July 5th, 2014

the red queen.

Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Cruel Beauty
by Rosamund Hodge

Nine hundred years ago, the land of Arcadia was cruelly torn away from the rest of the world by the Gentle Lord, the ruler of demons. In exchange for tribute, he keeps his demons from tormenting humanity into madness. Years ago, a man bargained with the Gentle Lord, begging him for children. The Gentle Lord agreed, taking as his price one of the man’s future daughters in marriage. Twin girls were born, but the man’s wife died in childbirth. The grief-stricken father raised one daughter, Nyx, to avenge her mother by killing her future husband after their wedding, while showering all of his love and affection on the second child. Full of resentment and anger, Nyx hates her sister for being loved and her father for treating her only as a tool of vengeance. Still, she plans to carry out her duty, trapping the Gentle Lord and his demons in his castle and freeing the land of Arcadia from his grasp.

The tale draws inspiration not just from Beauty and the Beast, but from Greek and Roman mythology. Shades of Pandora’s Box, Psyche and Cupid, and the Labyrinth of King Minos make the story much darker than the traditional fairy tale. It creates a very interesting world, for Nyx’s gowns and the descriptions of the Gentle Lord’s castle sound very 17th or 18th century, the height of baroque luxury. The best way that I can think to describe the world is that it is as if Arcadia was sundered from the rest of the world right before the time of Christ, and developed on a parallel path with the rest of history but without the influence of Christianity. Thus, “hedge gods” still flourish amongst the peasants while the wealthy worship the Olympian gods and goddesses.

It is also a world in which good and evil is fluid. At first, the Gentle Lord seems a cruel tyrant, but as Nyx gets to know her husband Ignifex – not his real name, but more personal than “Gentle Lord” – she realizes that his humor and temperament matches her own, and that the victims of his “cruel bargains” are guilty of pride and selfishness, and bear as much responsibility for their misfortunes as the demon lord. Ignifex’s servant and shadow, Shade, initially appears to be a good man imprisoned by the Gentle Lord, but the more time Nyx spends with him the more darkness she sees.

Likewise, Nyx’s own character is mirrored in her twin sister, Astraia. At the beginning of the book, Astraia seems all goodness: sweet, cheerful, beloved. Nyx hates that her sister can be so carefree and innocent. But as Nyx softens in the castle under the influence of Ignifex and Shade, Astraia hardens as hatred for the man who took her sister away, and her rage that her sister never once asked her for help, so that by the time the twins meet again their personalities have almost completely switched.

Throughout the book, references are made to hermetic magic, which Nyx spent years practicing with her father. It’s mentioned again and again. We know that Nyx enjoys learning her hermetic workings and that it can be used to power lamps and, in time, to bring the Gentle Lord down…but how this magic works is never adequately explained.

Ultimately, the story has a lot of interesting points – I love the mythology/fairy tale fusion – but certain elements never quite pan out. The hermetic workings are muddled, and the romantic love triangle is resolved in such a way that Nyx both has her cake and eats it, too. It’s a fun, quick summer read, but one that will leave the reader scratching her head afterward.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about Cruel Beauty, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Happy Fourth of July!
2012: Theater: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
2009: Reading Challenge: The Newbery Medal
2008: Ruby Slippers by Jonalyn Grace Fincher