Beauty and the Beast really is a tale as old as time. First published in 1740, it has since spawned numerous adaptations, from the wildly popular Disney film to Beastly, the dark and brooding urban retelling by Alex Flinn. Brigid Kemmerer has added to this list with A Curse So Dark and Lonely. While it introduces new elements to this already familiar tale, the underlying message of inner beauty and love conquering all is still very much present throughout.
Disclaimer: I read two of Brigid Kemmerer’s YA contemporary books earlier this fall and loved both, so I was already a little biased before reading this one. That said, I’m not into YA fantasy as much as I used to be, and this was quite the deviation from what I typically read these days.
Rhen, the Crown Prince of Emberfall, has been cursed to relive the autumn of his 18th birthday over and over again, each season culminating in his transformation into a terrifying monster. The only way to break the curse is for Rhen to find a girl to fall in love with him. Enter Harper, a teenager transported from Washington, DC, who gets roped into helping Rhen by accident. While they butt heads at first on nearly everything, the two quickly learn they must work together—not only to break the curse, but to also save the people of Emberfall from an invading army intent on destroying the kingdom.
Kemmerer does a very nice job setting up Rhen’s predicament. Right away we know what the stakes are: when he turns into the monster, he tends to kill people; his kingdom has fallen into disarray since the royal family “disappeared”; soldiers from a neighboring kingdom have been terrorizing and slaughtering civilians for the past five years. The weight of all of this, combined with the prince’s deep self-loathing, was enough to make me want to give the poor guy a hug several times while reading. He’s in a very tough position where he can’t reveal what he becomes and what’s happened to his family, and at the same time he must be calculated and smart about what he does and doesn’t do for his people in case they incite a riot. While at first he comes off as a bit selfish and cold, Rhen quickly proves he’s clearly aware of the suffering of his kingdom but he has to be very careful of the choices he makes.
Harper is a very nice balance to Rhen’s character: whereas he uses logic and strategy, she uses her emotions to guide her decisions. While people she encounters tend to dismiss her as harmless because she has cerebral palsy, she proves she’s not easily intimidated (and if she is, she’s not about to reveal that fact). I loved that despite being continually underestimated by almost everyone in Emberfall, she proved their assumptions wrong. She also doesn’t give Rhen respect right away just because he is royalty, and that made me smile and silently pump my fist in the air. My biggest concern with her character arc was that there wasn’t enough time dedicated to the details of her life living in DC. She narrates most of the important details in her first chapter, and then suddenly she’s transported to Emberfall two pages later. I understand wanting to get to the meat of the story, but I honestly would have appreciated at least one chapter showing her daily life in scene. Her reasons for wanting to get home—her mother slowly dying of cancer, her older brother having to fend off loan sharks—are valid, but they seem removed from the rest of the story and don’t feel like a real threat.
Much like she does in her contemporary YA novels, Kemmerer proves here that she’s very good at crafting slow-burn romances. Rhen and Harper do start to fall in love only after a few days, but it feels so gradual and natural that I often forgot how short of a time period it was taking them to get there. Kemmerer manipulates the senses whenever Rhen and Harper have an intimate moment together, and that’s something I adore about her writing. It’s very easy to imagine what’s playing out between the two, and the fangirl in me was squealing internally the entire time. I would have loved to see more scenes like this, but I definitely understand the need for buildup—and the fact that they were busy saving a kingdom from total destruction.
The absolute best part about this book, however, is a character I’ve failed to mention until this point. Commander Grey, Rhen’s only remaining guard and closest companion, is easily my favorite. He’s sworn to protect Rhen at any cost, and at first he comes off as intimidating and standoffish. However, he has a few scenes where he encounters children, and the way he’s so gentle and fatherly to them just made me melt. Grey is also the first person in Emberfall whom Harper really grows to trust, and the two have very good chemistry together. While it’s obvious that he has feelings for her—feelings that could stay at friendship or grow to be something more—Grey’s primary goal is to protect Harper and Rhen and ensure they save Emberfall and break the curse. There’s mystery surrounding the commander and his past, but I can’t get into too much without wandering into spoilers.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I was going into this book, but overall I enjoyed myself. While it’s not my typical chosen genre of YA, it is well written and brought something new to the standard Beauty and the Beast story. There are times when the plot drags a bit, and some characters aren’t present nearly as much as they should have been (Harper’s older brother, Jake, definitely needed more page time), but the main characters are interesting, and I was invested in the welfare of the people of Emberfall. I loved seeing both Rhen and Harper grow as individual characters and as a couple, especially the quieter moments where they were being honest and raw with each other. And being the silly fan that I am, Grey has now claimed a spot as my new book boyfriend.
A Curse So Dark and Lonely hits shelves January 29, 2019. If you’re a fan of fairy-tale retellings, sword fights, or really cute guys in armor, definitely check it out.