Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay
Genre: YA, fairytale retelling, science fiction
Published on July 23, 2013
Published by Delacorte Press
Read From: 9.19.13 - 9.20.13
"In the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl, and in the girl was a secret. . . ."
In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city's vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, known as the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to their worlds.
Isra wants to help the city's Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan's enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.
As secrets are revealed and Isra's sight, which vanished during her childhood, returns, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.
Characters: This is partially where the story fell down for me. I liked Izra at first (maybe mostly because I adore her name). She was strong-willed and practical, but lacked an attitude. However, as soon as she becomes queen, her strong will pretty much evaporates. She has plenty to protest and wants to do good things for her city and her people, but she never actually does anything. Instead, she constantly bows to her advisers, repeatedly proving their point that she is a weak ruler. She never once assumes that maybe her changes for the city will be met with opposition; she just proposes her plans, accepts that her advisers actually agree with her (when in fact they are lying, and disagree most vehemently), and then curls into herself like a turtle when they oppose her. Do something, Izra! You have good intentions; now do something to make things better! Play the game! Only play it better than the advisers; stay one step ahead of them. When it comes to political intrigue, you need a character who is strong and intelligent and who can outwit the evil-minded politicians. Otherwise the Reader will get frustrated with the protagonist, just as I did with Izra. The one thing I applauded her for what being suspicious of Bo, who so obviously had ulterior motives. Now, as for Gem, I won't say that I disliked him. He had a temper, and he spent most of the story angry or manipulating Izra. But his anger was understandable, and as he got to know Izra, he himself became better. But I just never attached to him. Needle, Izra's mute servant girl, was the only character I 100% liked. She had her head on her shoulders, at least.
The Romance: The other story's stumbling block. Despite their initial mutual dislike for one another, Izra and Gem do fall for each other - and hard. Izra's feelings develop faster than Gem's, so I found his narration more tolerable than Izra's. But I didn't like it period. Izra wasn't in love with Gem's personality - that is quite obvious. All she wants to do is touch him, and have him touch her, and all she can think about is his sensuality. Gem's feelings for Izra are pretty much the same, and since sleeping with a woman before you're married is perfectly acceptable in his tribe, he has no moral dilemma trying to bed her. There's also Bo thrown into the mix, creating a love triangle that actually isn't all that annoying, because Izra figures out pretty quickly - immediately, in fact - that Bo just wants Izra's throne.
Plot: When humans first came to this world, they were not adapted to living there. So as a gift to them, the world caused the humans to mutate so that they might carve a life for themselves easier in her lands. But many of the humans saw these mutations as a curse, and the untainted build their domed cities and formed an evil pact with the Dark Heart of the planet. The Dark Heart demanded the blood of a royal woman in order that the domed cities might be sustained. This pact polluted the world, and a once lush land turned into a harsh desert wasteland. Grieved, the planet placed a curse on the Soft Skins: not all of them would be safe from mutations, and if a Soft Skin maiden could find it within herself to love a Monstrous above all others, and the domed cities fell, life would be restored to the planet. Being the daughter of the king of Yuan, it is Izra's lot in life to one day be the blood sacrifice to the Dark Heart. She's known it all her life, just as she's known that she is tainted: displaying Monstrous traits through her flaky skin and her blindness. Gem is a Monstrous from the desert, and his people are starving. Desperate to save them, he attempts to steal one of the magical roses of Yuan that keeps the city alive. But he's caught, and it's only due to Izra's mercy that he lives. She believes that Gem knows how to grow herbs that help heal Monstrous traits in Soft Skins. It isn't true, but Gem isn't about to tell her that it's a lie, for it allows him to be let out of his cell every day to plant a field of supposed healing herbs. He intends to watch and wait until he can steal a rose and flee back to his people. But though Izra and Gem both hate each other deeply, they don't count on discovering that what they both thought of Soft Skins and Monstrous is not entirely true. And with Izra's looming marriage, for she must produce a daughter before being sacrificed, she comes to realize that Gem may just be her only way out of Yuan. This is where Of Beast and Beauty is really strong. The Author has taken the traditional fairytale Beauty and the Beast and completely made it her own. There are all of the classic elements that we all recognize: the roses, the captive, the hate that grows into love (or lust, in this case), the curse and the prophecy, the Beast and the Beauty, though the roles are somewhat reversed. While Izra is Beauty, she is the one who is cursed, who has the rose garden, and who holds the prisoner. Gem is the Beast in appearance, but he is the one who steals the rose, and who is held captive. The Author has even thrown in a Gaston for us - Bo. But she has taken the fairytale and written a deeper, more complex story, with dashes of dystopian, science fiction, and even murder mystery. Readers will still recognize their beloved fairytale, but they will also encounter a story that they have never seen before. It is one of the most original retellings I have ever read, and it is masterfully done. The plot never once lags in its speed, and I absolutely loved all of the world building. Of Beast and Beauty may, in fact, suffer a bit from too much world building, but it is what made this book worth reading in my opinion.
Believability: Not applicable.
Writing Style: First person, present tense. The chapters switch between three different narrators: Izra, Gem, and Bo. You will know by now that I am no fan of present tense. It gives novels a very movie-ish feel and completely saps all poetry and rhythm from the writing, which is what literature is all about. However, the present tense in Of Beast and Beauty worked very well, and there were moments where the Author had some truly beautiful paragraphs. The beginning alone had me hooked. And as mentioned above, her world building is amazing.
Content: Another place where the story falls down. Izra and Gem have a very serious makeout session (pg. 162-164). No clothes come off, but there is plenty of roving hands, lots of tongues in mouth (and not just in this one scene, either; whoever said French kissing was appealing? Gross!), and Izra makes several lewd innuendos about Gem's gentleman's part. It's a very "steamy" scene, even if it stops short of actually stripping anyone's clothes off.
Conclusion: Other than Gem and Izra ending up together, I really wasn't entirely certain how this book would end. And however frustrated the Reader might get with Izra's lack of doing things, the climax is pretty exciting, and would have been emotional for me if I had cared about any of the characters. If Of Beast and Beauty didn't have such amazing world building and such an original take on Beauty and the Beast, this would have gotten a 2-star rating, because I did not care about the characters, and the content was up there enough to irritate me. But I just loved the world and the originality, so I cannot hate this book entirely.
Recommended Audience: Girl-read, seventeen-and-up, great for fans of fairytale retellings who like a science-fiction twist and who don't mind steamy romance. If you do mind steamy romance, be warned that there is a lot of French kissing and a scene.