“We are all dealt a hand at birth. A good hand can ultimately lose - just as a poor hand can win - but we must all play the cards the fate deals. The choices we face may not be the choices we want, but they are choices nonetheless.”
In the kingdom of Emberfall, Prince Rhen has lived for hundreds of cycles as an eighteen year-old. Cursed by an evil enchantress, Rhen spends each season hunting for a woman who will fall in love with him and break the curse, saving him and Emberfall from eternal damnation. At first, when Rhen had a full palace of guards and servants and his family was still alive, he delighted in the game. Ordering the captain of his royal guard, Grey, to find him women from neighboring villages—and then neighboring worlds, when he’s exhausted the local supply—Rhen is easily able to charm lovely young women with his wealth, status, and handsomeness. But love? That’s a taller bill.
And then there’s the matter of the Beast.
Each enchanted cycle begins in summer and leads to fall--and every cycle, as the season turns, so too does Prince Rhen, transforming from a young man into a scaled, or clawed, or tailed monster. The ending is always the same: death. Death for the young woman who Rhen has tried to woo. Death for his villagers, his guards, his family. And then the cycle restarts. The dead never come back, though—just Rhen, and those trapped in the castle who he hasn’t yet managed to kill.
Harper is a teenager living in Washington D.C., struggling with a dying mother, and an older brother who has ties to some dangerous men thanks to their absent father’s debts. It doesn’t help that Harper’s cerebral palsy makes everyone underestimate her—including her own doting and otherwise supportive brother. Acting as lookout on her brother’s last job, Harper spots an shady man, charming and then dragging a young woman away when he thinks no one is looking. Despite her fear, and the fact that she’s much smaller than the man and by herself, Harper inserts herself into the situation and tries to hit the man to secure the woman’s freedom. Unfortunately for Harper, the would-be abductor is Grey, who ends up dragging Harper, kicking and screaming, back to Emberfall.
Harper is determined to escape her captors and return home—enraged at her abduction, and of the implied abduction of so many other young women. She understands how enchantments work, and has zero interest in breaking Rhen’s curse—in fact, she tells him this outright. And yet, for all her rage and distrust of Rhen and Grey, the longer Harper stays in Emberfall, and the more she learns about the cursed kingdom, the more she starts to care for the people of this cursed world.
After an ominous warning from the sorceress responsible for the spell that this season will be Rhen’s last, it is up to Harper to break the cycle of suffering and death… but what of her old life, and everyone back in her own world? What happens when she’s confronted with the choice of saving her family, or saving Emberfall?The new novel from Brigid Kemmerer, A Curse So Dark and Lonely is yet another reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast—a fairy tale that is certainly popular in the YA adaptation space (see: Beastly, Cruel Beauty, Beauty, A Court of Thorns and Roses, etc). What sets Kemmerer’s version apart, however, is the restraint when it comes to the romantic (is it romantic?) relationship between its main characters, and an interesting change on the lore of the Beast and the curse. I love the twist that the prince appears a prince, but slowly transforms into a beast who eats his potential spell-breakers (and who also has killed his entire family, most of his guard, and his own subjects).
On the character front, Harper, as our heroine, is an inspiring and powerful voice. I love the fact that she finds herself in this curse because she fights for a young woman she sees being abducted by a stranger—more importantly, I cared and believed in Harper’s struggle. She doesn’t trust Grey or Rhen, even when her relationship with them deepens as she understands the curse—she doesn’t just forgive or forget exactly how she came to Emberfall. I also like the moments where Kemmerer makes it clear that Harper’s C.P. is not something she’s ashamed of, or wants to magically fix, or hides behind—even in Emberfall, when her gait makes people think she is a warrior princess injured in battle, Harper is quick to dispel that myth. And that’s cool. Similarly, I really appreciate the pace that the author takes with the relationship between Rhen and Harper—there is no instalove here. Truly, there’s no love yet at all. There’s the beginning of something that could be more between these characters, but is too soon to really tell. Beyond Harper, Grey is easily my other favorite character—his stoicism and dedication is as admirable as Harper’s stubbornness.
On the negative front, however, there’s a dreaded triangle that seems to be unfolding between Harper, Rhen, and Grey, which is incredibly frustrating and pandering. Similarly, as we learn more about Rhen’s curse, there’s almost an absolution of his actions as the villain is a caricature of evil—one consistent element throughout Beauty and the Beast retellings is the inscrutable truth that the Beast is transformed because of his cruelty. In A Curse So Dark And Lonely this isn’t really the case—sure, Rhen has done some selfish things, but he’s absolved from wrongdoing as he was targeted by the sorceress, and as he cannot control his actions when he transforms, even his trail of bodies is outside of his control. All that’s to say… there’s a weird lack of accountability for Rhen. (And Grey, really.) Similarly, there’s a weird twist ending to this book that exacerbates the love triangle thing, and, well, I’m not a fan.
And yet, with all of these criticisms voiced, I still find A Curse So Dark And Lonely to be a memorable and entertaining book--a worthy fairtytale retelling.
Book Smugglerish, 6 and a half curses out of 10.