05 February 2014

Book Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge


Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge is a quick read, and while I definitely was not the primary audience for it, it was also an occasionally fun read. I'm also more drawn to the cover than I should be and in my opinion it's one of the best things about this book. An architectural spiral superimposed upon a natural one, both ruled by Fibonacci, is enough to make the latent math nerd in me swoon. 

Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up (with a nod to The Princess Bride and Goodreads): "Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him. With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people. But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her."

The Beauty & the Beast parallels are obvious to even the most unaware reader, but Hodge borrows just as heavily from Greek mythology (most notably from Eros & Psyche, but also from Pandora and her terrible box), the robber bridegroom trope from all over folk & fairy tales, the alchemies of John Dee, the medieval Romance of the Rose, and T. S. Eliot's The Four Quartets

At first I thought that borrowing from so many traditions made for an interesting mix, but before long I grew a little weary of it.  It was less a deft melding of the various storylines and more of an authorial throw down: "Look how smart I am to incorporate elements of so many Western traditions. Aren't I clever?" To be fair, though, because Hodge had so many influences in her novel, I wasn't always able to accurately predict what direction she would take her heroine in, so that actually increased my interest level a bit. Either because the author handles the T. S. Eliot allusions more delicately, or because I am less familiar with the source material, they were the most successful borrowing in the novel. 

I can't quite decide what my final opinion is of this book, beyond a general frustration. There are parts that I thought were quite terrific, but those were more frequently overshadowed by parts that were plodding, trite, or otherwise obvious. The character of Nyx was actually pretty interesting when she wasn't  hemming and hawing over a course of action, and Ignifex was generally marvelous and reminded me nothing more than of John Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost.  

I think, overall, what I want from this author is to have her write a book for adults, not teens, and put all of her literary sources to bear in creating a work for more discerning readers than this book is obviously meant for.  If Hodge were to incorporate subtlety and a more streamlined approach to her subject, and couch it all in a third person narrative, I think we'd have a pretty fine piece of fantasy on our hands. 

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time."  

“Footfalls echo in the memory, 
down the passage we did not take, 
towards the door we never opened, 
into the rose garden.” 

“Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.” 

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

T. S. Eliot, various excerpts from The Four Quartets

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided by the publisher.  It is available now from Balzer & Bray publishers. 

10 comments:

  1. Oh, see I had the opposite reaction! I loved the mixing and blending of so many different mythologies and folklores. I thought it was quite clever the way she incorporated them all and made them work together so well. I think it definitely would have worked had these references and influences been more subtle but I didn't mind being beaten over the head with them here.

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    1. Well, I'm glad that it worked for you, Becky. I generally do mind "being beaten over the head with them," but we all have different tolerances. I will keep my fingers crossed that I will like her next book better.

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  2. I love the cover of this one but I hadn't really found out what it was about. I'm not sure writing for children is any excuse not to make your world complex or sloppy writing, look at Tom Pollock's books which are outstanding, for any audience.

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    1. I don't know Tom Pollock's books, but I agree with you there: writing for children is no excuse to slack off on your world building or your writing.

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  3. Isn't T.S. Eliot the guy who wrote all the cat poems?

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    1. Yepper. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. I've never actually read them, though.

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  4. I'm not exactly a purist, "stick to the facts", kind of reader, but I'm not really big on crossovers either :(
    Thanks for reviewing!

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    1. I don't mind crossovers, but for me there was just too much myth muddling. Which is hard to say five times, fast.

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  5. Hmm...this sounds like the sort of book that I would love, but I think the same things that bothered you would bother me as well. One to think about, maybe.

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    1. Your profile photo absolutely exemplifies what you just said: "one to think about, maybe."

      well played.

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)