Love among the Greek myths
A STUNNING Gothic fairy tale that seamlessly blends science fiction, romance, mystery and mythology,Cruel Beauty is easily one of the best young adult fiction books of the year.
Lyrical, lush, and absolutely lovely, Cruel Beauty tells the tale of Nyx Triskelion, the quietly angry dark daughter of the Hermetic scholar Leonidas who made a deal with the devil many years ago – a deal that robbed him of his wife.
As a consequence of the deal, Nyx is betrothed to the ruler of her homeland, a shadowy figure known only as the “Gentle Lord” who strikes bargains that never quite turn out the way you imagine. But her father – one of the wisest men in the land – has been training Nyx since birth to kill the immortal ruler and break the 900-year-old curse placed on the land. She is, as she says, raised to marry a monster.
When Nyx first meets the demon lord Ignifex, however, she can’t quite resist being beguiled by his strange charm and patient ways; although her hate and resentment for a childhood lost simmer in her gut, Ignifex understands her in a way that’s compelling and new.
“Everyone who ever bargains with me is convinced that he is righteous.... But you know what you are and what you deserve,” he tells her at one point, knowing that she is plotting his downfall and understanding that she must.
Set in a mystical world where shadowy dark spirits rob men of all they hold dear, this modern-day Beauty And The Beast – which in its turn was borrowed from the Greek myth of Cupid and Pysche – is also inspired by the myth of Persephone and Hades. It draws from other myths too, like the story of Typhon (the demonic spirits in Cruel Beauty are named “children of Typhon”, the Greek father of monsters).
It’s no surprise that Rosamund Hodge studied English literature, as the imagery is stunning, thoughtful and deliberate; and the references relevant and a pleasure to note. The book is a steampunk melange of romance, duty, and the demons without and within.
Family ties are treated with care by Hodge, who takes on the trope of the Reluctant Hero with a deft touch, perfectly capturing Nyx’s feelings of resentment for sister Astraia – as light as she is dark – her disgust for her Aunt Telomache who is romantically involved with her widowed father, and her respectful hatred of Leonidas himself.
There’s also the love triangle that flies in the face of cliche with its twist: despite her burgeoning affection for Ignifex despite all she’s been taught, Nyx also develops feelings for his grey, ghostly manservant Shade – a dead ringer for Ignifex, but almost perpetually silent and harbouring a dark secret which he couldn’t reveal if you begged. Faced with a choice between two men who look almost exactly the same, it’s telling who she chooses at the very end.
Hodge balances the richness of Ignifex’s magical, maze-like castle with the drab tedium of Nyx’s captivity deftly, applying a similar magnetic touch to the unlikable yet oddly compelling characters – nobody here is a hero, even the sweet Astraia has a vicious streak, while Nyx comes to terms with and owns her flaws, bearing them like a bloodied standard.
The ending, too, is a glorious riot of colour and emotion – the lovely thing about Hodge is her commitment to emotional follow-through without sounding cheesy. It’s refreshing and lovely to see a female lead embrace her selfishness and cast aside weepy duty in favour of her own happiness, and equally enjoyable when a victory is won anyway – when all’s said and done, fairytales must end happily ever after.
But in Cruel Beauty the happy ending is hard-won and bittersweet: nothing is without cost, and along the journey not a few things are lost. If there’s any criticism of this novel I can deliver, it’s that it’s too short; it is one of the few YA books to not cheaply trick you into buying a series of “filler” novels yet it’s the one that could perhaps benefit from an expansion to better tell its tale. Hodge’s prose is deft and thoughtful, and thankfully she refrains from using Nyx as an author proxy.
Cruel Beauty is a thoughtful, stunning love letter to Greek mythology and a host of other legends while managing to be unique and vividly drawn in its own right.