Y’all. This book has been on my radar since it was published. Which, I thought was sometime last year, but it turns out it was just this past January? Anyways the long and short of it is: Beauty and the Beast retelling? ALWAYS. And even though this one didn’t have quite as many libraries as the original, it had a lot of other aspects that made it unique and awesome in its own right.
So one of the biggest holes in Beauty and the Beast is the fact that all the villagers and townspeople totally just…forgot?… about the giant castle and its inhabitants that is right down the street from them. Or at least, that’s what my husband and I always thought. Of course, the magic of the curse can totally explain it away, because magic can do that, but still. Well, this retelling takes care of that plot hole in such a creative way! Reminiscent of the movie Enchanted (who doesn’t love that Amy Adams classic?), our heroine, Harper is from the real world. Our real world. Like, she lives in Washington D.C. with her family, present day, with a cell phone and everything. One night, she’s pretty much kidnapped (though kind of accidentally) and brought “across” to a parallel fantasy universe called Emberfall, when she meets Prince Rhen, who is cursed by a witch to repeat a season over and over while his kingdom falls apart around him. And Harper may be his last hope to break the curse and save his land. But Harper is not into helping her kidnappers…and is focused only on getting back to her family in the real world, because her mother is dying and her brother is in some serious trouble.
Straight up, the only thing that had me hesitant about this retelling was the real world/fantasy world crossover situation. I’ve read some really hokey versions of that. But almost immediately my worries melted away because Kemmerer handled it magnificently. It was believable and fantastical in perfectly equal balance and I loved it. Past that, I really was just along for the ride on this retelling of my favorite fairy tale. And it was everything I wanted. In fact, I think I liked this one ever more than the last BatB retelling I read, Hunted by Meagan Spooner, which was also, truly, super good.
First of all, and most importantly, the pacing in this tale was spot on. I loved everything about how long and slow the burn was on Harper’s acceptance of her situation and, importantly, the romance. Harper is true to character from beginning to end in her forcefulness and dynamism. There is no undue feeling sorry for herself, no change in motives, no unwarranted apologies or trust/relationships that form too quickly to believe. And I love both the author and the character for that. As for Rhen, I actually really liked his character and the way he developed, or, more accurately, was slowly revealed, to the reader. I feel like he really owned the, mostly terrible, person he was before the curse, which I appreciated. And in fact, his years spent dwelling on all the things he caused to happen got him to a point where he was so wrapped up in blaming himself that he really needed help to dig out of the remorse. Honestly, it’s a really true representation of the emotional trauma he must have experienced, with no way to “treat” it, and I felt like his calculating front, as a protective mechanism, was well written and not overcome too quickly to be believable. As side characters go, Grey was fantastic; you always need a character like him and he played the role so well. Also, though I wish we had gotten slightly more insight into Lillith, we learned enough that, mixed with my general willingness to believe she had a sadistic side to start, she played the role of a horrific antagonist very well.
I also want to, all on its own, point out the disability rep. Harper has cerebral palsy (CP), a motor-control disorder caused by abnormal brain development (for which there is no cure). It’s a condition that she was born with and has had, as she mentions, a number of therapies to treat. I really liked the way Kemmerer treated this in the novel, with the juxtaposition of an overprotective brother who thinks that, because of it, Harper cannot take care of herself, versus Rhen and the other people of Emberfall who in fact see her as stronger because of her ability to live her life with it. Plus, I loved the way some of her youth therapies were actually great strengths in this new world she’s facing. And in general, the inner strength she has because of it is clearly a boon to her as she faces myriad challenges in Emberfall. Basically, I have never read anything with a main character with CP, which was awesome (I have an honorary niece with CP and you better believe I plan to give her this book when she’s old enough). And it was handled to well, being consistently mentioned and dealt with as a reality, but never overtaking Harper’s strength or abilities as a result.
As far as the elements of retelling, it was a great mix of nods to the original and new elements (i.e. – its much darker vibes) to keep things fresh. That’s exactly the combination I look for in a retelling so I soundly applaud that. I also want to reiterate how great the slow burn on the romance was because IT. WAS. GREAT. I know that some people think it was long…I liked the time that gave for realistic development. Relatedly, I want to (no spoilers) say that I really liked the way the book ended. It didn’t have the normal “absolute” wrap-up explanation that most fantasies have (especially retellings, where, really, you know the ending before you even start the story). And while that sounds like it leaves you on a cliffhanger, it doesn’t necessarily. As a sequel has been announced, I feel ok saying that there are, of course, elements left unresolved. However, I feel very satisfied with the way this ended and am not looking for more (yet, haha). The more important point I want to make about the ending, for me, is that there’s just a nice open-endedness that fits perfectly with Harper’s character. It allows for a “finale” to happen without her personally needing to compromise any of who she learned she was over the course of the story. It was really the exact right amount of conclusion and un-surety.
*Notes: there are many reviews complaining about love triangles and I have to be honest, I never felt that. I read it more like the original BatB, in that sense, where there’s a clear romance end game, and never opened my mind to the possibility of a different outcome on that front. Also, for everyone comparing it to ACTOR – I disagree. This is a lovely retelling that, in all likelihood, I’ll consistently keep in mind as a standalone. I loved it for itself. ACTOR was good, but the beauty of the series is ACOMAF…it’s amazing beyond words, better than any other YA fantasy I’ve ever read, but it was necessary to save ACTOR. This book doesn’t need saving. It’s exactly what it needs to be on its own. Just my couple of cents on those common complaints.*
Bottom line, if you love Beauty and the Beast, if you are a fan of retellings, or if you’re just a fantasy person, I absolutely recommend this one. Fantastic pacing, romance, adventure, court/kingdom intrigue, unique character representation, magic and just enough drama. I loved it.