"Beauty and the Beast" is my favorite fairy tale and it derives from my favorite myth, the myth of Eros and Psyche. I am drawn irresistibly to any story that plays off either of them in any way. It is why Till We Have Faces is my favorite C.S. Lewis novel (one of the reasons anyway). It is one of the (many) reasons The Queen of Attolia is my favorite book of all time. Yet I have never fallen in love with a full length novel that was a retelling of the fairy tale and not just using elements of it. Until now. Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge is perfect for me as a reader in every way imaginable.
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.
Nyx is a girl with a heart full of venom and rage. No one in her world is spared from the bitterness she carries around. Her father made a deal with the Lord of demons, and she was the daughter chosen as the sacrifice. Who wouldn't be bitter? She has been trained for years for one purpose and one purpose only: destroy the evil ruler of her kingdom. She is not expected to survive the experience. She walks into her situation determined, but hating it all the same. Nyx is manipulative and not above hurting others to get what she needs, or simply for the satisfaction of seeing them hurt. There is nothing about her that is "likable'. I adore her. She is complex, driven, intelligent, and in desperate need of someone to love her for what she is, poison and all. Enter Ignifex. Generally, I don't go for the Lord of demon types in books, so I was worried about this aspect. I do go for characters like Ignifiex though. He is sarcastic, flip, outwardly lazy, highly intelligent, and a pessimist to the core. He is also full of bitterness and disappointment with the world, and is not at all what Nyx originally believes him to be. And while he warns her that there are many dangers that could destroy her in the house, he never once presents himself as one of them. The interactions between these two are some of the best scenes of banter. And I love excellent bantering between two intelligent people whom I find myself invested in. I couldn't wait to get to the pages where they were together so that I could have more. I appreciated how, despite Ignifex's power, they were very much equally and well matched. Each gave as good as he/she got and both wielded power in their relationship.
The plot of Cruel Beauty follows the plot of the fairy tale, but is infused with so much more at the same time. And it is all my favorite things. There is Greek mythology woven through all of it, but the myth of Pandora is used the most and quite effectively. There is also, much to my everlasting delight as it is another favorite of mine, elements of "Tam Lin". I was in love with the book already for its rich prose, vivid imagery, layered characters, and excellent dialogue, but when the Kindly Ones were first brought in and I realized Hodge had included faerie lore elements too, my love soared to the heavens and knew no bounds. And how she brought it all to a conclusion was most satisfying. Woven through all of this are themes of pride, forgiveness, sacrifice, and the war in every one of us between light and dark. As I was reading I was reminded in so many good ways of the themes in Till We Have Faces, and was not at all surprised to read in the Afterward that Hodge is also a fan of that book and that it had a great impact on her.
Anything I say here can only touch the surface of how I felt while reading this book. It was a story I experienced in every and I can't convey all of that experience here. Sadly. I can see how for some people it won't work, but for me it is perfect.
I read an e-galley received by the publisher, Balzer and Bray, via Edelweiss. Cruel Beauty is available on January 28th.