This book was a hard one for me to grade. The story – a Beauty and the Beast retelling – held so much potential, and I stayed up late to finish it, which always means something positive. But a convoluted mythology, a weak insta-love-triangle and a multiple-personality heroine left me frustrated for what could have been.
The kingdom of Arcadia is being held captive by a demon prince known as the Gentle Lord. For the past nine hundred years, the Gentle Lord grants wishes to those who seek his help, but always at a price far higher than the unfortunate bargain-seeker ever expected to pay. Before she was born, Nyx Triskelion’s father made one such bargain. The price he agreed to pay was Nyx herself, as a bride for the Gentle Lord when she turned seventeen, while her twin sister, Astraia, is spared.
Nyx has always known that she was to be sacrificed as part of her father’s disastrous bargaining. But rather than die in vain, she’s determined to be the one to take the demon down and free Arcadia from his curse. However, when she arrives at his castle, she’s surprised at her reaction to the evil creature she’s despised her entire life. Ignifex, as she’s told to call him, is funny, charming and sexy, that is when he’s not making malicious bargains or being terrifying or threatening to kill her. To her great surprise, he doesn’t demand his husbandly rights or really seem to expect much of anything from her. He gives her a key and free reign to explore any room that her key opens along with a warning that going where she’s not allowed could end in the same tragic fate that befell the eight brides that preceded her. He explains that every night, he will ask her if she wishes to guess his true name. If Nyx guesses correctly, she will be freed. If she is wrong, she will die.
Nyx also meets Shade, Ignifex’s shadow and a fellow slave trapped within the castle. During the day, Shade remains a silent presence on the wall, but at night he’s able to take corporeal form although he’s always sworn to do his master’s bidding. From the beginning Nyx trusts Shade as she feels she cannot do with her husband. But Shade’s certainty that Nyx is the one sent to save him and the rest of Arcadia leads him to betray her. Meanwhile, Nyx explores her new home, an enchanted castle with moving hallways and ever-changing rooms, searching for the answers that will allow her to destroy Ignifex and free her people.
My main problem with Cruel Beauty became the increasingly complex mythology as the story progressed. Based on a mixture of Greco-Roman myths, Hermeticism, faery stories, elemental magic, and original fantasy, there was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel to the world building. At one point, Nyx learns the “truth” and I had hopes that I would finally get some answers that would help me make sense of what was going on. Unfortunately, she immediately forgets everything so that we as readers remain in the dark as well. When the exposition is finally dumped near the very end, the instigating reason for the entire situation felt far too ambiguous, as did the crazy resolution. Perhaps a second reading might help me make more sense of what the heck was going on, but I don’t think that a story should require second (or third or fourth) readings just to get it.
The other big problem I had was with Nyx herself. Knowing her entire life that she was nothing more than a sacrifice, she rightly harbors a crap ton of resentment towards her father and the sister that he so clearly prefers. But instead of owning her righteous hurt and anger, she waffles between hating her family openly and guilt for hating them when she believes she should love them. One minute she despises her sister, Astraia, the next Nyx is ready to do anything to prove that she truly loves her twin.
This emotional ping ponging transfers to Ignifex as well. Always Nyx plans to kill him and believes she hates him, except when she finds herself attracted to him and falling in love with him for loving her despite all of her inner faults. This applied to every scene in which the two were together. One minute she would lash out at him, the next she would think about how she found him appealing. Rather than convey a sense that she was warming to him as she got to know him, it gave each of their encounters a multiple-personality feeling and made it a lot harder to buy into their love story.
Also making it hard to see Ignifex and Nyx as soul mates was the lukewarm love triangle created when she developed feelings for Shade. Within a short time of first meeting him, Shade and Nyx are kissing, giving their entire relationship an insta-love stink. As the story’s mythology unwinds and her feeling for Ignifex change, Nyx’s flip-flopping loyalties between Shade and her husband only serve to make her seem even more fickle and wishy-washy.
Too, I felt like I’d been sold a damaged bit of goods as far as heroines go. Based on the book’s blurb, I expected Nyx to be a kick-ass warrior ready to go to town all over an evil demon. Sadly, she proves to be all bark and zero bite despite the fact that she had supposedly trained her entire life to take him down. Other than a few weak attempts to stab Ignifex, she never once felt threatening or as if she had the ability to hurt so much as a fly much less the prince of demons. Rather, she spends the majority of the book wandering through the castle, attempting to learn the secrets of Ignifex, but to what purpose I never did figure out. It seemed that her great plan was to locate the elemental hearts of his crazy castle, but how doing so would destroy the demon lord remained a mystery to me. For all of the mythology this story contained, this key component remained especially hazy and ambiguous.
I did find Ignifex compelling as an anti-hero, and I wish we could have spent more time with interactions between Nyx and the demon prince. Instead, their encounters were so brief and few that when he confesses his feelings for his newest wife, they felt rather sudden and from out of the blue. I wanted to watch these two fall in love rather than be told that it has miraculously happened.
I loved the idea of the traditional beast as a demon and Beauty as a warrior set out to destroy him in order to free her people. The potential for greatness was right there. Unfortunately, Cruel Beauty sagged beneath the weight of execution and an unfocused heroine. I can recommend it only with the caveat that you may find yourself as confused as Nyx became in Ignifex’s magical, ever-morphing castle.