Book review: A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely, henceforth ACSODAL, is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. Forget Marmite or Brexit – I think this is truly what divides us. Either you’re into this subgenre or the very thought makes you want to run screaming into a deep, dark forest.  

 Rightly or wrongly, I’ve been hooked ever since Belle breezed in her self-absorbed manner through that French marketplace, arms full of books and head full of dreams. Of course Disney’s version was problematic as hell, but so was the source material, a French fairy tale from the 18thC designed to persuade young girls into arranged marriages. Maybe this is what keeps me coming back to these retellings – I want to find one which allows me to enjoy the story without feeling like a bad feminist. 

Romance is at the centre of most takes I’ve read on Beauty and the Beast. Yet I can’t help but feel that the Disney animation also had its core a story of a young woman asserting her independence. It obviously didn’t lean into that, and we can only speculate about how much adventure and freedom Belle would have had following marriage to the Prince, but the kernel of something beyond the love story is there. I don’t think this aspect is often explored in books which take on the fairy tale, so ACSODAL was a nice exception to this. Harper is a strong and interesting character. I loved that her cerebral palsy was an incidental trait, instead of the main hook the plot revolved around. The exploration of how her disability would be regarded in this fantasy environment was handled well too. And while this was a romance, there was no instal-love, and the connection which eventually developed between Harper and Prince Rhen felt earned. 

“If I put a crystal goblet in this one’s hand, she’d likely smash it and use the shards to cut me.”

― Brigid Kemmerer, A Curse So Dark and Lonely

ACSODAL really was surprisingly good. The plot bounded along apace; the enchanted castle was depicted vividly; the characters had suitably dark backstories. I would have enjoyed even more about all the previous years Rhen had been living under the curse, and more on the deaths of his family. (What can I say, too much Stephen King at a formative age?) 

Some aspects didn’t work quite as well for me. Harper’s pathetic family situation was perhaps a little overdone, and the resolution of this didn’t have the emotional weight it should have. I also found the way that monarchy was presented in the book quite amusing. There’s no real examination of the role of royalty, and the narrative assumption seems to be that it’s right that Prince Rhen continues to rule, despite the fact he admits he has no clue how to do so, has a cabinet and an army comprising one person, and is actually a beast half the time. Ok then – all fairly consistent with the royal family today in the UK I suppose. 

I realise that this is a fantasy setting and so this might seem like nitpicking, but I just think it’s interesting that in YA books it would – rightly – be unacceptable now to present gender in such a simplified, unreconstructed way, but that the issue of political rule and class privilege isn’t treated as requiring analysis. 

Overall I loved this book though. There’s a sequel coming later this year, and I’m really excited to find out what happens next, when Kemmerer’s story branches out from the original tale. I’m hoping it will be just as dark and twisty as this one was. 

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