In Hunted, Megan Spooner, author of the Skylark and Starbound trilogies of books, attempts to restyle the popular tale of Beauty and the Beast as an action romp, with, unfortunately, little success.
Set in ancient Russia, our heroine is Yeva, daughter of a rich merchant, who is at court as a lady in waiting to a baronessa. Yeva feels stifled by the strictures imposed upon her by her social position and her gender, and is well aware of the pressure upon her to marry. She is completely oblivious to the attentions of Solmir, the baron’s ward and potential heir and yearns for her old life, where she and her father spent days hunting in the wilderness together. Yeva is granted her wish in the worst way possible when her father’s financial ruin forces him to move Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town and his ramshackle hunting cabin.
Soon Yeva has worse problems to contend with than the stubborn Solmir, as her father becomes obsessed with hunting the ultimate quarry, a beastlike figure that he had been single-mindedly tracking before he gave up hunting to become a tradesman. He resumes his quest, but disappears while on the hunt, and when Yeva gives chase she is soon captured in battle. Injured and ill, she bonds with her captor, although he won’t let her see his face and in spite of the fact that he may have murdered her father, she tells him ancient fairy tales to keep him from killing her. She becomes determined to kill him just as he becomes determined to hone her into the ultimate weapon so that he might beat the curse laid upon him by a mysterious creature whom he cannot properly name aloud. Who will win, maid or beast?
Moby Dick meets One Thousand And One Nights meets Beauty and The Beast (several versions, including Disney’s retelling) meets the myth of cupid and psyche in Spooner’s retelling, and the end result is an uneven, unoriginal story that is, ultimately, a mess.
The characters are a mixed bag. Yeva is a caring and intelligent heroine who applies her skills to dire circumstances in a smart way. Yet she’s also one of those ‘not like the other girls’ women who is Special because she Doesn’t Like Stereotypically Feminine Pursuits and who Cannot Love Because of Her Coarseness. I have seen hundreds of versions of her in hundreds of different stories, and there is very little here to distinguish Yeva as a particularly memorable version of the character of Belle/Beauty. By the end of the story she becomes martyrish, a change the narrative ludicrously supports.
We learn something of the inter-family dynamics at work here. One sister, Asenka, is a saintly minister to the poor, with a club foot and no marriage prospects while the other, Lena, is ambitious and plans to marry another merchant and fuse their families’ enterprises into a single entity. They are conveniently not jealous of Yeva’s status as their father’s favorite because that’s the natural order of the family, but their loving relationship is the best part of the book. Their father is a sympathetic figure, though he borrows more from Melville’s Ahab than in other tellings of the story. The sisters disappear for the entirety of the middle of the book, so even with their lovely and lifelike relationship it feels as though they exist simply to check off plot points from the original story and to sop up the secondary love interest. And because Every Heroine Must Have An Adorable Sidekick, Yeva has a dog with whom she has a Dorothy and Toto-like relationship.
Along the way we get small excerpts from the point of view of the beast as he becomes a regular part of the story. Spooner makes no secret of the character’s supernatural origins and revels in a bit of None More Purple prose as she tells of his Angst. The beast speaks as a creepy hivemind that is atmospheric and interesting, but becomes immediately less so when we discover the nature of his problem. Not to dish up any spoilers, but conveying the existence of two realities and the dual nature of a single person by using they/them pronouns as if they were a two-spirited individual isn’t on.
It is pretty difficult to warm to Yeva’s relationship with the Beast, mostly because they have a tendency to speak-shout their feelings at one another with very little build-up and he’s such a total, creepy dick to her most of the time. She loves him because he is kind to her while she is debilitated, and because they are similarly lonely and feel oddly out of step with the world; he loves her because of her strength and refusal to knuckle under to his demands. As he keeps her in line with threats, uses abusive mental trickery on her (“You don’t need to rest! It’s only an illusion of your humanity!”) and forces her to hone her form to his selfish betterment, we wish Yeva really WOULD slay the furry bastard. And yeah, these are occasionally tropes that surface in other retellings of the story, but here they’re so brutal that no sympathetic plot twist can bring us back to liking him again. Once he injured her dog so the author could make a point about how overpowering his instincts to protect Yeva were, I was Done With Him and no longer gave a fuck about the Sad Little Boy Hiding Inside His Skin. Protip to Yeva – the man held you prisoner and threatened your family, you had every right to ‘betray his trust’ and stab his ass.
In terms of the writing, the story is decent but delivers up some whoppers. Here is Yeva seeing the Beast’s castle for the first time:
The castle was not large—or rather, it was far larger than any building Yeva had ever seen, including the baron’s estate, but it was far smaller than the castles Yeva had seen depicted in paintings and tapestries.
Is it large or not? The world may never know. Also the heroine smells like sky according to the Beast, which I suppose is poetic. What does the sky smell like? You make the call!
The book’s biggest flaw is its total lack of originality. I know it’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and conventions must therefore apply, but the way to freshness is not ladling several other folktales over the top and mashing them all together into a churning urn of burning recycled plot contrivances. There is even a passage where the action just stops as Yeva recites a version of the Russian/Slavic folktale Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf to the Beast to Heavily Underscore the similarities between Hunted and its source material. As a fairytale hidden within a fairytale like some kind of Frankensteinian turducken, it’s a bit much. The main themes of the duality of fantasy and reality had the potential to be interesting, but by the time they emerge – and had the author not martyred Yeva on the pyre of the Poor Abused Beast’s Curse And Feelings – one just doesn’t have the energy to care.
There are much, much better versions of this story out there waiting to be read. I sincerely encourage you, my dear reader, to skip this one and gift the teenager in your life with one of those instead.