I hate when I finish a book and know the review is going to be hard to write and come off more critical than I want it to. So let me start with this. Cruel Beauty is a phenomenal fairy tale retelling that isn’t pigeonholed by the original. Its inspiration is obvious, but its story is entirely its own. I found it imaginative, romantic, and endlessly intriguing. As the product of a debut author, I can only hope we’ll get many more twisted tales out of this world.
As I said in a status update, Beauty and the Beast is infinitely improved by giving the beauty a spine. Nyx has been raised her whole life to know that she will marry the Gentle Lord, the king of demons who rules over the land. Growing up with that knowledge hasn’t made her a particularly nice person, especially when she sees her cheerful, happy twin being adored by the family. A female protagonist who is allowed to be selfish, angry, and troubled is rare and refreshing, though an early confrontation pushed the character too far to the “cruel” side and I did have some trouble reigning my feelings for her back to center. Still, Nyx hasn’t just been raised to wed the Gentle Lord, but to kill him with her carefully practiced Hermetic arts, this world’s magic.
Those Hermetic arts are probably my biggest problem with the story. The idea is that all magic combines four base elements, and to remove magic, you must “turn off” the elements. The Gentle Lord and his castle are clearly beings of magic, so to remove them from the land, all one would have to do is enter the castle and nullify the Hermetic arts. This is a HUGE plot point at the beginning as Nyx slinks through the Gentle Lord’s castle, searching for the elemental “hearts”, so that she can deactivate them. But notice I said, “beginning”?
Remember Chekhov's gun? I’m not saying everything must point directly at the endgame, I like twists, too, but the hearts feature so heavily at the start of the narrative, and so little in the conclusion, that I felt like we wasted a lot of plot time searching for them. Same with the Rhyme that foretells how to kill the Gentle Lord. It’s repeated over and over, but it’s not present in the end. Both added to the world building, but they’re just window dressing. And in a very claustrophobic book that sometimes amounts to Nyx wandering through pretty rooms, I could have done with less window dressing and more action.
There are some overall plotting issues I wish I could change, from little things like the magic mirror,(show spoiler)
to bigger issues like abrupt characterization changes. Nyx’s growth worked for me, as she slowly turns from the hard-hearted and bitter assassin to someone open to friendship and love, as did Ignifex’s gradual revelation that he too is trapped by circumstance. Shade and Astraia’s, however, came kind of out of nowhere. And while Astraia’s was a bigger difference, Shade’s changes seemed to waffle throughout the rest of the story which was even more jarring.
What did work for me from the first instance to the very end, was the banter between Nyx and Ignifex. Their relationship could easily be written in the same Stockholm Syndrome-y way that other adaptations have taken, but because Hodge makes it clear from the beginning that Ignifex respects Nyx for her spirit, I think they’re able to come to it in a much more equal manner.(show spoiler)
Again, this review is harsher than I mean for it to sound. Cruel Beauty is an exceptionally fun, fast paced read that made me very happy. It has some plotting issues that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but overall I found it to be a great updating and merging of classic stories.