My rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Publisher: Balzer+Bray (2014)
Length: 342 pgs
Genre: YA Fiction/Fantasy/Romance, Fairy-Tale Retelling
Format: Hardcover, checked out from my local library
Goodreads Synopsis: 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.
I picked this book up on a whim. I had never given it more than a passing glance, seeing as fairy-tale retellings are quite trendy these days and some of them are not executed that well, and I didn’t want to read another mediocre retelling. Boy, did this book blow me away. It surpassed all of my expectations and more, and wove a darkly beautiful tale inspired not just by Beauty and the Beast, but inspired also by Greek and Roman mythology (Persephone, Pandora, Cupid and Psyche, etc), Bluebeard, and more. It was beautiful, it was clever, and I’m heartbroken to have finished it, because I just kept wanting more.
What really solidifies a good story for me is if I like the protagonist, and Nyx, the seventeen year old daughter of a man foolish enough to bargain with a demon lord, was an instant favorite for me after just the first chapter. She has spent her life knowing she would be wed to the Gentle Lord due to her father’s foolish bargain, but instead of a being a bitter bride or a damsel in distress, she is a wonderfully complex character, who does her duty but recognizes her resentment and ironic fate. She’s resourceful but not too perfect to be unrelateable, and just like any girl in her position gets overwhelmed by the reality of her task and the direness of her situation, but her sharp tongue and intellect prove her to be able to hold her own against the demon lord who keeps her imprisoned.
I also love the romance aspect of this fairy-tale retelling, and found Nyx’s feelings to be complex and intriguing rather than corny or cliché. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Nyx cannot help but have opposing opinions when it comes to the Gentle (Demon) Lord Ignifex, as she’s been brought up to hate him in her small world trapped under a dome of parchment sky (the imagery is amazing in this novel!), but she also assimilates some of his points of view as well, such as the disdain which he views those who come to bargain with him, who he insists are never “pure of heart” but rather those desperate or vain enough to think they can cheat fate. She learns that being a demon does not grant absolute power, but rather makes one a servant to darkness. While her devotion to her initial mission stays, I loved seeing her forming her own opinion about Ignifex rather than accepting the facts shoved down her throat by her elders her whole life. I’m not even going to try to hide my adoration for Ignifex, as he didn’t try to hide his darkest parts, but also didn’t try to hide his goodness either.
And the castle. I love that the building was a character in itself, with its shifting rooms and revolving doorways, making itself a labyrinth of child-like whimsy and dangerous consequences. I was almost disappointed in any scene that didn’t take place within the castle because I was so captivated by trying to figure out its secrets and rooms, and the myriad of strange keys the Gentle Lord was the guardian of. The novel made constant use of the idea of the Hermetic arts, in which (from what I gathered from the story) everything is made up of elements and is thus alive, and everything exists in a cyclical state of being. Seeing Nyx find the “hearts” of the house was so interesting, as she is at war not just with the Gentle Lord but with the structure itself.
So why didn’t this book reap five stars from me? As much as I loved this novel, it was confusing at some points. I loved the various myths woven into the plot, but sometimes it got to be too much, and there was a lot of info-dumping with characters telling different folk myths here and Grecian myths there and each had a certain significance to a plotline IN the book and it got difficult to keep them all straight after a while. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure what happened at the end, and there are so many pantheons and bargains and parallel universes that take place that I feel like I need someone to sit down and clarify the last thirty or so pages to me. It’s still brilliant though, so don’t be deterred from reading it from some confusion at the end!
Overall: This was a brilliant and intelligent retelling of not only Beauty and the Beast but of various other mythologies and the world building was really incredible. The tale of Nyx and Ignifex captivated me not because it’s one of happily ever after, but because it’s about two individuals who are no where near perfect, yet embrace the flaws in themselves and each other. I’m always saying that there are too many series and that there should be more fantastic stand-alone novels out there, but the fact that there’s NOT a sequel to this (as far as I know) literally shatters my heart because I want so bad to return to Arcadia and follow Nyx and Ignifex’s fate. Read it, read it, read it, so I have someone to try to decode the ending with!