Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review: Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay

I loved fairytales when I was a kid--and still do! I remember watching the Disney movies of singing animal helpers and big-nosed, blue genies, and, as a grew older, reading the classic versions of those very same fairytales. One of my favourite tales of all time is "Beauty and the Beast", and when I saw that Stacey Jay's "Of Beast and Beauty" was released just a few days ago, I just knew that I had to get my hands on it. Good thing I did, because I found myself completely immersed in an incredible, unique retelling on the classic fairytale that everyone knows and loves.

In the domed city of Yuan, Isra, the blind princess of the Smooth Skins, has grown up with the knowledge that one day, she will be sacrificed to the roses, her blood sustaining the city's vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a warrior of the Monstrous, fights to save his people from starvation. When Gem finds himself trapped in Yuan after a failed attempt at stealing the royal gardens' enchanted roses, neither he nor Isra suspects that together, they can return balance to both of their worlds.

Something I found especially striking in "Of Beast and Beauty" was the ingenuity of the retelling of such a classic tale. Quite a few retellings often take the original story and simply transcribe them into different settings and times, and so tend to fall short in innovation. However, Ms. Jay took the overarching message of true love prevailing over all, as well as the concepts of beauty and ugliness, and used them to weave an entirely different story. Not only is the setting completely different from olden-day France, but the story itself has sci-fi and dystopian elements woven into it. There's the idea of prejudice, which is present in the different social groups both inside and outside the dome, leading to ignorance and suffering. But what I loved above all about the story was that while it was clear who was the beauty and who was the beast in the traditional tale, in "Of Beast and Beauty", the line between 'beast' and 'beauty' was blurred, suggesting that these two ideals may not be as clear-cut as they seem, and that oftentimes people possess both traits inside of them.

The two protagonists of "Of Beast and Beauty" are charming and intriguing in their own ways. First, you have Isra, who's lived most of her life blind and locked up in a tower, yet possessing an insatiable desire for freedom and independence. Isra is undeniably a strong heroine, full of compassion and determination, but at the same time, struggles with uncertainties about her ability to rule as queen of Yuan, as well as with the lies that she's been fed her whole life by people she thought she could trust. It is this kind of weakness that makes her such a three-dimensional and relatable character, one that you become invested in as you read about her growth as the book progresses. Then, there's Gem, the wild 'mutant' who has dealt with the troubles inflicting his people, who have been barred access from civilization and sustenance inside the domes. What I found particularly interesting whenever I read the chapters from his point of view was how he slowly shifted from being bent on manipulating Isra to finding himself falling for her, while at the same time maintaining his loyalties toward his people. There's certainly nothing flat or cliched about the two protagonists of the novel. The same can be said of Bo--I have mixed feelings about his character, though reading some chapters from his perspective did help establish some empathy with his thoughts and feelings.

The plot of "Of Beast and Beauty" remained compelling throughout the novel, allowing ample time to portray a believable development in Isra and Gem's feelings toward one another--something which is important in YA romance books. Outside of the lovey dovey stuff, the tensions of the storyline were strong, especially as Isra discovered more about the history of her ancestry and dealt with increasing pressures of sacrificing herself to the roses as situations inside the dome worsened. However, I did find that there were times when certain things could've been explored a little deeper, like that ancestry and political pressure, since I felt like some of those things happened pretty quickly.

All in all, Stacey Jay's "Of Beast and Beauty" is a refreshingly imaginative retelling of a classic fairytale, complete with great characters you can't help but become invested in and an engaging storyline. I swear, I had shivers down my back as I read the final couple of chapters from how perfect the ending was! I highly recommend this to any fairytale and sci-fi lovers out there--you're in for a good one.

Rating: 4/5

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