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Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty - Rosamund Hodge The fairytale retellings just keep coming, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Fairytales are, after all, archetypal — they are perfectly suited for variation and reinterpretation. To the best of my knowledge, Robin McKinley really kicked off the reinterpretation trend in 1978 with Beauty — a Beauty and the Beast retelling. She followed Beauty with other reinterpretations — Spindle’s End, Deerskin, Rose Daughter, and The Door in the Hedge. Gail Carson Levine joined McKinley in the 90’s with Ella Enchanted, a superb book that, frankly, set the standard. Donna Jo Napoli and Shannon Hale must be mentioned as well; they, like Levine and McKinley, jump-started their careers with fairytale retellings.

Undoubtedly, these writers are an inspiration for our current up-and-comers — there seems to be a new wave of fairytale retellings hitting the market. Unfortunately, most of these attempts are falling short. We have Alex Flinn, who is responsible for the monstrosity that is Beastly. She had other attempts, Towering and Cloaked, which aren’t spoken of. Marissa Meyer has met success with her futuristic retellings, The Lunar Chronicles, although many readers agree that the series is bogged down by its fairytale allusions — a gimmick that overcomplicates the plot. Rosamund Hodge’s debut, on the other hand, is moving in the right direction. Ladies and gentlem… well, probably just ladies — Cruel Beauty. is. solid.

While I was reading the book, I was reminded, more than a few times, of the aforementioned Robin McKinley. Like McKinley, Hodge has a pointedly feminist angle. Both authors, with three Beauty and the Beast reinterpretations between them, look to fix various issues with the traditional tale — issues that (hopefully) would offend the modern girl and woman:

Appearances don’t matter. What counts is what’s in your heart. Unless you’re the girl.

You can fix his selfishness, violence, and domination with your sexuality.

Being forcibly locked up and ordered around is a great impetus for romance.

Just because it’s Stockholm Syndrome, doesn’t mean it’s not love.

McKinley navigated these issues by creating skilled, willful, three-dimensional heroines, not hinging the plot solely on romance, and writing unexpected plot twists that shirked the traditional fairytale plot formula. Hodge does all this, with a little twist of her own.

The setting for Cruel Beauty is the island of Arcadia, which was located in the Mediterranean during the Greco-Roman period, but was mysteriously and abruptly removed from the Earth by a curse that no one fully understands. It’s as if the island is trapped under an impenetrable jar, and Arcadia suffers in its isolation. Ever since this schism, the island has endured the tyranny of a man who goes by many names — the Prince of Demons, the Gentle Lord, the Lord of Bargains, and Ignifex, to name a few. He rules over the hoards of demons that prowl around, possessing Arcadians New Testament style. Ignifex does not show himself openly, but anyone desperate enough to bargain with him can go speak with the Lord in his mysterious, ruined castle.

This is where our heroine, Nyx Triskelion, comes into play. Years ago, her father made a bargain with the demon lord — Leonidas Triskelion’s barren wife would have children, but once one of his daughters came of age, she would be married to Ignifex. Leonidas chooses his least favorite twin daughter, Nyx, to be the sacrificial lamb, and raises her as a sort of infiltrator/suicide bomber. I suppose this angle is the justification for the book’s Graceling comparison, but the two stories have very little in common. Nyx waves a knife around a few times in the book, but really she’s been trained to dismantle magical devices. Her mission, and she has no choice in accepting it, is to identify the magical cores of Ignifex’s castle and bring it down on top of them — and survive long enough to do so.

Of course, this is a dark life purpose to have to deal with, and Nyx, when we meet her, is justifiably bitter. This aspect of her character is one of the more interesting aspects of the book. Instead of being a resigned, noble martyr, Nyx is conflicted — she is often enraged, envious, and hateful. She relishes opportunities to be cruel. She is not an unlikable character, but it’s clear that Nyx dislikes herself. It’s a fun angle; many times in the story, the identity of the “beast” character becomes unclear. Is it the demon lord? Or the sacrificed maiden?

In regards to Ignifex, he is a vivid character; every scene is vivacious in which he appears. Hodge builds up some great suspense prior to his introduction, so much so that character is immensely present before his first line of dialogue. She extends this suspense, even after Ignifex is introduced, by drawing out the revelations of his many secrets. All-in-all, the Lord of Bargains is a very enjoyable, three-dimensional romantic lead.

I do have some complaints. I enjoyed the book very much and was impressed by its substance, but I can’t say Cruel Beauty won a spot on my favorites shelf. For one, I thought the character of Shade was deeply extraneous. The secret of his origin was pretty obvious; it had no tension. His subplot — and his character — never fizzed, it was flat, and took up too much of the plot for being so uninteresting. When the book is released, I’ll be interested to see what other readers thought of Shade. He is very arguable.

Another nitpick concerns the book’s pacing. I thought it was A+ until I reached the climax. At this point the story became confusing. All the different subplots, and there are quite a few, slammed into each other. The portion of the book that should have been the falling action, according to my high school English studies, went on and on, and was punctuated with various crises. This made the final portion of the book seem like one enormous climax, up until the final few pages. So. Fabulous routine. Awkward dismount.

Despite these hang-ups, Cruel Beauty is overall a very worthwhile read, and I can see it becoming a favorite for many readers. The book is a can’t-miss for any fan of fairytale retellings, and should be of interest for those who enjoy a feminist romance.

Rating: 4 stars.