Of Beast and Beauty
Hardcover, 391 pages
July 23, 2013
Dystopian Fiction, Fairy Tale Retellings, Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Book Synopsis: In the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl, and in the girl was a secret...
In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city’s vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to both their worlds.
Isra wants to help the city’s Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan’s enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.
As secrets are revealed and Isra’s sight, which vanished during her childhood, returned, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.
This highly original novel, based on the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale, is a richly-imagined love story with profound underlying themes of universal importance.
The characters, plot, and setting are beautifully detailed and vivid. Ms. Jay honors the traditional fairy tale, combining it with elements of dystopian science fiction. Far from being a chaotic jumble of genres, however, this novel flows together with seamless harmony.
The background of the story provides the science fiction aspect of the novel, with the arrival of human settlers from Earth on an alien planet, while such elements as 'the Pure Heart', 'the Dark Heart', and the frightening, bloodthirsty roses, belong to the fantasy genre. Added to these is the dystopian element -- a stratified society of privileged nobles that keep themselves apart from the impoverished, unfortunate mutants that provide comforts for them, under artificial domes, while a group of more severely mutated people must fend for themselves, in the harsh world outside the domes.
Through the characters and events, Jay deals with such important themes as the destructiveness of prejudice, as well as of the evils inherent in a lack of harmony between humans and the planet they inhabit. These themes play out against the backdrop of an alien planet in a distant solar system, but they are clearly applicable to our own society and planet.
The story is told through three characters -- Isra, the young queen of the domed city of Yuan, Gem, a captured member of the people who live outside the domes, and Bo, the son of Yuan's chief royal advisor.
The novel concentrates on Isra and Gem, the Beauty and the Beast. Isra is a Smooth Skin, while Gem is a Monstrous. While they are clearly enemies at the beginning of the story, they gradually fall in love after Gem is captured within the walls of Yuan, and is imprisoned. As he begins to interact with Isra, Gem's opinion of her starts to change. The same happens with her. Eventually, they realize that everything they have been taught about the Smooth Skins and the Monstrous is totally wrong.
It's been a while since I've encountered such an appealing set of lovers in fiction! Both Isra and Gem are such wonderful, loving people, and born leaders, as well. They're both totally committed to the welfare of their people, both fiercely determined to achieve justice for them. They're compassionate, intelligent, and, perhaps most important of all, open-minded and willing to change when necessary.
Their love story is beautiful, inspiring, and very touching. I was moved to tears as I read certain passages. The moment of their first kiss, for instance, brought me some happy tears. They shared a gloriously tender, passionate kiss, but more than that, they also shared the very essence of their souls. Jay handled this moment with the appropriate tone, too; it was not in any way 'cheesy' or overwritten at all.
Throughout the novel, the author moves from one narrator to the other, and from the love story to the more global panorama of this strange society of which cruelty is such an intrinsic part. From the dark magic of the roses to the callous treatment of the Banished, and the total exclusion of the Monstrous, to the actions of Bo's father, Junjie, whose sole concern is the attainment of political power, a picture emerges of a totally dysfunctional, totalitarian world. It's precisely this movement from the love story to the bigger picture, in which both are linked, that holds the novel's power.
Although Of Beast and Beauty is categorized as a young adult novel, I think the author's depiction of the themes I have pointed out make it very much an excellent read for adults, as well. As for the audience for which the novel is intended, it definitely presents ideals to which an entire civilization should aspire, and thus, is a great inspiration for younger readers.
The marked contrast between the lifestyles of the two young lovers is very interesting. Isra -- like Rapunzel, ironically enough -- has been kept in a tower all her life, having very limited contact with the outside world, except for her daring escapes into the royal garden, in spite of her blindness. Gem has grown up in the desert outside the domes, and so, has had much more freedom. This is another, very important theme in the novel -- the desire for, and pursuit of, freedom. Isra seeks to be free to be herself, to pursue her dreams as she sees fit. Gem apparently has this freedom, and yet, he does not, because his life is tied to his people, who are suffering and beginning to starve. Both of them are really striving for inner freedom.
It's so wonderful to watch the gradual emotional growth of these two characters, as they dare to challenge the misconceptions they were brought up with. This growth will not only affect their individual destinies, but ultimately, those of their own people, as well as the entire planet. Love utterly transforms them; Isra dares to see physical beauty in a fellow human being she had been told was a monster, a beast, while Gem dares to see Isra's inner beauty, instead of the horrible cruelty he had been told characterized every member of the Smooth Skin group. In this way, they become more truly themselves. The message here is that division and hatred take away the freedom to be true to one's real essence. This is a very powerful message indeed.
Another main theme in the novel is the equality of the sexes. Jay contrasts the treatment of women in both societies. In Yuan, women -- and most especially the queens, which is a huge irony -- have no power. The main function of the queens is to be sacrificed to the roses whenever situations in the domed cities begin to deteriorate. All decisions are made by the royal advisors, who are all men. The Monstrous, however, are much more egalitarian; a woman leads Gem's tribe, and women have a much greater voice in tribal decisions. The difference between the two groups is very evident in the behavior of Gem and Bo. Gem never tries to control Isra, even for her own good. He does try to persuade her, but never to force her to do what he wants. Bo, however, does just that, even though his conscience might bother him at times.
It's very ironic that the people known as 'the Monstrous' should actually be more civilized, in matters of importance such as humane treatment of all citizens, than the supposedly superior Smooth Skins!
To sum up, this novel is not only a great, highly imaginative tale, as well as a great love story, but also a magnificent political drama that never becomes preachy as it delivers its important messages. I have enjoyed it so much, I actually wish this was a series! The characters, setting, and plot will stay with me forever, and I'm already thinking of re-reading it!
About the Author