Book Review: Cruel Beauty, Rosamund Hodge

Is the Beast really so Beastly? I’ve always been intrigued by retellings of Beauty and the Beast that take on the Beast’s nature, and explore the origins of the story in a way that challenges the conventional narrative. Given the plethora of versions of this story, there are lots of different ways to go with it, branching off from an original narrative of a beautiful maiden forced to endure the ghastly presence of an evil beast for the good of her village — but who ends up falling in love with him.

On a meta level, there’s something perturbing about a narrative that revolves around the idea of a man (for the Beast is, at heart, a man) corrupting a beautiful, pure maiden (for that is how Beauty is always framed) and then seducing her. On the one hand, it could be viewed as a story of love overcoming odds and Beauty looking beyond surface traits to find the man she loves under the Beast’s surface — but on the other, the Beast is often depicted as brutal and vicious at the start of the story, implying that Beauty needs to ‘tame’ him by sticking with it, which is not exactly a message I want to send to young women and girls. I’d rather tell them that if their partners are abusive, they should run.

In this version of an ancient story, Nyx has been pledged almost since birth to marry the cruel ruler of her nation — the man who has kept them isolated from the rest of the world, who works deals that turn into devilish, twisted bargains with the citizens. She’s also been trained since childhood to kill him, to liberate her people, even though all she wants to pursue is a scholarly life, and she loves reading, training in magic, and exploring the world.

Her sister, meanwhile, has been her father’s treasure: the child he gets to keep, the one he worships. Nyx lives a life of shadow and bitterness until she’s quickly rushed through the wedding ceremony and sent to the Beast’s home, which, like a TARDIS, is bigger on the inside…and much more slippery than it looks. She wanders the corridors attempting to understand the house and its inhabitants, and along the way, she learns the truth about her nation’s history, and the Beast himself, which forces her to make some important decisions…

Cruel Beauty is incredibly lyrical, creepy, and vivid. The story twists and turns and Hodge has a brilliant way of bringing scenes to life in a way that’s downright unsettling, especially within the Beast’s house, where the very structure itself shapeshifts and seems determined to torment and thwart Nyx…even as elements within the house are trying to help her. For the lush visual imagery alone, this book is worth a read, because it’s delightful to roll around in, and the prose is simply stellar. This is not your ordinary fairytale retelling, and it’s rather astounding for a debut.

But this is also good storytelling. Hodge takes an old story in fascinating new directions, and while this is a romance, it’s a far cry from the unsettling romance of earlier iterations of the Beauty and the Beast story. Both characters are radically different: Beauty has far more autonomy and strength, not just because she’s a trained assassin but because she’s given a stronger sense of independence and assertion than many other Beauties in retellings of this story. And the Beast is a very different beast; a man who conducts fiendish deals with unwitting victims, yes, and a cold man at times, but not a brutal one, and one with a story that’s much more complex than in other narratives.

This isn’t about a girl taming a man, or about a woman enduring abuse in order to find love. Both of these interpretations of the narrative were firmly shelved for Cruel Beauty, which is more a story about how the Beast himself became trapped, and how Beauty can set him free — or, potentially, destroy everything, including the world they live in. Nyx is the one with the power in this equation, not the Beast, and readers are constantly reminded of it throughout the text.

Nyx’ relationship with her family is also fascinating. While the story features a classic stereotypical evil stepmother, her relations with her father and sister are very fraught as well, putting Nyx in a very lonely, vulnerable place. As her understanding of herself, and her confidence, increase and change, so too does her relationship with her family. For readers who have ever felt isolated, or alone, or not understood even when they’re in the midst of family, Cruel Beauty articulates some of the strangeness people can experience when they’re surrounded by kin but don’t feel like they know anyone at all.

I found this to be an incredibly compelling read, because I urgently needed to know what happened — I wanted Nyx to find the truth of her nation’s past and present, and I wanted to see what happened with her relationships with the people around her, including, ultimately, herself. I was also totally wrapped up in the world, which is fascinating, beautiful, and terrifying all at once. I especially appreciated Hodge’s complex and brilliant worldbuilding, the key details and broad brush-strokes of the complicated world she created for her characters, and the totally wild twist at the end.