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Khanh the Killjoy

A very good retelling

Cruel Beauty - Rosamund Hodge
If one of us had to die, it ought to be the one with poison in her heart.

Maybe it's just me, but I've rarely encountered a Beauty and the Beast retelling that I haven't loved. Ok, except Beastly. That abomination was just horrible all the way around. And let's not even mention the movie. Some people just have the kind of face that just begs for an encounter with my fist, and pretty boy Pettyfer is one of them. But I digress.

This was a very enjoyable read, though not without its faults. It is supposed to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but I felt like it had hints of the fairy tales Rumpelstiltskin and Blackbeard as well. I can go on for days about the plot, setting, grammatical structure blah blah blah, but let's be honest, what makes or breaks a book is its narrator. If you don't like the narrator, screw the rest of the book; I really liked this book's main character, Nyx.

I like my heroines flawed, strong, and strong-willed. I like it when they're angry. I like it when they're defiant. I like it when they lose control. I like it when they snap like a rubber band strung past its tautness. I like it when they see their own weakness. I love it when they fall apart. I love it when they hurt someone they love, while hating themselves for it because they are past their breaking point. Nyx is strong, but not to the point where her overwhelming bitchiness eclipse the book; she never, ever, ever comes off as bitchy.

I do have a few problems with Nyx, and my problem with her ties into the plot as well, my main complaint about this book is that it is just overwhelmingly romantic at times. "But Khanh!" you protest, "It's a romance novel, I mean, it's based off a fairy tale, what did you fucking expect?" Well, yes, my friends, it is a fairy-tale, but the premise promise me more than that. It promised me intrigue, it promised me a kick-ass heroine, one who is the savior of her people, one who will sacrifice herself and become a killer of an evil immortal. I didn't exactly get that.

I wanted bad-assery. I wanted more plotting. I wanted an assassin. Instead, I got not a lot of plotting, I got a lot of illicit kissing, I got a lot of falling in love. As beautiful as this book was, it felt to me that the MAIN plot of mayhem and murder got tossed aside for a love triangle. It wasn't exactly Throne of Glass bad, but it bothered me a lot the way Nyx skirted her mission for romance and dreams. In terms of plotting, the second half of the book was a big mess of confusion for me.

The Summary: Some people are born to a grand destiny, others have it forced upon them. Nyx was born to be a sacrifice. Demons have control of the country of Arcadia. There is no sun, there is only a parchment paper sky, painted with an artifice of the sun. Her country lives in fear. To gaze upon the demons is to lose your mind as the shadows prey upon your soul. For 900 years, this has been Arcadia's curse.

Nyx was intended by her father to be the savior of her people. It means she will most definitely die. Her father made a deal with the king of the demons, the Gentle Lord; in exchange, Nyx will be given in marriage to the Gentle Lord when she turns 17. In return, her beloved twin sister, Astraia, will be able to live a normal, happy life. Nyx truly loves her twin sister, the innocent, sweet Astraia, but it is so hard not to feel resentment at one who has been the recipient of all their father's love, while knowing that her happiness will come at the cost of your own, but she is determined to fulfil her mission:

I had broken my sister’s heart. I would never see her again, so I could never beg her forgiveness. I had let hatred fester in me so long, I didn’t think I could ever learn to love her properly, either. But I could make sure she lived free of the Gentle Lord, no longer afraid of his demons, with the true sun shining down upon her.

Nyx has been groomed half her life to be the Gentle Lord's bride, but her father and his secret society has other plans for her: she will marry him, she will seduce him, she will kill him. Nyx will save Arcadia from the demons.

The Gentle Lord is not what she expected. He tells her to call her Ignifex, but that's not his true name. Instead of ravishing her, he leaves her in a tenuous peace. He has but two rules for her (which are so reminiscent to me ofRumpelstiltskin and Blackbeard:

"One. Every night I will offer you the chance to guess my name. If you guess right, you have your freedom. If you guess wrong, you die.”
"Rule two. Most of the doors in this house are locked. This key will open all the rooms you are permitted to enter. Do not try to enter the other rooms or you will regret it dearly...though not for very long.”

Instead of someone unimaginably cruel, the stuff of nightmares, she finds him full of laughter, full of mockery, full of games. He likes her spirit, he likes her defiance.

I do like a wife with a little malice in her heart.

But Ignifex is also capable of unimaginable cruelty; he makes her shudder with fear. Unexpectedly, she finds an ally in his magical castle, one named Shade. One who is close to the Gentle Lord, but who can never betray him.

Who can Nyx trust?

The Setting: Interesting...but it didn't quite work for me. The setting is not the star here, and it's a rather vague alternative universe that is rather jarring at times. It is based off of an ancient Greco-Roman world, as far as I can tell, gods and goddesses in the Greek Pantheon such as Aphrodite and Hermes and Zeus are mentioned, and it seems as if they are part of the traditional belief system. There is a vague system of magic, alchemy of sort, called the Hermetic sciences. There is not much detail given about this world, short of the fact that it exists under a dome of parchment sky due to a demonic curse, and honestly...I just didn't get it. I never felt immersed in the actual setting. The names and places are strange, you have all these Grecian-based names like Damascus and Adamastos and all of a sudden...Lily Martin? What the fuck?

The castle itself and the setting are a lot more well done. This book truly runs very parallel to Beauty and the Beast in that regards. We have a magical shifting castle, we have wondrous ballrooms filled with sparkling water. We have ivy-covered libraries. We have a wondrous library, we have a magical wardrobe (I NEED ONE FOR CHRISTMAS), we have invisible hands conjuring up feasts and utensils (except without the singing and dancing, the best part!), we have a forbidden object.

But of course, all is not wondrous, and some corners of the castle is filled with horror.

My fingers found cloth, then something soft and cold.
I shuddered, but my mind refused to recognize it until I groped farther and my fingers slid past teeth into a cold, wet mouth.
With a scream, I bolted back against the door. I rubbed my hand viciously against my skirt, but the fabric could not wipe away the memory of touching the dead girl’s tongue.
The dead wife’s tongue. Because now my eyes were growing truly accustomed to the light, and I could see all eight of them, laid out on their stone blocks as if stored for future use.

Dead wives. Shadowy horrors that drives a person into madness. The castle is equally splendid and sinister.

The Characterization: I really liked Nyx. She was frustrating to me at times, but overall, I felt she was a really good, flawed character. Nyx is so, so very angry at the beginning of the novel, and I seethed with anger along with her. She has been dealt a crappy blow by the fates, and who can blame her for her bitterness? Nyx has been doomed since she was born, thanks to her parents' selfishness.

I hate you [Mother], I prayed silently. Father only bargained for your sake. If you had not been so weak, so desperate, I would not be doomed. I hate you, Mother, forever and ever.

I love a good depiction of sisterly relationships, and Nyx's relationship with her twin sister, Astraia, was so well done. There is absolutely no doubt that Nyx adores her sister while simultaneously hating her as well. Astraia has been adored by everyone since she was born, while her twin sister, Nyx, has been groomed to die. Nyx has lived her life in resentment, and who can blame her for that? Even so, she never, ever shows her bright, innocent sister any hate until she is overwhelmed by her emotions on the day of her wedding...which might as well have been a funeral.

I had thought the words so often, they felt like nothing in my mouth, like no more than a breath of air, and as easily as breathing I went on:
“The truth is, Mother died because of you, and now I have to die for your sake too. And neither one of us will ever forgive you.”
Then I shoved her aside and strode out of the room.

Nyx speaks her mind, regrets it immediately, and spends the rest of the book tortured by those final words to her beloved sister.

Nyx has spunk, she has fire. Instead of cowering to Ignifex, she turns against him, surprising him and herself...and earns his respect in the process. She hates Ignifex, but Nyx is not a person of absolute cruelty. Despite herself, she is a gentle person, she wants to be more than that girl with hatred in her heart. Despite knowing Ignifex is evil, she finds that she is unable to ignore someone when they are in pain. She is better than that. She wants to be better than that.

But I was a girl who had broken her sister’s heart and—for a moment—liked it. I had left somebody in torment and liked it.
I didn’t want to keep being that person.

The Romance: It was well done, but there were entirely way too fucking much of it. As I said above, there were too much romance at the expense of the actual plot. Once Nyx got into the castle, I expected her to plot, to finalize her plan to kill Ignifex. She didn't. She spends her time moping. She spends her time making googly eyes at Shade, then after resisting Ignifex (who is technically her husband), slowly lowers her resistance...then kisses Shade. Then kisses Shade some more. COME ON, YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE PLOTTING TO KILL THE EVIL GUY. What pisses me off is that Nyx and her father has a plan to kill Ignifex using Hermetic sciences and she did not follow through except in the most halfhearted way. Instead, this is what we get:

It was nothing like kissing Shade. That had been like a dream that slowly enfolded me; this was like a battle or a dance. [Ignifex] took possession of my mouth and I took possession of his, and we held each other in a perilous, perfect balance like the circulation of the planets.

Less romance, more plot, please.

Thanks to the wonderful Faye for lending me this book.

I received this book as an Advanced Review Copy; all quotes are taken from an uncorrected galley and is subject to change in the final edition.