Cruel Beauty: review

Cruel Beauty: reviewCruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Published by Balzer & Bray on January 28, 2014
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads

four-half-stars

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.

Retellings of classic myths and stories with well-known mythological figures as characters have been really popular lately. They can be resonant and deep, using the comfort of the familiar to comment on society and human nature, or they can be cheesy and superficial, with that “Here’s a quirky thing about me that history got wrong, wink wink fart!” attitude, and it can be hard sometimes to tell which of those you’re dealing with until you really get into the story. I am happy to report that this book is very much one of the former.

Cruel Beauty is an exquisitely crafted retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche. I am in awe of Rosamund Hodge and her ability to strip that classic story down to its most basic narrative skeleton and build on top of it a brand new, complex world with rich, original mythology and characters. There’s also a strong tip of the hat to Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard tossed in for good measure, and those elements push it over the top, making this a truly extraordinary novel.

One of the best things about this book is the almost aggressive unlikability of the characters. Nyx is not a Psyche or a Belle-type lady, going to her monstrous mate as a willing sacrifice to save her loved ones. Her father bargained with a demon before her birth, and now she is doomed to marry him and die like his previous wives, and she is pissed about it. As one would be. And she’s a screwed-up person because… Do I need to explain why? You read the synopsis. Her life is a pile of garbage, and it’s completely unfair.

Nyx and her twin sister, Astraia (who, by the way, named their cat Penelope, so these people are aware that normal names that don’t end in “X” are an option) have a really complicated relationship. Astraia comes across as weak, and everyone goes out of their way to protect her, where Nyx has been trained since infancy to slay the dragon on the hill. And Nyx resents the crap out of her sister for living a charmed life. What’s nice is that as the novel progresses, we get to see a stronger, feistier, more manipulative side of Astraia, one that Nyx never bothered to learn about while they were growing up because she was too busy being a resentful brat.

And the demon king, Ignifex, is the type of person who makes bargains that result in someone’s unborn baby being betrothed to a many-times-widowed demon (the Bluebeard aspects of this are no joke). Later in the book, we see him trick another man set on bargaining for what he wants (people go to Ignifex for favors on a daily basis, and each of them erroneously thinks he will be the man to finally outsmart the demon) into actions that will lead to his dying of Syphilis, alongside the woman he loves. Yikes. Ignifex is selfish and cruel, and I want to do all the sex with him (which is a weird thing to say in a paragraph that mentions STD’s, but it’s true).

And speaking of sex… Nyx and Ignifex have really excellent chemistry. They are flawed and broken, and ultimately (I think) kind of perfect for each other. Their banter is as cold and cutting as you’d expect, knowing the basis of their relationship, and it is wonderful.

There are a few big twists toward the end of the novel, and I saw all of them coming pretty far in advance, but I don’t think that’s a flaw in the writing so much as a result of the familiarity of the storyline. Regardless, I didn’t enjoy the book any less for not being surprised. And the ending is just so lovely.

The mythology of the book’s universe runs pretty deep, and at times it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that is going on. I want to read more from this world, and I am dying to get my hands on Hodge’s Cinderella-themed novella that comes out in April, Gilded Ashes. If you like complex characters, strong (if initially confusing) world building, and retellings of classic stories, you will absolutely love Cruel Beauty.

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