CRUEL BEAUTY, a re-imagined Beauty and the Beast with a foundation in Greek mythology and ancient folk fairy tales, is a complex, surreal story that may take readers some time to digest. The world of Arcadia appears to be tied to the old Grecian-Roman empire (and its mythology) but with an alternate history in place. The author blends elements of Greek tragedies, old gods and customs, and nods to more traditional fairy tales in a complicated tapestry that takes some effort to understand but that also seamlessly swallows the reader into a world that is nothing like our own. Discerning readers will delight in the scattered references to historical texts and poems. The world may be complicated, the rules sometimes seeming to shift, but it all comes together to create a story that is as compelling as it is unique.
The characters stand out in CRUEL BEAUTY for their flaws, their obsessions, and their authenticity. There are no easy characters, no stock portraits. Every choice is bound up in the culture of the world, in the pathos of family and national tragedies, and in the reality that Arcadia is haunted by demons and every character is either afraid, resigned, or angry over that fact. The relationships are strained--the conflict between loving someone and resenting them or fearing them or longing for them to be somehow different than they are--is beautifully and subtly executed. The romance blooms slowly with plenty of thorns, none of which are the usual roadblocks to a fulfilling relationship.
My favorite is Nyx, the heroine, who stands out because she is dutiful on the outside (and on the inside as well, though in a twisted, resentful, self-destructive sort of way) and so angry and hurt inside that bitterness and hatred grow within her. She's incredibly self-aware of her own short-comings and does not apologize for them, nor does she take pride in them. She is simply Nyx, the product of a country long under the cruel reign of a demon prince, the daughter of a father willing to sacrifice his daughter to pay for his sins while calling his actions noble, the sister of a girl who received all the love sharp-tongued Nyx could never find, and the betrothed of a creature who is destined to destroy her, even if she destroys him first. Watching her character arc, seeing the small steps she takes toward a better Nyx without losing her flaws or her self-awareness, was truly enjoyable.
The plot twists combined with the incredibly high stakes in the story will keep readers turning pages long past their bedtimes. While most readers will see one plot twist coming from early on, the HOW of it will be shocking. As will the choices Nyx and others make to resolve the continuously escalating problems. As with the world building, there are no easy fixes, and there are no hard choices removed from the characters.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The beginning, while intriguing, is slow compared to the rest of the book because of the incredible amount of world building Ms. Hodge must accomplish. The first 75 pages are rather exposition-heavy, and while readers who love complexity or have an affinity for Greek mythology will find it fascinating, readers who are used to a faster pace and world that takes less effort to understand might struggle a bit. The effort is definitely worth it.
Beautiful prose, surreal imagery, terrifying stakes, and a complex world make CRUEL BEAUTY a must-read for fans of fantasy, fairy tales, and mythology and establish Ms. Hodge as an author to watch.