Tuesday, December 17, 2013
ARC Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Title: Cruel Beauty
Author: Rosmund Hodge
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: January 28th, 2014
Cruel Beauty veered far from the track of my expectations - in the best possible way. Although this novel is marketed as being "Graceling meets 'Beauty and the Beast'", let me tell you now: there are no assassins. In my eyes, Hodge's debut works perfectly as a unique spin on a classic fairy tale; one that truly plays with its subject matter in unpredictable ways.
Its premises seems fairly simple from the surface. Ignifex, the cruel ruler of Arcadia, keeps his throne as the Prince of Demons, making harsh bargains with his citizens. Nyx winds up betrothed to the "beast" due to a foolish bargain struck by her father and, leaving behind her naive sister and unloving family, goes to live with Ignifex. Now, we'd think that a romance blossoms, Nyx finds herself returning back home, and by the time she arrives back at Ignifex's castle, she's barely in time to break the curse that hangs over them all. Right?
Wrong. Cruel Beauty is precisely as its title describes it: cruel and beautiful, both at the same time. Hodge's novel has more than its fair share of annoying tropes and irritating flaws, but what makes it excel is the fact that it plays so cleverly on this classic tale we've come to know and love. Robin McKinley has written two versions of this fairy tale - Beauty and Rose Daughter - both following the original fairy tale perfectly in the sense that Beauty is kind and Beast is caring, not evil. In Cruel Beauty, though, Nyx's heart is filled with hatred. Ever since the age of nine, she has known that her father has chosen her, not her sister, to be the sacrifice given to Ignifex in marriage. Thus, while Nyx has lived her life training to somehow break the curse on her land and kill the monster who she must live with, her sister Astraia has lived knowing that she is safe. Needless to say, despite her best efforts, Nyx's envy and hatred for her sister, her father, her aunt who is conducting an affair with her father, and her dead mother all boil to the surface, turning her from the kind Beauty with a loving family to a stone-cold woman with nothing to lose.
Similarly, Ignifex is difficult to analyze at first glance. For one, he is neither kind like the original Beast of lore, but neither is he angry and upset like the Beast of Disney re-telling. Instead, he is sarcastic and clever, intensely aware of his cruelty to others - turning their wishes into evil deeds - and oh-so-comfortable in his skin. Shade, his shadowed counterpart, is just as enigmatic and hard to place. Although many readers are hesitant to pick up a novel with unlikable characters, that's precisely what these individuals are: unlikable. And that's the way they are, deep down to their core; they can't be "cured" and no excuses are given for the way they are made, but they are merely accepted for their complex personalities, which I love. Already, with her cast of characters, Hodge has managed to make Cruel Beauty stand out.Yet, her lore is what clinches the deal. Hodge's debut is infused with Greek mythology - an unexpected surprise - but the lore is dispersed throughout the novel in a timely manner, drawing parallels between Nyx's situation and hinting at the story behind the curse of Arcadia. Ignifex's castle is a labyrinth, so with dozens of hidden doors, the secrets and clues are simply endless.
Nevertheless, where this novel truly works for me - I hesitate to speak for the throng of diverse readers in and out of the blogosphere - is the unapologetic manner in which Hodge portrays her characters. Ignifex is never "tamed" by Nyx. From beginning to end, he remains as cognizant of his evil ways as ever, not to mention just as sarcastic and quick with his wicked tongue. Nyx, too, never turns into the kind Beauty we've come to know. Instead, she is constantly just as guilt-ridden and flawed as ever. And yet, these qualities are not detriments to the tale. Hodge never hesitates to expose the hidden underbelly of cruelty that we are all capable of. Moreover, Ignifex and Nyx are not merely defined by their bad traits - they are defined by their redeeming ones too. Cruel Beauty examines the idea of redemption and of the blurred line between black-and-white so very perfectly, it is nearly shocking. I love that Hodge dares to explore the psychological ramifications these two individuals face; the effects of karma and their inevitable fates. Although her characters are so starkly outlined and distinctly realistic, it remains that the love story between them is just as moving; a tale of acceptance, more than anything else. Ignifex is neither ugly and nor is Nyx a great beauty, but the love they hold for one another still extends beyond physical traits. Instead of seeing past the surface, these two must learn to appreciate the dark sides of one another they have been forced to see, but the journey is so very rewarding.
Where Cruel Beauty falters, however, is in the fact that it never comes together cohesively until the end; the threads grating, more than mystifying. And the primary reason this occurs is because of a slight love triangle. Nyx does harbor romantic feelings for two men in her life, but she ultimately chooses only one of them and their love story plays out remarkably well. Yet, the presence of the other man in her life is integral to the plot of the novel and, in fact, comes back towards the end, answering unanswered questions and proving that the awkward love triangle in this novel is necessary, to a degree. With that said, however, I felt as if this aspect of the story could have been dealt with much better. I was confused and more than a little uncertain about the romantic arc between Nyx and her original love interest; it lacked the spark, dynamic dialogue, and chemistry shared by Nyx and Ignifex. I think that the plot point Hodge was trying to make with this love triangle - evident by the end of the novel - is an interesting one, but poorly executed. Furthermore, I felt as if this novel could have benefited from a slower pace in some areas and a faster pace in others. It never went too fast or became boring, but it could have done with a decent bit of polishing in some parts, as far as pacing went, at any rate.
Cruel Beauty does have its fair share of flaws, but ultimately, its take on the standard tale of "Beauty and the Beast", not to mention its bold portrayal of unlikable characters, won me over. I truly enjoyed Hodge's lyrical prose, her intriguing world-building, and the unforeseen story arc she had created. Granted, this novel is not perfect - not nearly so, actually - but it's wildly entertaining and, more than that, thought-provoking; sometimes, that's all you really need.