From the time Nyx was a small child, not even ten years old, she knew she would marry the Gentle Lord, the terrible master of demons who has ruled Arcadia for the past 900 years. Before Nyx’s birth, her father made a bargain with the Gentle Lord. He and his wife, Nyx’s mother, hoped so desperately for children. The Gentle Lord told him they could have them – two children, though girls. In return, the Lord required one of the girls to become his bride at seventeen.
But the Gentle Lord always deceives, even while speaking words that have the ring of truth. Nyx’s mother died in childbirth, and in his grief, Nyx’s father decided that Nyx – the girl who looked most like him – would be sacrificed to the Gentle Lord upon her seventeenth birthday, marrying him in hopes of killing him and avenging the mother she never knew. It is also hoped that by killing him, Arcadia will return to its former splendor, that the sun and stars will return, that the demons who came with the Gentle Lord will be forever banished.
So Nyx has been trained her whole life on how to kill the Gentle Lord. Her twin sister, born mere seconds after her, has been coddled and lied to, told that Nyx’s mission is achievable, even easy. Nyx knows better. She knows that she’s being sent as a sacrifice and that her mission is a fantasy. Her resentment is powerful. She hates her father for his choice, she hates her mother for dying, and she hates her sister for her smiles and her optimism and the fact that she will live a long, long life.
Nyx’s story begins the day before her wedding, and the anticipation leading up to her first meeting with the Gentle Lord is almost excruciating. As readers, we know that this is a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, but we don’t know how Hodge is shaking things up. She masterfully builds the tension and doesn’t let it snap until the very end.
I’m kind of amazed this is a debut. The writing is so polished, almost always lovely. I was engaged the entire time and read it in a single sitting. (This is something I very rarely do.) The pacing is excellent, which really sets this a notch above many other debuts; uneven pacing is often a hallmark of a first novel.
What I may have liked most about Cruel Beauty is how Hodge turns the idea of a pure, innocent, and good-hearted fairy tale heroine completely on its head. I don’t mean that Hodge’s heroine is a girl who “doesn’t allow herself to be victimized,” which is actually a rather common trope and a problematic one at that. Instead, Hodge has created in Nyx a character – a protagonist, importantly – who is cruel. Not all the time, of course. Not even most of the time, but sometimes. And it’s not passing cruelty. She hates her sister – not the kind of hate that washes over you and passes quickly, but the kind of hate that lingers, that takes root in your heart and lives there for years. It’s not the only emotion Nyx feels for her sister. Like in most of us, intense hatred commingles with intense love. It’s human. Nyx is painfully human.
It’s important to see characters like this in our novels, but it’s especially well-done here because Nyx’s cruelty – her impure heart, as it’s often described in a fairy tale – is what makes her a match for the Gentle Lord, who is more overtly cruel. Their shared cruelty is even more important, plot-wise, near the end of the story. This is how Hodge simultaneously honors fairy tales and subverts them, and it’s incredibly effective.
Stories inspired by Beauty and the Beast are always in danger of dipping into abusive relationship territory. A lot of re-tellings ask the reader to excuse abusive behavior – both physical and psychological – on the part of the hero by giving him a tragic backstory. They disguise the abuse as exaggerated misunderstandings. That’s not how it’s done here. To reveal too much would ruin some of the discovery of the novel, but I can say that one of the main reasons this book is different is there is no threat of sexual violence from the Gentle Lord. The other characters expect it, certainly, but that implication comes from them.
What else do I love about this book? I love how it incorporates Greek mythology in a way that makes it fresh again. I love that it sneaks in bits of other fairy tales, like Easter eggs for the reader to discover. I love how creative the plot is, how it uses something almost all of us recognize and gives us something completely new at the same time. I love how all the myths and stories and little details come together at the end, making this such a smart book. I love the ever-changing castle of the Gentle Lord, and how clearly Hodge is able to describe it to her readers, inspiring interest and awe. I love that its conflict, while magical, is rooted in complex humans. I love its magic, too, which has rules and is used as something more than a convenient plot device or deus ex machina. I love that it’s full of how the things we say can be misunderstood, how our words can have double meanings, purposeful or not. I loved nearly all of it.
I did have quibbles with the very end. There’s a huge plot twist, which does make sense and is true to the rest of the book, but its effects seem rushed. I feel like Hodge was trying to cram a whole new book into the last 40 pages. There was enough story there to cover an entirely new book, though I don’t think that would have been a wise decision either. This weakness is not enough to erase everything that came before, though, and Hodge still brings her story to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion – tender and true to her cruel/kind characters.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Cruel Beauty is available now.