Book: “The Beast is an Animal” by Peternelle van Arsdale
Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, February 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: A girl with a secret talent must save her village from the encroaching darkness in this haunting and deeply satisfying tale.
Alys was seven when the soul eaters came to her village.
These soul eaters, twin sisters who were abandoned by their father and slowly morphed into something not quite human, devour human souls. Alys, and all the other children, were spared—and they were sent to live in a neighboring village. There the devout people created a strict world where good and evil are as fundamental as the nursery rhymes children sing. Fear of the soul eaters—and of the Beast they believe guides them—rule village life. But the Beast is not what they think it is. And neither is Alys.
Inside, Alys feels connected to the soul eaters, and maybe even to the Beast itself. As she grows from a child to a teenager, she longs for the freedom of the forest. And she has a gift she can tell no one, for fear they will call her a witch. When disaster strikes, Alys finds herself on a journey to heal herself and her world. A journey that will take her through the darkest parts of the forest, where danger threatens her from the outside—and from within her own heart and soul.
Review: I am going to start this review by talking about the cover, because it is rare that I see a cover that so perfectly sets up the atmosphere of the book. Dark, yet beautiful. Indistinct, yet you feel drawn in, almost against your will. The tall dark trees, shadows, and bright red flowers all spark instinctive warning symbols in your head and that looming shape in the middle….is it a person? A creature? Or simply a strangely shaped tree stump? Whoever came up with this art design in the publishing house should be awarded major points for exactly matching book art to its source. Like this cover, “The Beast is an Animal” was beautiful, and terrifying, and I couldn’t look away.
At its core, this is a book about fear and about the horrors that a simple emotion can inflict on an individual, a family, and an entire community. Neighbors, always on the look out for witches to blame for poor weather, poor crops, posed almost a greater danger than the dark, looming forest around which many small communities exist. It is into this world that Angelina and Benedicta are born, twin sisters whose looks, down to unique birthmarks, exactly mirror the other. After a poor farming season, they, and their mother, are blamed and banished to live in the woods, and a husband/father who should have been their protector slinks away to begin his life again with a new, fresh-faced woman. Their mother doesn’t flourish. Angelina and Benedicta do, slowly being eaten away with bitterness and anger at the fear that lead to their banishment. And thus, two monsters are born.
After all of this set up, we meet Alys, our main character who throughout the book also struggles with the fear of “otherness” that floats around her. After her whole town is destroyed by the souleaters, excepting all of the children under 15, she and her fellow orphans go to live in a new town. While they do take the children in, this new community is even more stifled, building walls around their small town and forcing the children to guard it every night, all night.
We watch this story unfold over three periods of Alys’s life. First, when she is 7 and her town falls to the souleaters. Second, when she is 12 and begins to suspect that she has more in common with the souleaters and the mysterious Beast that haunts the woods. And finally, at age 15 when she must confront both the truth about herself, and the darkness that is growing in the heart of the woods.
What I loved about this book was how it plays with the topic of fear and bad/good. Are Angelina/Benedicta evil? Or were the “normal folk” who banished them? Where does the Beast fall on this spectrum? What about the community that takes in the children? While the supernatural elements were scary in their own right, it was the oppressive fear of the people themselves that made the book truly creepy. Alys, and the medicine woman who adopts her in the new town, are constantly on the look out for any hint that they are beginning to fall under suspicion for being different. The devices and tortures used against these supposed “witches” were more terrifying than the supernatural souleaters if only because we know from history that these things existed.
As I said in the beginning, what makes this story truly compelling is the atmospheric tone of the writing. It feels like a new fairytale, containing not only the darker elements that are typical to original fairytales, but also reads with a lyrical flow, combining beautiful imagery with poignant insights into the deep tragedy at the heart of the story.
Alys is a strong protagonist around which to center this story. However, Mother, the woman who adopts Alys in the new community, was the breakout character for me. She doesn’t have a lot of page time, but she provides a window into a world, and life, that Alys is trying to avoid. Mother is a midwife whose skills are depended on, but who must also constantly hide what she is doing and how she is doing it for fear that she would be labeled a witch. Her own personal tragedies, as well, must be similarly hidden. When Alys first meets her, she dislikes her, noting that she is cold and unemotional. But as the story goes on, we see that this is a coping mechanism and self-preservation tactic from a woman who has devoted herself to aiding a community of people who would as soon see her burned at the slightest sign of strangeness.
Like I said, the supernatural elements were very creepy (much more than I expected and in some ways this might have been a more “Kate book” than mine), but the descriptions of life in these walled up and fearful communities was almost unbearable to read. I was just so angry at these people! And it is this aspect that really marks this book as a success. The reader falls into the same trap as Angelina/Benedicta, and even Alys, thus making these characters all the more sympathetic, for all of their evil deeds. Fear leads to anger. And anger leads to…
I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you enjoy original fairytales and can handle a healthy dose of creepiness, this book is definitely worth checking out!
Rating 9: A beautiful, standalone dark fantasy novel. I absolutely loved it!
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