My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was raised to marry a monster.
How’s that for a first line?
From that moment we are immersed in a world which has been ripped out of time, suffering a curse which Nyx has been pledged from birth to break by marriage to the demon lord Ignifex. When she finds Ignifex is not simply what he seems on the surface, she is torn between her vow to her people and her love for a complex person. And in this world the Greek gods punish vow-breaking with a vengeance, so this is a serious problem.
I read this book faster and faster so that by the end I knew I was heedlessly missing details. But the plot was the thing that kept me reading until midnight two nights in a row. This is a romance and it’s a good one. After all it is based on Beauty and the Beast, albeit very loosely. However, the author tells it with a freshness and immediacy that makes me think of Robin Mckinley’s The Blue Sword, which is some of my highest praise.
I am amazed this is a first book. Hodge took the Beauty and the Beast story and mixed it up with Greek mythology and a few other classics that I won’t mention here for fear of spoilers. The result is a completely new soup* that doesn’t seem derivative in any way. It is complex, compelling, and Tolkien-esque in the way big themes and truths are woven seamlessly into the story. It is C.S. Lewis-ian (is that a term?) in the way that source materials are woven seamlessly into a completely new story a la Til We Had Faces (yet so much more understandable to a schmoe like me.).
It is not without flaws, but they are few and forgivable as quirks. They are fairly minor and annoy no more than a few gnats so I’ll not go into detail about them.
Above all I was struck by the underlying themes of the masks we hide behind, the real meaning of love, the many forms selfishness can take, the value of intention in sacrifice, the price of trying to control fate, and the fact everyone has more layers than you can see at first glance.
Cruel Beauty is being marketed as a YA novel and it fulfills those requirements in that I’d let my 9th grader read it if I still had one around the house. However, I miss the days when there was no YA designation and one could pick it up, as I did The Blue Sword long ago, without the preconceptions of a label. This is a story that adults can definitely enjoy. Be not afraid.
This book is a masterpiece and should become a classic. Certainly it is one I will be rereading more than once. I want to shove it into everyone’s hands and force them to read it so we can talk about it.
Do yourself a favor and pick it up.
1. This is a review copy and I’m friends with the author’s brother and sister-in-law. Believe me, that all made me rather leery than inclined to shove this book into everyone’s hands. This “shove-this-book-into-everyone’s-hands” review is my honest opinion.
2. I’ve been asked if guys would like this book. I asked the author’s brother who is not prone to read “girly books” and you may read his answer in the comments for his review at Goodreads.
3. Catholics will be happy to note that I used Tolkien-esque deliberately. Everything Hodge has here is solidly Catholic in basic worldview, despite the fact that the only gods mentioned are pagan. Which is as it should be. The story is the thing. The solid values that are the bones of this soup give it depth and savor, but do not intrude upon a fine tale.
From Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories.
In Dasent’s words I would say: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” Though, oddly enough, Dasent by “the soup” meant a mishmash of bogus pre-history founded on the early surmises of Comparative Philology; and by “desire to see the bones” he meant a demand to see the workings and the proofs that led to these theories. By “the soup” I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by “the bones” its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup.
Emphasis mine. Everyone leaves that bit off and I always feel I can see Tolkien smiling as he wrote it.