This Beauty is kicking ass and taking names

Cover art for Cruel BeautyTitle: Cruel Beauty

Author: Rosamund Hodge

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer and Bray/HarperTeen, January 28th, 2014

The Hook: Taking Beauty and the Beast back to the myth of Cupid and Psyche, this thrilling fantasy features a kick-ass heroine, an intriguingly constructed world, and some sizzling romance.

The Lowdown (from Goodreads, because I hate the jacket description SO MUCH): 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.

Overall Impressions:  I was prepared to hate this book.  The jacket text and illustration screamed “TWILIGHT KNOCKOFF”.  But I got sucked in so quickly.  I liked Nyx almost instantly, even though she’s angry and bitter, and makes a lot of bad decisions.  It was the amazing world-building, though, that really won me over.  Hodge creates a world where Great Britain was magically cut off from the rest of the world during the age of the Roman occupation.  Magic clashes with science, and the author offers a fascinating look at what 19th-century British society might look like if the Romans had never left and Continental politics hadn’t influenced British culture.

The Highs: As I said, I liked Nyx a lot. She’s impulsive, and deeply pissed off (and who wouldn’t be, in her shoes?), but she’s likable nonetheless.  And Ignifex is your classic sexy, misunderstood “bad boy” love interest, with a lot of fun twists.  I also loved the elaborately-crafted world that the characters lived in.  It felt as detailed as a Bruegel painting to me, with lots of surprises and hidden corners, and pieces of a puzzle that all come together at the end.  But my favorite thing about the book might have been the mythology that Hodge worked with.  If you’re not familiar with the myth of Cupid and Psyche (and Pandora, as well), read up on them first in order to fully appreciate the story.  Cupid and Pysche form the basis for Beauty and the Beast, and Hodge did a wonderful job of weaving the myth and the fairy tale together to make something original and new.

Buzzkills:  This buzzkill is less of a problem with the story itself than a problem of different perceptions, but here goes: I discussed the story with another early reader, who complained that she was uncomfortable with the book because it was, and I quote, “rape-y”.  Not because there’s any actual rape in the book (there absolutely isn’t), but because Nyx is not initially a completely willing participant in the marriage, even though there is no actual consummation of said marriage until much later, after her feelings have changed.  Now, I think the argument can be made for being uncomfortable with situations where a captive is brainwashed into feeling sympathy and even love for her captor, because that is a pretty screwed-up scenario, but that’s not the case here.  If you’re at all familiar with the Beauty and the Beast storyline, you know that already.  What I really objected to was the use of the term “rape-y”.  Because rape either is or isn’t.  Rape is someone being forced into sexual contact against their will, or in a situation where they can’t willingly and knowingly give consent.  Rape happens, and it’s awful, and using words like “rape-y” to describe situations that make us uncomfortable does nothing to help people who are actually dealing with the impact of rape. And using it describe a book is just plain silly.  But, that being said, if you’re uncomfortable with books that include a shifting balance of power between two people sharing a sexual relationship, avoid this story.

The Source:  Advance Reading Copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor the tools of assassination were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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Death comes calling… and then death is gone

Cobweb Bride coverTitle: Cobweb Bride

Author: Vera Nazarian

Publisher & Release Date: Norilana Books, July 2013

The Hook: The premise of Death seeking his bride.

The Lowdown: Death waits for his bride and until she presents herself, no one and nothing shall die. And so people are trapped on the edge of death or beyond it and young women begin struggling through winter to reach Death’s keep as possible brides.

Overall Impressions: The premise – Death essentially holding death hostage – intrigued me so much that I just jumped in and missed that this is the first of a trilogy. So the internal and external political intrigue in this book really just lays the groundwork for the rest of the story.

Nazarian very effectively explores what it could mean for death to go absent, and it does not mean living happily ever after forever. People in pain, people who should be dead, the food supply…

The story itself is tragedy piled on tragedy with characters resolving to overcome or press through the tragedy. Betrayals. Which would generally not appeal to me, but it’s so beautifully told through such fascinating characters that I needed to know what would happen next. And in the end (of this part of the story), there is hope.

It felt Russian* to me with a slightly otherworldly flavor reminiscent of Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. (Both of which are excellent books.)

The Highs: Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, lush language. Perfect for a fairy tale.

Meeting the young women trudging to the forest looking for the Keep and seeing their journeys. The undistinguished, fat, plain middle daughter (Percy) becoming a hero. The sickly emperor’s daughter and heir growing into a strong, capable person. The complexity of relationships and loyalties.

Buzzkills: It’s the nature of the story, but as Matilda said about The Chronicles of Narnia: There are no funny bits. Or at least very few. I think I cracked a smile once.

More of a consideration than a buzzkill, but Nazarian made me feel the snow coming down until I felt blanketed, and this was in spring. I don’t know that I would want to read this book in the cold of winter.

Another consideration: When Death says there will be no death, he’s serious. And that impacts the food supply in a way that may make a person consider vegetarianism.

The Source: eGalley from the publisher via NetGalley.

*Personal bias: Fairy-tale like stories set in wintertime in a pre-industrial time often feel Russian to me. Especially when they’re sad.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or promise of chocolate (hot, cold or room temperature) was provided by the publisher for this review.