There’s so much to love about Of Beast and Beauty that I hardly know where to start. The originality of the story, the perfectly imperfect protagonists, the overall feel of the book – it’s all amazing.
If you haven’t already guessed it, Jay’s novel is a reimagining of Beauty and the Beast. There are several factors that make this story stand out from other retellings of the classic fairy tale. For one, our “Beauty,” Isra, isn’t adored by all, but is isolated and treated as an outcast. She’s gangly, has bad skin, and – unusual for a fairy tale princess – has been blind since childhood. Because she’s spent much of her life hidden away from the court, and because her blindness limits her ability to keep her advisors in check, she struggles to assert her authority over the kingdom and serve as an effective leader. It’s a fascinating new dimension. Take this and add a quasi-Asian setting, culturally fascinating tribes of Desert People, and rosebushes that hunger for dark magic and blood, and you’ve got a rich, imaginative story very different from other Beauty and the Beast tales already out there.
I also found it interesting that while other versions of Beauty and the Beast involve the “Beauty” character being forced to stay in the Beast’s palace in exchange for her father’s life, the roles are reversed in Jay’s novel. In Of Beast and Beauty, Gem is held captive by Isra in order to ensure that the Monstrous will not attack the Smooth Skins. Moreover, the two characters are not isolated in some enchanted castle in the middle of the woods; instead, they are smack dab in the middle of the kingdom of Yuan, where they must contend with advisors, servants, and peasants, not just one another. There are entire kingdoms involved in this version of the story, which gives the book a very different dynamic.
I love that all of the characters in Of Beast and Beauty are multidimensional. Isra and Gem are not always valiant and pure of heart; both protagonists lie, act out of selfishness, and occasionally manipulate one another. This doesn’t mean they are bad or unlikable people – on the contrary, the fact that they have faults makes them much easier to relate to. One thing that usually bothers me about fairy tales is how squeaky clean and perfect the princes and princesses are, and it was a nice departure from the norm to have characters who act badly just as we regular people do. Isra and Gem are forced to grow throughout the story, to overcome their weaknesses and fears, and the book is much stronger for it.
The other major characters aren’t cardboard cutouts, either. One of the major players in the story is Bo, Isra’s suitor, and I was prepared for him to be either a mustache-twirling villain or an insipid boob. Instead, he’s actually a sympathetic character, albeit a misguided one. He may be a pseudo-villain who stands in the way of Isra and Gem’s romance, but he seems to genuinely care for Isra and acts in the belief that he’s doing what’s best for her and for the kingdom.
One thing that didn’t work for me was the prologue at the beginning of the book, which sets the stage for the story of Isra and Gem. The setup for the story is that a race of humans arrived on a planet at the center of which was a magical essence/ consciousness. This consciousness tries to lend a helping hand to the humans by using its magic to help some of the humans evolve in ways that will allow them to survive on their new planet. The humans, frightened by these changes, react by exiling their evolved brethren (who became the Monstrous) and barricading the non-evolved people (Smooth Skins) in domed cities. Their fear also leads them to engage in all sorts of nastiness, such as warfare, sacrifices, dark magic, and more, leading to dire consequences for the Monstrous, the Smooth Skins, and even the magical essence itself. The end result is that the only hope for the dying, messed up world is for a Monstrous and a Smooth Skin to fall in love and break the curse placed on their planet.
I don’t have a problem with the idea of a curse that can be broken by true love, but the idea of a magical essence threw me off a bit. Adding to my uncertainty is the fact that said essence basically has a split personality disorder – part of it is the Pure Heart, which longs for the restoration of unity and peace, and part is the Dark Heart, which hungers for blood and sacrifice. Jay had the potential to make this whole Pure Heart / Dark Heart / magical consciousness thing work more seamlessly, but for some reason it felt contrived and a little unconvincing for me.
In spite of the weird Pure Heart / Dark Heart concept, I really, really liked Of Beast and Beauty. Jay has proven her talent in recreating well-known tales, and I look forward to watching her leave her mark on other familiar stories in the future.