Book review: "Cruel Beauty" by Rosamund Hodge

Little Lizzie tumbled down the YA fantasy rabbit hole after reading The Lunar Chronicles and sampled a ton of books before settling on Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. This dark, aggressively weird retelling of Beauty and the Beast with heavy Greek mythology woven in was so satisfying. It's my 25th book of the year, and it's easily already in my Top 5. I loved it. It is a triumph.

Before Nyx was born, her father bargained away her life. He betrothed her to the demon lord who rules their land and sundered it from the rest of the world. Since childhood, she has been training in the Hermetic arts to defeat him once she was sent to his castle at 17, expecting to lose her life in the process.

To her family, Nyx is the pious, dutiful daughter and sister obediently sacrificing her life to avenge her mother and save her world. But her heart is full of hatred and envy toward the family that has never loved her.

Her husband, Ignifex, the Gentle Lord, turns out to be one charming devil and a match for the indomitable Nyx. He's devious and clever, dooming fools with his backfiring bargains. Despite his gleeful wickedness, his inhuman red eyes and her sworn duty to destroy him, Nyx can't help but draw out the tenderness in him, and through the witty sparring and undeniable sexual chemistry, she comes to find herself for the first time feeling loved and accepted by someone who fully knows who she is.

Less skilled writers would have needed double the page number to tell this complicated story. They would have been clumsy and unconvincing in the mythology. They would have shied away from the ridiculousness of some of the fantasy elements and scaled it way back. They would not have been able to present the intricacies of the plot and all that mythological exposition in such lithe and lyrical language.

Cruel Beauty, unlike the bargainers who make doomed deals with the Gentle Lord, makes no sacrifices. Character development, glorious prose, insightful meditations on love and sin, deft world building. It does everything so well. Hodge is a talented woman who spins an engrossing and soulful tale.

The romance between Nyx and Ignifex is the main draw. How will Nyx reconcile what it means if she loves a demon? Will she have to lose her husband to save her world?

Because it's YA, the sex is implied and off-page. All we get are some steamy kissing scenes. Pity. With an extra page here and extra page there, this would have seamlessly been a killer erotic novel.

My problem with YA, ESPECIALLY of the teenage-girl-meets-ancient-supernatural-being variety, is that it normalizes creepy and unhealthy relationship expectations. Listen, Nyx is pretty badass for a 17-year-old, but she's still 17. Any binding decisions I'd made at 17 would have been stupid and horrible ones, and my stakes weren't as high. And what do these centuries-old dudes want with these minors? What could they possibly have in common? Can we talk about this? Pervs.

But I don't even care, dude. I don't. This book is genius and beautiful. It masterfully explores what it means to love, how even the people who appear the most good are capable of evil. It's intense and affecting.

I don't even care that there's a sort-of love triangle that made me groan through parts of the book because I freaking hate love triangles, but this one isn't quite the kind of love triangle you're used to, and it sort of pays off for the plot.

Remember how I mentioned this book was weird? It's very weird. In Ignifex's castle, there are rooms that disappear and reappear and change as if they have moods, books that won't allow themselves to be read, pools of water on which you can stroll, darkness that devours flesh. There's so much mystery and complex lore that is resolved in a way that invokes a very specific, very bizarre episode of Doctor Who (Eleventh Doctor fans, read this and come at me).

I'm so happy I read this. You should, too.

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