourceful and clever and easy to love. Not only is her love for plants infectious, she also figures out very soon that something is not right in the castle, that there must be some kind of curse, and she does all she can to figure it out. No wallowing in self-pity, no missing obivous hints. It’s so refreshing to read about a girl who has both a heart and a brain!

I won’t say much about the conclusion because Kingfisher came up with a wholly original idea as to why the castle and the beast are cursed and what that curse entails. The ending was, just like the rest of the book, lovely. And because I’m telling you so little about it, let me mention Bryony’s sister, who only shows up for a tiny little part but totally stuck in my mind. The fact that she, too, has her own mind and a distinct personality made her immediately loveable, in a matter of pages. It is the mark of a great author to bring characters to life so easily and I’m really sad that I have now read all of Kingfisher’s fairy tale novels.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Sarah J. Maas – A Court of Thorns and Roses

Oh boy.  This is my first book by Sarah J. Maas and I didn’t dislike it. But I’m terribly sad to see the same old tropes used in the same old ways yet again. Two thirds of this book are predictable, generic, and kind of silly, but then the last third suddenly kicks off the plot and it actually gets really good. I hope the next volume doesn’t take so long to build up some steam.

court of thorns and roses

A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES
by Sarah J. Maas

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2015
Ebook: 432 pages
Series: A Court of Thorns and Roses #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: The forest had become a labyrinth of snow and ice.

No mortal would dare venture beyond the borders of their world to Prythian, a forbidden kingdom of faeries. But Feyre’s survival rests upon her ability to hunt and kill, and when she spots a deer being pursued by a wolf, she cannot resist fighting it for the flesh. Killing the predator comes at a price though – her life, or her freedom.
Dragged to Prythian, Feyre discovers that her captor, his face obscured by a jewelled mask, is hiding far more than his piercing green eyes would suggest. Feyre’s presence at the court is closely guarded, and as she begins to learn why, the faerie lands becomes an even more dangerous place.

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You know you can bait me with fairy tales pretty easily, but if you throw in fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast) and a riff on the ballad Tam Lin, my defences are disabled and I absolutely must have that book. Sarah J. Maas has been hyped like crazy which didn’t hurt my instinct to buy this book and start a new series.

The problem with this – and many books of its kinds (yes, there is a kind) – is that it focuses so much on a ridiculous romance and doesn’t really have any plot. Let me sum it up for you. Young girl hunts for food, kills a wolf that’s not really a wolf, invoking a treaty between humankind and fairies. She must spend her life in the fairy lands in exchange for the life she took. Her kidnapper/landlord is insanely beautiful, kind, protective, saves her from danger a couple of times, gives her a nice gift, and – poof! – they are in eternal love. If you consider this a spoiler, I am sorry. But I’d hazard a guess that most people pick this up specifically for that romance and would be pretty pissed if the protagonists didn’t fall in love.

Which, of course, follows in the sad little footsteps of Twilight. An ancient supernatural being (who may look like he’s 26 but has the experience and memory of someone hundreds of years old!) falls in desperate love with a human child. I get it, I really do. It’s wishfullfilment. We all want to be special, we all want to know that the regular, clumsy, non-special human being we are can be someone’s special little snowflake, can melt the heart of a being so beautiful and pure. But it’s sooooo boring. Feyre isn’t special in any way. She is a sympathetic protagonist but even if she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, I don’t see why Tamlin or anyone else would bend over backwards to be her lover.

I would have forgiven much of this if the romance had been well written, if there were tension between Feyre and Tamlin, and if the actual romance scenes were the explosion of feelings they are supposed to be. But while plenty of tension is built up, Feyre and Tamlin kind of… talk it away in the most unromantic, unsexy fashion I could think of. The sex scene was actually embarrassingly flowery… (if you want a good one, pick up Uprooted).

Much more interesting than this generic teen romance is the politics of the fairy courts and the history between humans and fairies. The world-building stays far, far in the background for most of the story, because romance, but when the villain is finally introduced in the last third of the book, when some clunky exposition gives us a bigger picture of this world, that’s when things start getting interesting. It’s not well done, by any means, but at least there’s something there other than two gorgeous people pining for each other.

And you know what? When I’d pretty much given up hope about the plot, things actually start happening. Feyre goes through some fucked up shit in order to save the people she cares about and, in the process, gets to know two really intriguing characters. Lucien had been intriguing for the entire story, but Rhysand is a different story entirely. Coming from the Night Court, I immediately thought of him as this story’s Hades (and I cannot resist a good Hades and Persephone story, no matter how hard I try). But what makes him so exciting is that you can’t be sure about his motives. Is he evil, is he good, is he just a dick, playing Feyre for his own gain? I don’t really care, because reading about him was just fun!

So the ending gained a lot of brownie points for being exciting and dangerous and full of action. But – and this is a big but – it also involves a riddle that is so ridiculously easy and obvious that I guessed it the moment it was posed. So yeah, I’m good with riddles, but even Feyre has should have guessed it in the time she had to mull it over. The fact that she doesn’t makes her seem much stupider than she is supposed to be. Oh well. The actual ending was, again, predictable and tropey. I won’t spoil this for anyone still interested but there was a lot of eye-rolling going on when I read it.

Because I’m reviewing this for the Fairy Tale Retellings challenge, I should mention the use of fairy tales a little more. The mentions of Beauty and the Beast were easily discovered and done well enough. Tamlin wears a mask at all time (giving him a Phantom of the Opera vibe) and can change into animal form, so he is sometimes literally a beast. There is a curse, which is all I’ll say on the matter, and it takes the fairy tale’s curse and gives it a gentle twist, just enough to fit into this particular world. The ballad Tam Lin makes an appearance mostly through Tamlin’s name and the fact that there is a fairyland. This is one of the story’s strong points. It takes fairy tales, but doesn’t stick to them too much, rather using them to build an original world, peopled with gorgeous creatures and its own internal politics.

I hope that the next book will expose us to more of these fairy politics, show us some of the fairy courts, and do a little better on the romance and pacing. This wasn’t great and it took a really long time to get started, but it was an enjoyable enough read for me to probably pick up the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Second opinions:

FTF Book Review: Rosamund Hodge – Cruel Beauty

It’s Fairy Tale Frenzy, everyone! Who would have thought my faith in fairy tale retellings could be restored so easily? A few years ago, I had a very bad hand at grabbing books written for young adults, but I seem to have gotten over that streak of bad luck. For FTF, my first two books have both been really good.

cruel beautyCRUEL BEAUTY
by Rosamund Hodge

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2014
Ebook:
352 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

First sentence: I was raised to marry a monster.

divider1Fairy Tales Retold

  • Beauty and the Beast
  • a hint of Pandora and other Greek myths

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Synopsis

Graceling meets Beauty and the Beast in this sweeping fantasy about one girl’s journey to fulfill her destiny and the monster who gets in her way-by stealing her heart.

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.

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Review

Oh, this started out so well. Nyx dreads the day that she will be married off to the Gentle Lord, the demon in the crumbling castle on the hill, a tyrant who has kept her entire people locked up under a parchment dome, their world cut off from the rest of the universe. Heavily based on Greek mythology, with some added magic – Hermetic sigils – a group of people have made a plan to kill the Gentle Lord, and Nyx is front and center of that plan.

cruel beauty cover detail

I loved the atmosphere of this novel. It starts out quite dark, with Nyx questioning herself and her sacrifice, and with her very human feelings of jealousy towards her sister. Despite loving Astraia dearly, Nyx can’t help but feel treated unfairly for having pulled this lot instead of her sister’s comfortable future. Our heroine is, in general, a swirling mix of emotions, and not all of them a good. In that, she stands out from fairy tale princesses, because unlike the all-good, all-pure girls who usually save princes, Nyx is utterly human. She wants to do good, of course, but she also has moments of cruelty, with no ulterior motive other than enjoying a little bit of revenge. It made for a complex character that I loved to follow through the scary castle.

And then the romance happened. This sounds like I’m somehow opposed to her falling in love – I am absolutely not. I was on the edge of my seat during the moments between Nyx and Ignifex because I never knew whether they were going to kill or kiss each other. Their conversations weren’t particularly clever, but there was an underlying threat of danger and a ton of unresolved sexual tension. So the story pushed some of my very favorite buttons.

Unfortunately, it all goes up in flames of cheesiness and lazy writing. Like Sunday in Enchanted, it doesn’t take Nyx very long to fall in deep, deep love with not only Ignifex, but also his shadow, Shade. Despite being a fairy tale retelling (and “true love” happening even faster in actual fairy tales, and with even less of a basis), it still bothered me. Can’t literary heroines admit that they have a crush, that they feel slightly tingly when he enters the room, that they may have fallen in lust? No, it’s always true love, right away, from the second or third kiss onward.

Which leads me to where the writing started becoming lazy. There are a lot of kisses in Cruel Beauty, and while the first few ones – plus the ones that were important for plot-reasons – were well-described and butterfly-worthy, after a certain point, the author seemed to just have given up. Suddenly, all we get is “and then they kissed” or “suddenly he kissed me”. A throwaway line here and there to make sure we know that Nyx and Shade or Ignifex are still a thing.

The main story arc, however, doesn’t merely revolve around a romance/love-triangle. Nyx is trying to save the world! And the Gentle Lord’s castle is as much a mystery as the question how to destroy him. Killing her husband after actually falling in love with him presents an added difficulty, to say the least. But Ignifex is wrapped in secrets within secrets, and I kept reading as much to find out these secrets as for the resolution of the romance.

It’s a clever twist on Greek mythology, but I was still somewhat disappointed in the ending. Not only are the secrets revealed with a lot of exposition, the solution comes too easily after a lot of useless work. What’s more, Nyx worked the entire time to figure out the riddle that is Ignifex and his castle, and in the end has to be told everything anyway. She is presented as a clever, active young woman with a capacity for independent thought and yet, everything she does learn comes from someone else. Shade reveals things, birds reveal things, other beings give her hints and – in the end – straight up tell her the solution via convenient vision. All she had to do was walk around the house a lot. No thinking involved. Which makes me sad because I’m sure, if given the chance (by the author, that is), Nyx could have easily figured it out for herself. That requires careful planning and foreshadowing of course, and that’s the area the author still has to work on.

There were parts of this book that I loved. The imagery is gorgeous and would make a stunning movie, animation, illustrated novel, what-have-you. The background of Nyx’s world, how Greek mythology and the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale intermingle, works beautifully. But then there were the parts I hated. Not just disliked, hated. Nyx’s fickleness, her way to trust people much too easily, especially for someone who grew up the way she did. The writing that grew lazy towards the end, the big solution and wannabe-plot twist. It’s difficult to decide yay or nay with this book.

But for its originality and the darkness of its tone, I lean just slightly towards a positive opinion. Seeing as this is Rosamund Hodge’s debut novel, I am curious to find out how she does in her next one. There is a lot of potential for greatness and I wouldn’t want to miss it. Especially since the next book will be a spin on Little Red Riding Hood.

RATING:  6/10  –  Good

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Books by Rosamund Hodge:

  • Cruel Beautygilded ashes
  • Gilded Ashes (a companion novella set in the same world that retells “Cinderella”)