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.
I am not a romantic person. I’m that type of girl that can’t watch Disney’s The Beauty and The Beast without pointing out that no, Belle falling for Beast was in no way believable in that short period of time. Even without a romantic bone in my body, funnily enough, I still tend to read lots and lots of fairy tale retellings because I’m hoping to find gems like The Lunar Chronicles that make all the other stories pale in comparison, make me appreciate the romance because it is not romance for fairy tale romance’s sake. Because it is love amongst other things that conquers the world.
Stacey Jay was the biggest surprise ever, because I hadn’t enjoyed any of her books up until now but just decided to go for it one more time with this one because, why not? I told myself it couldn’t turn out worse than Cruel Beauty with a synopsis like that, and bam! It was everything I wanted Cruel Beauty to be and yes, it made me cry. I am not a crier. Yes, I cried after finishing the likes of The Fault in Our Stars, The Mark of Athena and Ignite Me, but in general, me crying over characters or stories is a very rare occasion because so many books just don’t move you the way they should do. But Jay’s retelling actually made me sob several times and I’m talking about ugly sobbing because it was a story of love, friendship, acceptance, inevitable change and even more so of understanding, strength, compassion and solidarity.
In Jay’s science fiction setting of a new world, in the beginning there was magic, and with the arrival of humanity, that magic was divided into heaven and hell of sorts. The Dark Heart nourished the domed cities and their Smooth Skin citizens, while The Pure Heart gave the people mutations to survive harsh weather conditions with and turned them into “Monstrous”. Isra, the blind Smooth Skin Princess of the Kingdom of Yuan, is made queen when her father is murdered by a secret Monstrous scouting group one day. She takes a prisoner, Gem, one of the Monstrous to breach the city walls, but while she initially only wants his healing expertise on herbs, she finds herself drawn to this tainted man, who teaches her of compassion and freedom and friendship. Isra, who has always been kept away from the world in her tower, and who thinks that she is one of the few Smooth Skins born with tainted genes, finds comfort in Gem and his storytelling, and begins to find not only trust in herself but also the Monstrous along the way. She and Gem start dreaming of a better future for both tribes, when distaster strikes and only a long lost covenant scroll can unravel the mysteries behind the sinister rose gardens and free the people of injustice, malice and jealousy.
Now, I haven’t read a love story this convincing in a long time. Sure, I love my book OTPs as much as the next person, but with Isra and Gem, I felt it, really, really felt what they were feeling for each other – nonstop. There was hate and love and confusion with them, but the backgrounds these two came from and their unquenchable dreaming made them believably selfless. Without each other, they wouldn’t have found the strength to try to change the world, but there were so many motivations behind their ideas that I am still not sure how exactly Jay did it that I truly, truly believed in them and their love above all of them. Jay made me a romanticist for the time I was buried between the spine of her story, and I took something with me once I closed that back cover. Everyone believes in love, even non-romanticists like I do, but Jay managed to capture the beauty and simplicity of it and the effect it can have on the world so stunningly that I still feel it, and I love Isra and Gem and their story beyond measure.
I may still be stuck in my drunken post-book hangover bliss because I finished it last night, but there wasn’t a single moment when I thought there were inconsistencies or that I didn’t like what this or that stood for. With a lot of books, it’s hard for me to stop analysing pretty much everything, and it often ruins a reading experience because sometimes books are not supposed to have you dig that deep. Of Beast and Beauty was the type of book that sucked me into its world and made me love it without any qualms. I didn’t scrutinize the plot or how it compared to the original story, I even forgot to apply which character represented which. Jay managed to turn the expectations you had on the story around and around and around, and characters that seemed heroic became tainted, and characters you thought were savage became nobel without you noticing it. Of Beast and Beauty felt all original, and that is what I love about reading so much. You can still be surprised and moved by a story, even if you’ve heard it a million times before. And that’s what makes a great story and a great book and a great writer, to be able to put the unexpected in the expected.