Oh my gosh, this book, and this author. I recently heard of Rosamund Hodge when I stumbled across Hanging Garden Stories, a short story blog that she and other YA authors write on. And oh my gosh, her short stories are amazing. I'd recommend reading them all. I can't say I was in love with every single piece necessarily, but the worlds and writing were lush, had depth, made you think, made you intrigued...It made me think stuff like, "How can someone so young be so good at this?!*" So when I recently came across her novel Cruel Beauty, I had to check it out.
* Or if you're me, you go, "How come I'm so old and so incompetent at fiction by comparison?" And then my shrink's voice goes off in my head telling me not to make comparisons, but really, how can you not? But anyway....
Cruel Beauty is ostensibly a retelling of Beauty of the Beast, but really it's a whopping mashup of Beauty and the Beast, the Greek Gods, Rumplestiltskin, Bluebeard, Cupid and Psyche, and Tam Lin. It's dark, it's dramatic, it's passionate, it's cruel and it's fascinating. And there's a excerpt from the start of the book here you can check out.
I found some very cool interviews with the author in which she talks about the dilemma of writing a "bad boy" hero when she is normally not into that sort of thing At All. I think she does an excellent job of both writing said hero and explaining her logic and reason behind how she handled him. It's perhaps a bit spoiley, but if you have quibbles with such things, maybe reading an interview or two with her might help.
Anyway, here's the plot: Nyx Triskelion lives on Arcadia, an island that's been sundered from the rest of the world and sealed off behind some kind of parchment-looking dome for the last nine hundred years. The ruling family of Arcadia had always been able to protect the residents from demon invasions before, but after one king died and the last prince had something bad happen to him, the island lost its protection and was taken over by a demon called the Gentle Lord. He protects Arcadia from demons...most of the time but some get through anyway, and he grants bargains that always make the bargainer unhappy in the end.
That's where Nyx comes in: her mother wanted to have children and couldn't have any, so her father bargained for kids. Of course there's always a price: (a) can't have a son, (b) end up with twin girls (that ends up killing their mother), and (c) one of the girls has to be married off to the Gentle Lord when she turns 17. Her father's bright idea on how to handle this situation was to marry off his least favorite twin, but (a) train her in hermetic workings and in general how to deal with weird magic things, and (b) raise her to know that she's going to die trying to kill this guy. Also, her father and aunt basically don't love Nyx since they know she's expendable and treat her as such.
“I was raised to marry a monster.”
“My father was asking me to die for something much better: the chance to save Arcadia.”
“If I loved my people, or even just my family, I should be glad to die for it too.”
"I wasn't born to be saved."
The only one that openly loves her is her twin Astraia, who's sweet and nice and kept innocent of these things as much as possible (a family policy Nyx resents but is forced to follow). Astraia is convinced that Nyx could save herself and come home, and believes in this "sibyl's rhyme" about how the Gentle Lord could be killed by a virgin knife operated by a virgin hand. Nyx knows better, but family policy is to let Astraia think there's hope. However, right before her wedding Nyx snaps and is brutally honest about how that's not going to work and how she hates and resents Astraia for NOT being the one who's being sent off to die. She regrets it later, but by that point she's in the Gentle Lord's house and can't do anything about it...or can she?
“But I was a girl who had broken her sister’s heart and—for a moment—liked it. I had left somebody in torment and liked it. I didn’t want to keep being that person.”
Anyway: Nyx is not the world's nicest person, given this upbringing. She's full of rage, she's sick of having to fake it for everyone, she's mad as hell at her mother for wanting children and dying and her father for sacrificing her and Astraia for not being the sacrifice and her aunt for boinking her father. She does and doesn't hate them all, at the same time, and knows she's an evil person for feeling all this rage. (But then again, who wouldn't?) The world Nyx is in demands purity of heart, and she knows darned well she doesn't have it. But she's not the only one in that dilemma.
“I remembered Father patting my head as he intoned, “Duty is bitter to taste but sweet to drink,” and I wished he were here so I could spit in his face.”
The Gentle Lord--he calls himself Ignifex, though that's not his real name*--is actually not all that bad, in some respects. Nyx tries to kill him--pretty blatantly making attacks at the dinner table and the like--and he enjoys it. He likes that she's not sucking up to him or trying to make a deal or being anything beyond herself usually. He doesn't force his ah, marital rights upon her whatsoever. Sure, he can be a jerk at times and do things like lock her in the crypt room with his dead wives, but actually living with the dude isn't as evil and bad as you'd expect. Nyx pretty much has the run of whatever rooms her key will let her into, so she spends a lot of time trying to unravel the mysteries of the house. Nyx also finds out how Ignifex really feels about the bargains he offers--it's not exactly a pleasurable thing for him to do, but after seeing a whole lot of jerks make awful bargains, he's not feeling super awesome about the human nature of his clients.
* He offers a deal that if anyone can guess his real name, they can get free, but if they guess wrong, they die. Nyx doesn't take him up on that.
“Well, I had expected more ravishing on my wedding night.”
“I’m your husband. I can wait as long as I please and still have all of you.”
The other humanish inhabitant of the house is Shade, a shadow demon/servant(?) who looks like Ignifex except not in color and with normal human eyes instead of demon ones. (Did I mention that these "twins" are handsome?). Shade has his limitations on physicality and what he can say, but he definitely seems interested in Nyx, tries to help her figure things out even if he can't say things, and is convinced that she may be the only one who can actually help the situation.
“It was the first time in years that I’d smiled at someone without any faking, without the least trace of resentment in my heart.”
If you suspect there's anything super interesting about the fact that Ignifex and Shade look alike, you're right on the money.
Anyway, as Nyx gets to know her husband, and he her, they fall in love. Ignifex (and probably Shade too) loves her unconditionally, which is something she's never had before. He acknowledges her darker nature and actually enjoys it, and as they get to know each other, he's very honest about the situation he's in. He doesn't remember life before the Sundering, he's being forced to be the broker of the Kindly Ones (in Greek mythology, they're his bosses), and hell, he doesn't even know his own name if she guesses it. Nyx reasonably comes to the conclusion that it's really the Kindly Ones and their mastery of Ignifex that they really need to worry about.
“Do you understand? You are never safe with me.”
“That’s what makes you my favorite. Every wicked bit of you.”
Nobody had ever looked at me like that, and certainly not after seeing the poison I kept locked up inside."
“He had seen me, in all my ugliness, and never hated me; and in that moment, nothing else mattered.”
But when Ignifex figures out a way to let Nyx see her family again and apologize to Astraia, Nyx discovers that Astraia's a changed woman and she's determined that Nyx will get out of this situation--even if it does require that she murder the husband she now loves.
“We’re plotting the death of the Gentle Lord! Go away!” –Astraia
How the heck do you solve this problem? The answer is super interesting to find out, and leads to some drastic changes in the world that I'll discuss below the spoiler cut. While I found the end a wee bit confusing, otherwise I was just blown away by this story. I loved the mix of fairy tales, I loved the wickedness of the main characters, I loved how they embraced each other's wickedness without ever brushing over what had gone on before, I loved how Astraia wasn't the sweet little innocent it seems like she's being portrayed as, and the romancing is steamy. The logic of the story makes sense (except for the bit of confusion at the end, I fear I missed a detail here and there), the storytelling is lush and the worldbuilding is elaborate.
This gets four and a half stars from me. Mind. Blowing.
I could do a billion Quote Corners on this story, but I'll restrain myself:
“Well, I’m already hoping there could be a dinner where you don’t try to stab me with your fork.”
“You might need to make your peace with disappointment.”
Ignifex on a deal: “Oh, she would have gotten the pox either way, so it’s nothing to do with me. And without that bargain, her husband would have recovered and lived to beat another wife, so our dear Damocles will buy something with his death. He’s not getting what he expected, but then, who does?”
“It was nothing like kissing Shade. That had been like a dream that slowly enfolded me; this was like a battle or a dance. He took possession of my mouth and I took possession of his, and we held each other in a perilous, perfect balance like the circulation of the planets.”
“Don’t count your trophies before they’re dead.”
“I love you more than any other creature, because you are cruel, and kind, and alive. Nyx Triskelion, will you be my wife?”
“I had been waiting, all my life, for someone undeceived to love me.”
“You’re a demon.”
“I know what you’ve done.”
“The exciting parts, anyway.”
“And I still don’t know your name. But I know you’re my husband. And I suppose I do love you.”
“I still might kill you.”