***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
I listened to this book thanks to SYNC YA's free audiobook program. (This also means I'll probably misspell all the character and place names.)
One-sentence summary: How could it have taken a young-adult author all this time to steal Howl's character from Howl's Moving Castle and write her own irresistible book with him?!
Cruel Beauty was a truly engrossing listen. I couldn't wait to get back to it whenever I left it. It has a beautifully wounded main character and an ambitious, complex story. In addition, the prose is excellent, and the repartee between Nyx and Ignifex was often delightfully amusing and biting. Rosamund Hodge is on her way to a brilliant career.
Interesting influences. Ms. Hodge is clearly a fan of ancient and period literature, because there are a lot of influences at work here. The story is a little bit Beauty and the Beast, a little bit Cupid and Psyche (without being a retelling of either). There's a fair amount of alchemy, and the tradition of Hermeticism--the near-religion of controlling nature through magic. There are so many small references, I'm sure I missed most of them. For instance, at the beginning of T.S. Eliot's "The Four Quartets," Eliot includes an epigraph from a fragment of Heraclitus that says, "The way upward and the way downward is one and the same." This must be the origin of a couple of Hodge's Hermetic expressions ("As within, so without," and "As above, so below.") And when Nyx gives herself for the first time to Ignifex, she's wearing a classical empire dress with two brooches holding up the shoulders, which reminded me of Oedipus's mother's dress (and the brooches poor Oedipus used to poke his eyes out).
That said, at times Cruel Beauty felt almost too full of these literary traditions. It was crammed with information, crammed with allusions, and toward the end I felt that Hodge had too many balls in the air. Rather than catch them all, she suddenly re-wrote the rules, leaving us wondering whether we had wasted our time feeling invested in the original game.
The plot, so that I won't forget it. 900 years ago, the island of Arcadia was "sundered" from the rest of the world, presumably by the Gentle Lord (I love that name), and it now exists under a parchment-dome of a sky, cut off from trade and suffering occasional attacks of demons that drive people insane. Seventeen years ago Nyx's father made a pretty lousy pact with the Gentle Lord--the Lord of Bargains. Nyx's father's motivation is a little sketchy here, given his devotion to his Hermetic work over family, and his subsequent romantic fickleness, but we're meant to believe that his wife was despondent at not having children, and at being the cause of ending the family name, and so the father took himself to the mysterious, shifting castle to beg the Gentle Lord for a child. (This, despite the fact that he understood how bargains never transpired the way they were meant to, and he worked for the very scientific group that was trying to destroy the Gentle Lord.) The rotten deal the Gentle Lord offered him was: "No son, but two daughters, and one of them will become my wife." Nyx's father agrees, with the cruel twist (there is always a twist) that his wife dies giving birth to the second of the twins, Astraia. The father decides that the first twin, Nyx, will be raised to kill the Gentle Lord and free Arcadia from his grip. (After all this supposed devotion to his wife, the father begins sleeping with his sister-in-law.) Nyx knows and accepts her fate, from the age of nine: “If one of us had to die, it ought to be the one with poison in her heart.”
Nyx's personality is complicated. She has been raised to marry and kill the Gentle Lord, but she also feels the deep loss of genuine love from her father (who is perfectly willing to sacrifice her, and therefore keeps her emotionally distant), and her sister (whom Nyx feels resentful of, because she'll have the life Nyx can never have). In submerging her feelings, Nyx knows she has been false to her family--that her relationship with her father and sister and aunt is based on a lie (she also feels her sister's love is partly grounded in relief and gratitude, which is irritating to her). Nyx feels like she has never been loved or appreciated for who she is, which is an acerbic young woman with a strong, judgmental, intolerant, mercenary side. Nyx knows she's strong and capable, but she believes that she's not generous, self-sacrificing, and loving, though in fact she is.
The Beast (or Ignifex) of course turns out to be a complicated character himself, with dual personalities that were long ago cleaved apart by a group of bored, malevolent "gods" (the Masters) in a way that makes him a victim, too. Because of his own misguided bargain as a young prince, one cleaved side has all the power, the other (Shade) has all the knowledge. (This explanation is a little hurried at the end. We don't understand fully what Shade could have done that would have changed their situation and reunited the two halves--was it simply a matter of Shade being incapable of telling Ignifex that they were the same person, so that Ignifex could reunite them?)
Though she is sworn to kill her new bridegroom, Nyx actually begins to like Ignifex, and vice versa, and Nyx appreciates that his growing love is based on who she really is (wicked and flawed), not on a false image she's projecting. Nyx has a couple of kissy sessions with Shade, too, feeling inexplicably drawn to him. She tries to keep on task with destroying the Lord, in a suicide mission that involves destroying the castle around her, until she discovers that Arcadia itself is inside the castle, in miniature, which means destroying it will automatically destroy Arcadia. She needs a Plan B. (Have I mentioned how awesome the castle is, in the way it morphs in all physical manners--in both space and time? So much Howl influence.) At one point Nyx is uncovers a room with eight dead bodies: the bodies of Ignifex's other wives. In another room she sees and nearly releases the Children of Typhon--an act that almost kills her. (Here is an example of Shade doing something I don't understand: why did he try to kill her if he loves her?) It turns out that one of Ignifex's primary functions is to prevent the seepage of these demons into Arcadia, where they make people go mad and destroy lives. In yet another room she interacts with a little mini-god, a sparrow who seems to be a guardian angel of sorts, or at least is rooting for her happiness.
Nyx asks to go back home to see her family, the Beast allows her, and her sister persuades her to continue with the plan of killing Ignifex, even though Nyx has embraced him as her real husband. Her sister has become a sort of vigilante in her absence--even going so far as to research how to kill the Lord herself. Nyx agrees to go back and kill him. Oh my gosh, I must go back and re-read this, because the rest of the book is fast and complex, and it's a muddle in my brain. There is a re-boot of the universe, which removes everything that has come before it. This results in a sort of alternate-universe portion where Nyx's father has married her aunt, who is now pregnant. Nyx sees different aspects of her family that she had never seen before. She agrees to "marry" Tom Alone in place of her sister in a village festival, so that her sister won't have to spend a year rebuffing real marriage proposals, as is the custom. It turns out that night is the only night that the prince (who is Ignifex) is allowed to be out in the real world. In this universe, Nyx always said she'd marry the prince of the castle, so she wanders up to it, hoping to see him. She encounters the prince with the Masters, and remembers his real name. But it's too late, the Masters inform her: this is the "reset-button" universe, and the original deal he struck with them is no longer valid. Nyx promises that she'll stay with him forever, even in the hellish world he will be relegated to, even though they will torment each other in close quarters and learn to hate each other. She will honor her vow: “Where you go, I shall go; where you die, I shall die, and there will I be buried.” Her steadfast devotion to him destroys the Masters. She and the prince fall, and fall, forgetting who they are, clinging together only because they know they're supposed to be together. They awaken in a re-booted world, and know only that he is king and they belong together.
The re-booted universe. I struggled with whether this was a real problem in the structure of the novel. It was a detail that left me wondering whether the plot was a near-miss for me. There are practical problems with hitting a reset button: if time is genuinely unwound, how does Nyx have the memory of being Ignifex's wife? Of needing to know his name? Of knowing that knowing his name should help? How do they feel that married bond together at the end? But in a purely literary sense, the re-boot makes every single thing that happened before it a red herring: Shade never existed, the eight wives never married Ignifex and died, the prince's kingdom was never under the parchment dome. And then we ask ourselves, for instance, "Why were we introduced to the wives at all?" Their meaning seems to be erased. On the other hand, there's a lovely metaphor of the two characters being reborn through this experience. Of letting go of their mistakes, accepting their flaws, and reaching for happiness.
The visit home. The agreement with Astraia was simply not believable. Why did Nyx acquiesce to her sister's demands? Why didn't she express worry that only the Gentle Lord is holding back the children of Typhon? Why doesn't she even once ask Astraia how killing Ignifex fully avenges their mother, given that father had a part in shaping the curse, too? Why doesn't she once mention what she learned about bargains--the fundamental arrogance of people who make them? And especially: why doesn't she say that Ignifex himself is a slave and the Masters choose whom he should bargain with?
Shade. This is not really a case of good half/bad half, because Shade does some inexplicably cruel things. I was never sure sure why he tried to seduce and kill each of the wives, given that he had the knowledge of how to reunite the two halves of his soul. Like some other readers, I found it out of character that Nyx trusted him so quickly, and that she filled in a heroic backstory for him even though he couldn't speak to corroborate it.
The Edward Cullen factor. We do sort of have another very old guy (900 years in this case) falling for a seventeen-year-old girl--a plot device that I always find a little creepy. In this case it's a little better than Edward and Bella. In Twilight, Edward lived in the real world on a daily basis, interacting with people, studying in school, and Bella was a vapid, boring girl by any standard. His attraction to her made no sense to me, given how vastly different their life experience must have been. In Cruel Beauty, I suppose you could argue that Ignifex has been sequestered away, almost all alone (although he does have human interactions while making bargains, including dalliances with lovely women), which might make him somewhat stunted, and Nyx is resourceful and smart for her age.
In sum. This is a talented debut, an engrossing story, and an impressive effort at a complex narrative. I'm torn about whether I think the ending hurt everything Hodge had built until then.