Book Rec: Of Beast and Beauty, by Stacey Jay

August 10, 2013 at 11:50 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

I’ve finally reached the point in the move that never ends where what I have left to do is minimal enough that I can actually relax a little bit in the evenings. I can sit down on my new-to-me couch with a wine glass of soda (because I’m just that classy) and after two months of reading nothing but fanfiction because I didn’t have enough brain cells not dedicated to moving to make sense of anything else. My bookshelves are up, and while my trade books are still in stacks on the floor, my YA and younger books are up on their shelves in the living room.

Most of my life is still in boxes, but that room feels like home.

There are books there that I have been wanting to read for MONTHS, but they’ve either been in storage or my brain has been thoroughly absent. The other night I went to the wall of books to choose one to read, and I hit that moment that every bibliophile hates: THERE ARE SO MANY BOOKS I WANT TO READ AND I CAN’T PICK.

But the cover of Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay kept jumping out at me.

Of Beast and Beauty

Something about the rose against that pale skin, with the city beneath it. And it’s a jump-off from Beauty and the Beast, which is a story I absolutely love.


The world-building is gorgeous, distinct and strong, and while it’s been thousands of years since the settlers arrived on this new world, we still get pieces of the pure shock as a scientific culture suddenly finds itself face to face with magic. Forced into change on a physical and genetic level by the planet’s native magic, the population split- the Smooth-Skins, those left relatively unaffected by the mutations, who live in domed cities away from the ravages of a harsh environment, and those they call Monsters, those who lives out in the wilds by grace of the mutations the Smooth-Skins fear. The cities have a covenant with part of the planet’s magic force, a pledge of sacrifice to keep the cities thriving, but it isn’t enough to keep the children from being born missing some piece- sometimes a voice, or sight, or hearing, sometimes extremities or limbs, but every child born within the cities has something missing. Mutations can also be found within the city, and those Banished, as they’re called, are cast to the very outer edges of society. Those the Smooth-Skins call the Monsters eke out a meager existence, scraping by on harvests that diminish with each passing season.

The narration passes back and forth between two characters, for the most part, with occasional interjections from a third. Isra, the princess of the domed city of Yuan, has been blind since she was five years old, after a terrible fire that led to her mother’s death. She has been sequestered in a tower since that point, interacting only with her father, her father’s chief advisor, and her mute maid, Needle. She escapes the tower from time to time, going out to the royal gardens where the roses have their own magic to help her ‘see’. Gem is from a tribe across the desert, a reluctant warrior sent on a dangerous mission as the last hope for his people- and his infant son. Bo, a soldier and the son of Yuan’s chief advisor, fills in some of the elements we would otherwise miss. The language is distinct between the three, Isra sharp and longing and defiant, Gem with a storytelling soul and the deep desire for home and family, Bo formal and uncomfortable.

One of my favorite things about this book is Isra’s personal journey. She is so sheltered and naive, but her arc isn’t as easy as shrugging off her innocence. She has responsibilities to her people, to her city, and she’s willing to make incredibly difficult and self-sacrificing choices. But there are constant setbacks to her growing knowledge. She gains understanding in jagged bits and pieces, and she frequently forms a resolution to do the best thing based off incomplete knowledge- which can lead to that resolution being the wrong choice. Her growth, painful and shocking and genuine, was riveting. The relationship that grows between her and Gem, based on deceit and hope and a very fragile future, slowly becomes something real, shocking the hell out of both of them.

I love the darkness in this story, something so much more than the literal darkness of Isra’s blindness. The roses are creepy and haunting and lovely, kind of like a botanical version of the Weeping Angels. Needle’s faithfulness and ingenuity, Bo’s desperate need to make his father proud, the dark and disturbing history of the city, and the staggering deprivation of the tribes…there are points where this story becomes genuinely heart-breaking. Seriously, there was one part where I had to close the book and fight the urge to swear at Stacey Jay, because holy hell, my poor heart! But there’s so much beauty to it as well, not the beautiful or a person or a landscape, but the kind of beauty that really does change the world in the right conditions.

If you love fairy tale retellings, if you love the places where science and magic clash, if you love journeys of discovery, this book is definitely for you.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

January 19, 2012 at 9:40 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Cinder has grown up knowing she doesn’t belong- after all, cyborgs are second class citizens, even if clothing can mask most of the changes made to her as a child. In the markets of New Beijing, she does her best to simply be a good mechanic and keep her head down, preferably avoiding her step-mother’s wrath. But then- a prince. And a secret. And a plague. And a lunar queen with cruelty and the power of bio-electrical manipulation. Buckle up, boys and girls; there’s no fairy godmother on this wild ride.

Anyone who’s been with the blog a while knows I have a thing for fairy tales. Like a Really Big THING. I adore fairy tales, and I absolutely love clever retellings of them, versions that keep faith to the original (or as original as we can find, anyway) stories but still manage to make them completely their own.

Friends, we have here a very worthy addition to the tanks of retellings I love.

The typical elements are all there- the handsome prince, the step-mother and pair of step-sisters, the slaving for the step-family, the ball, even the pumpkin coach and the glass slipper in their own way. All the things that tie this firmly to the story of Cinderella are here- but they’re set into a fantastic futuristic world with a lot more going on than who gets to dance with the prince at the ball. The story is woven through a much bigger picture, while never losing a firm grip on the retelling. What’s more, it stays true to Cinderella while still adding in threads from other stories, such as the Snow Queen and Anastasia (yes, I know Anastasia isn’t technically a fairy tale, but the way we treat it, it might as well be, really).

When it comes to foreshadowing, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face, but let’s be honest: no one reads a fairy tale retelling to find out what happens, but rather how. When it comes to Cinderella, no one is going to be shocked that she gets to the ball and dances with the handsome prince. It’s how she gets there- her version of the pumpkin coach- that’s awesome. As readers familiar with this foundation and the others, we know what’s going to happen long before Cinder and the others do. It’s not that we’re particularly surprised at any point. Instead, we get to be impressed.

The setting of this story is fantastic. It takes place after World War IV has completely changed the structure of nations, and New Beijing is the capital of the Empire of the Commonwealth. It’s a brilliant meld of traditions- like rice paint and kimonos, the tiered pagodas, the surname first- and new tech, like tracking chips and highly advanced tablets and androids. And, of course, cyborgs.

The cyborgs were both a great point and a sticking point for me. I love that the main character is one in a world where being a cyborg means being a second class citizen. I love that she struggles with it, with trying to keep herself in order and appear totally human. What I do wish is that we’d come across other cyborgs. Cinder is the only one we meet, so it’s hard to feel sympathetic for the large number being treated as test subjects and throwaways or forced labor, hard to sympathize for the experimental draft, when we never see the effect these things have on other cyborgs. There is no cyborg community, no sense of greater belonging. Part of that makes sense, given the other threads through the story, but it also left a bit of a disconnect.

This is a busy story. There are a lot of separate threads coming together and at some points it actually feels a little too busy, as threads are either rushed to completion or never fully developed.

I love Linh Cinder as a character. She’s pragmatic and a little cynical, but not bitter yet. She works hard, is good at what she does, and looks for a way to get out or to at least make things a little better. She’s aware of the slights but also of the kindnesses, even if she doesn’t always recognize the impulse behind them. Her pragmatism, her way of looking for solutions, is wonderful and fits in very neatly with her trade as a mechanic. Does building and fixing things require a certain amount of imagination? Absolutely. But it also requires logic and determination and level-headedness to actually get things done, and we see that through most of the story. Her personality is a good blend of her various parts and the way she interacts with other.

I love how patently oblivious she is to Kai’s intentions through a large part of the book. Not that she doesn’t realize what he’s doing, just that she doesn’t realize he’s serious, or at least sincere, doesn’t recognize that for him, she is one blinding piece of normalcy in a world gone mad. She, of course, is too pragmatic to fall head over circuits in infatuation with him just because he’s a prince. We get to delight in the sense of fun in his pursuit- he’s determined but polite, never pushing too far but never letting it go either, and every now and then we get a glimpse of the sincerity beneath the fun. Kai is a young man in a very difficult position, one he’s not entirely prepared for, and Cinder’s pragmatism balances his occasionally high-strung, knee-jerk reactions. He’s thinks fast and acts fast, not always to the most beneficial result, but his instincts are good and his intentions for the best.

Doctor Erland is an interesting character. Hard to say you like him, really, given his particular brand of ruthlessness or even coldenss at times, and yet he’s got this deep well of sincerity and even sympathy that still makes him very appealing. You still care about what happens to him, even outside of his obvious significance to the story, but at the end of things, even when you care, it’s still hard to say you like him. I LOVE THAT. I love the ambiguous characters that reflect all the grey areas of the human existence and the fact that a person can be flawed (maybe even mildly sociopathic) and still draw on reader’s sympathies, and I thought he was very, very well done.

And Iko- what a gem! Iko is an amazing, silly, heart-warming, hopeful character. I love Iko and very much look forward to seeing where her story continues.

The plague is a constant, real force that shapes the story, perhaps even more so than the threat of war with the lunar queen. Mixing magic (sorry, bio-electrical manipulation) in with everything sometimes came across as flat, and the queen was perhaps too mercurial, and too purposefully two-dimensional, to come across as a true danger. We know she’s a danger but she never really feels like one, never gives us half the frisson of fear that the plague does. We see the fear that stalks through the city, the instant panic at the signs of it, the debilitating effect it can have on families, and the complete lack of hope that becomes a despair that somehow drives a continued search for the cure. They don’t hope but they still search, perhaps out of a bleak, grim incapability of simply letting it go.

Absolute favorite part of the book? Cinder showing up at the ball. Not going to say why, because really getting there is half the fun, but her actual appearance walking into the ball made my day.

And the good news? There’ll be more! Cinder’s story isn’t done yet, as this is just book one of the Lunar Chronicles. Book Two, Scarlet, will be forthcoming (date unknown).

Until next time~

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Book Review: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George

July 13, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Without a name, a child cannot be baptized, and trolls have been known to steal unbaptized children, but when her mother refuses to name her over her displeasure at bearing another girl, the baby becomes simply the pika, or girl. Her favorite brother Hans Peter calls her Lass. One day, however, an act of mercy to a white hart gives her a secret name and the ability to speak with animals. It’s only the beginning of the Lass’ adventure, for shortly after, a white bear comes to their home and insists she spend a year living in his palace. In this heartfelt retelling of an old Nordic tale, the Lass will follow her heart east of the moon and west of the sun to set things to rights, and along the way she’ll encounter hope and despair, kindess and cruelty, compassion and selfishness, all in a world so much bigger than the simple woodcutter’s house she calls home.

I’ve probably mentioned before how much I love retellings. There’s just something amazing to me about taking a story that’s already well loved and making it even more, of personalizing it and- in the case of some stories- making it more accessible. Most people don’t know the old Nordic tales. Not just the sweeping sagas but the simpler folk tales tend to get missed in favor of stories that are easier to find, the more traditional fairy tales. I grew up familiar with the story this is based on (East of the Sun, West of the Moon) because my mother’s family is Swedish and Norwegian. Her great-aunts swore in Swedish, cooked with measurements like pinch, dash, and skosh, and were six foot tall busty blondes who lived actively and energetically into their late 90’s. They told my grandmother and mother, my grandmother and mother told me, so I grew up on this story and always loved it. It was like a Scandinavian Beauty and the Beast, but SO much cooler.

This is a story that unfolds slowly, that really builds the world around you so you feel the ache of a winter that’s lasted far too long. The Lass is the youngest of nine children, each of them distinct in their own ways, each of them with different sets of expectations laid upon them by their mother Frida. She’s closest to Hans Peter, the eldest, who was away for many years on a voyage and came back greatly changed. He spends his days by the hearth now, carving figurings he soon burns, weighed down by sorrow and a haunting experience he won’t speak of even to the Lass.

It takes strength to thrive within emotional neglect, and the Lass shows that strength again and again. She isn’t unloved- her father and Hans Peter both adore her, and her siblings to varying degrees; even Frida would probably admit to loving her youngest if pressed- but despite the dangers presented by having no name, she doesn’t let herself become crippled by fear or doubt. When adventure presents itself, along with a way to help her family, she takes it. Most girls wouldn’t go off with an enormous bear that would as soon eat you as not, but she does, and she adjusts to the strange life in the northern palace with her spellbound companions.

At first this seems like a story about gaining- gaining a name, gaining chances and advancement- but it’s also a story about loss. It’s not just the family she left behind but also the sense of loss that pervades her new companions and the stories written into the ice walls of the palace. Sorrow weaves through her companions, sorrow without hope of surcease, with a painful dignity won by the sheer press of years and experience- a sorrow much like that which weighs down her brother.

It’s also a mystery, a story of clues and secrets and the careful, cautious search to unravel them and piece everything together. Clearly a talking bear who lives in a palace with bound servants unlike any human form presents a puzzle, as does the appearance of a strange man in her bed each night who makes no move to touch or harm her but also refuses to sleep elsewhere. The Lass has to be careful about it- the forces at work within these puzzles show no hesitation to punish the creatures under its thrall, and it’s incredibly painful to the Lass to know that others are dying as a direct result of her efforts.

The journey that unfolds is beautiful, not just in a physical sense of the world the Lass explores, but the people and creatures she encounters on the way. Everything is connected, sometimes in a delicate, tenuous fashion that could break with the slightest stress, and sometimes with chains so solid it seems impossible they could ever break. Each grace she’s given, every kindness, gives her greater strength, and each obstacle forces her to use that newly won strength. It may be slow but it’s far from stagnant, and every step of the way stirs the blood.

There’s an incredible journey, joy and loss, new friends, sacrifices born of love like no other, and the strength that comes of a lifetime of untenable odds. This is a beautiful story, a masterful retelling, and a book to lose yourself in.

Until next time~

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