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.