Review: Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay
Release date: July 23rd, 2013
Source: a gift from Lili
Rating: A beautiful, imaginative, and wildly romantic fairy tale.
In the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl, and in the girl was a secret...
In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city’s vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to both their worlds.
Isra wants to help the city’s Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan’s enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.
As secrets are revealed and Isra’s sight, which vanished during her childhood, returned, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.
I am always willing to read books based on fairy tales, especially when it's my very favorite fairy tale, "Beauty and the Beast". I love how much creativity it requires to put a spin on a classic tale and basically reinvent it, and to me, that's where Stacey Jay succeeds the most: in world-building and originality. There are no singing candelabras or dancing teacups (more's the pity), but this darker, more sinister version is haunting and fascinating.
I'll admit, I wasn't quite hooked in the beginning. The prologue is absolutely gorgeous, if distancing, and the prose is rich with imagery, but I wasn't connecting. We first meet Isra, the blind princess of the domed city of Yuan. She lives trapped in a tower with only one handmaiden, and her life isn't her own. One day, she will sacrifice herself for the good of the city. Yuan's queens have long been giving up their lives, spilling their blood on the magical rose garden, to ensure the city's success and keep the dome intact. It's the covenant they've made with the roses. If Isra does not give up her life when the time comes, the city will fall, and everyone one of the Smooth Skins in Yuan will be at the mercy of the unforgiving desert outside and the even more unforgiving Monstrous.
Gem is a Monstrous. He is bigger, stronger, and scaled, with claws and fangs that help him survive in the dying lands outside the domes. He seeks revenge on the selfish people of Yuan who've sucked all the life out of the desert and are dooming his people. Despite all this great setup, the beginning is rather slow, and it takes a little while to connect to Isra. She has fire, certainly, and it's a joy to see it emerge.
So, yeah. The worldbuilding. Jay creates so many interesting legends and creepy mythology, the best of which is the magical roses.
Yes! Exactly like that! Only picture it carnivorous and thirsty for blood and totally effing creepy. This book is set on an alien planet with a strong history of magic, but also technology and human greed.
Once Gem and Isra come to sort of trust each other, that's when the plot gets moving and the feels develop. All the elements start coming together and making it so I couldn't put the book down. Gem and Isra both want to do good, but neither of them quite knows how, or even what good is. They were complex, interesting characters who underwent a lot of change, and that was tons of fun to read about. Isra is sheltered, but she hates being so. It's a long journey for her to stop considering herself to be monstrous and to assert herself as the take-charge princess she is. I mean, she doesn't start out completely dormant--she has been jumping out the window of her tower and scuttling down the roof since she was ten, or something--but she really develops into a stronger person worthy and capable of love.
THE. WRITING. Perhaps that was the best part. It's lyrical and inventive and absolutely breathtaking. It never turns purple, always remaining on the right side of flowery, but still I'd find my eyes widening at some of Jay's gorgeous phrases. The sign of good writing is when an author pairs two words that I've never heard together before but that perfectly conjures the intended image, and Jay does it again and again and again. When writing a fairy tale, I suppose it's very easy to fall into romantical cliches, but Jay manages to explain Gem and Isra's connecting in such a unique way that it always felt about them, and them alone.
It's pointless. Hopeless. Even if she weren't afraid of me, at the core we'll always be enemies. She rules a wicked, selfish city, and my tribe suffers for her people's comfort. She's a queen; I'm her prisoner. I resent her and she fears me, and there are times when I fear her, too. I am her monster, and she is mine. But right now none of that matters.
The concepts of beast and beauty get twisted around until you're not sure who is who in the original fairy tale and in this one. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is beastliness. But once their romance gets going, WHEW, DOES IT GET GOING. *paints a proud Gem + Isra 4eva banner*
|This has nothing to do with the book, I just wanted to put it here|
I would have liked to have gotten a better handle on some of the side characters (Jujie, Bo, Isra's father--I'm still not sure EXACTLY what made them tick, even though we're in Bo's head for quite a bit), but as I said, I loved the two leads. I am super glad Lili forced me to read this, because it wasn't like any other book I'd ever read in the best way possible. If you like dark, mysterious twists on fairy tales, I would definitely recommend giving Of Beast and Beauty a shot.
Got an idea about what I should read next? Let me know in the form below!