Book: “Cruel Beauty” by Rosamund Hodge
Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2014
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: 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.
Review: Sigh. I don’t know, I think I’m in some very specific, “Beauty and the Beast” related slump. Don’t get me wrong, you can tell from the above alone, this was better than the “Star-Touched Queen.” I mean, at least I finished it! There were things I legitimately liked about this story, but in the end, I was still very disappointed by yet another much-lauded retelling of this classic tale.
Nyx has known her entire life that she only has one destiny: to marry the Gentle Lord and try to save her world. But in reality, she is likely a sacrifice who will die on her wedding night at the hands of a demon lord who has imprisoned her world and tempted her people (including her father) with wicked bargains that never turn out well. But when she finds herself finally married and in a castle with secrets around every corner, she begins to question this mission. Who is this Gentle Lord really? How did he get here and what will it take to truly save herself and her people?
This story started out strong. As I said in my review of “The Star-Touched Queen,” I was enjoying this read as a palate cleanser for the first several chapters. The writing is strong, freed from the syrupy prose that drove me nuts with the former, the world-building was unique, and Nyx herself was complicated and interesting.
Nyx’s world is essentially a version of England had it remained under its Roman influences. Her people have combined the folklore of the original residents of Arcadia and the Roman pantheon of gods and myths. These myths and characters are sprinkled throughout the story, and I enjoyed this new take on the magical elements that came directly from some of these myths and how they could be twisted to fit a Beauty and the Beast like story.
Nyx also started off as a promising heroine. She’s a brave, strong young woman, but also embittered and resentful of the role she is meant to play. Her father’s deal required he choose one of his twin daughters to marry the Gentle Lord, and Nyx has felt the weight of being the lesser loved for her entire life. What’s more, her sweet and naive sister has played a complicated role in Nyx’s life. She is innocent and has done no wrong, and Nyx can’t help but resent her. And this resentment leads to Nyx’s own self-loathing at her inability to disconnect her father’s choices from her relationship with her sister. So this was all a strong foundation. Nyx is presented as conflicted, but determined. Not perfect, but recognizing her own flaws. Seemingly, a character I should root for.
The problem became that Nyx was SO conflicted that I couldn’t root for her because I could never be sure what her actual goals were from one page to the next. Once she gets into the castle, meets the Gentle Lord, and begins going about her mission, Nyx becomes a bundle of confusion and indecision. This would be fine, except for the fact that every other page she states that she is DETERMINED to do such and such. Then a few pages go by and she’s DETERMINED to do the exact opposite. Her emotions are all over the place, and they are all the most extreme at any point. She hates her sister and the Gentle Lord. But no, she loves her sister and maybe the Gentle Lord is OK. It got to the point that whenever she had a new revelation, I couldn’t invest any true meaning into it, because chances were good she was going to walk back that decision/emotion in just a few pages, depending on whatever position on things the person she next interacted with had.
There was also a dreaded love triangle introduced almost immediately. Granted it was a unique version of a love triangle (more on that later), but a love triangle it remained. What’s more, both points of the love triangle capitalized on flaws that particularly irk me in romances. One was pretty much an instalove connection, with Nyx and this man kissing on almost their first interaction and their practically announcing their love a few interactions later.
The other came with all the complications of the romantic character being a truly bad guy as far as Nyx knows at this point. Obviously, with any Beauty and the Beast story (or Hades/Persephone, what have you), you know going in that there is going to be a change of heart somewhere along the line. But my one requirement for these types of romances is that the change of heart comes AFTER the love interest has done something to make the heroine begin to question her assumptions about his cruelty. He needs to earn not only her love, but first even the opportunity for her to consider him as even a decent person who might be worthy of love. When the heroine, like Nyx here, falls for the “Beast” when he’s still full-on in beast mode and has done nothing to redeem himself, it’s not a tragic love story but instead another example of setting up unhealthy and scary expectations for the type of behavior that is acceptable in a romantic partner. No amount of “hotness” makes it OK. When Nyx first starts feeling drawn to him, he’s still only the demon who killed her mother and is actively killing more of her people. She has no reason to question this, even if we the readers know this tale backwards and forwards and can suspect there’s more to it than that. She doesn’t know that, and it makes any attachment she feels for him at this point just another example of problematic romances in YA fiction.
The other big problem I had was that this love triangle also gave away the answer to the end of the book. I had no problem whatsoever immediately guessing the secrets involved in this story right off the bat. Not only does this drain any dramatic tension from the story, but it damages Nyx’s characterization by making her seem rather dull-witted for not figuring it out herself. What’s worse, the author makes the bizarre choice of having Nyx discover the answer halfway through the story and then conveniently forget. And that’s not even getting into the fact that the device used to reveal these facts to her had killed every wife of the Gentle Lord before, but not Nyx. It’s never explained why not Nyx, not even a tertiary throw-away comment that would somehow make her an exception. Nope, she’s just special because the story needs her to be.
Between the love triangle, Nyx’s inconsistent and hard to root for characterization, and the early reveal of an obvious conclusion, I really struggled with this book. It did have a unique magical world set up and I enjoyed Nyx at the beginning, but after she arrived at the castle, the story took a distinct downwards trajectory and never managed to recover.
Rating 4: Another disappointing “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, this time with improvements to the heroine, but an unnecessary and plot-revealing love triangle.
“Cruel Beauty” is included on a million Goodreads lists about heroines who fall for bad guys and best fairytale retellings, but I just can’t. Go read “Beauty” if you haven’t already. And if you have, give yourself a treat and re-read it!
Find “Cruel Beauty” at your library using WorldCat!