Cruel Beauty is a book that I think had a lot of potential and, for a while, was well-executed, but in the end fell flat. It was the book club pick for October for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads, and I was pretty excited for it--I had voted for it--because it had been on my to-read list for a while. It's a Beauty and the Beast-based story in which Nyx, the heroine, has been raised to marry a demon prince as payment for a bargain her father made prior to her birth. The setting is somewhat strange. It appears to be the island of Great Britain, but magically cut-off, and on a timeline in which Britain continued to be ruled a sort of Greco-Roman dynasty after the fall of the Roman Empire. But there's also magic and what seem to be pseudo-Victorian or -Regency trappings. It's a strange mishmash, and Hodge continues this mash into other areas of the story, which are ultimately what I think led to its downfall.
The story starts with Nyx on the day of her wedding. She's married by proxy (a statue) to the Gentle Lord, and then promptly deposited on his doorstep with the expectation that she will never return. But her sacrifice isn't to be for naught. Once inside the demon's castle, she's supposed to find its four magical centers and destroy the castle, with the demon inside, and free the people of her country from his rule. But she quickly finds that everything isn't as it seems. The Gentle Lord, Ignifex (not his real name), lets her know that every night, she'll have the chance to guess his name. If she gets it right, she goes free. If she gets it wrong, she dies. (She also has the option to just not guess.) And she has a key that unlocks all the doors she's allowed to go through, and told that if she goes through other doors, it's likely she'll die. Demons lurk in the shadows, ones that don't have the seemingly good intentions of Ignifex, and there seems to be little hope of Nyx ever successfully navigating the constantly-shifting castle and destroying it. But she does have the help of Shade, Ignifex's shadow who takes on physical, human form at night, and--just maybe--of Ignifex himself, who doesn't actually seem to want to kill her. Or ravish her. But of course, as time goes on, feelings grow between them...
Beauty and the Beast is the main basis of the story here, but Hodge also mixes in Greek mythology, mainly the story of Pandora and a weird creation called The Kindly Ones, who seem to be based on the Furies (The Kindly Ones is another word for furies, who have pursuit of oath-breakers as part of their job, and breaking oaths is a big deal in this world) but also have some strange component of making bargains with strings attached, a la Rumplestiltskin.
Nyx was an awesome character, though. The thing that ultimately her so strong and so different was that she wasn't a nice person, and she wasn't afraid of showing it. She had a noble goal in mind, but her motive for attaining it had more than a little resentment and guilt attached to it, rather than being selfless. As Ignifex says, she has "a little malice in her heart," and she never really gets rid of that. Even at the end, she maintains it, and that's what made her so strong and so different. Heroines in these sorts of books are always so good and pure, and seeing someone who had a splotch of black on her heart was a very different feelings. And the same with Ignifex and Shade, both--none of the characters here, not even Nyx's oh-so-sweet twin, are actually good, but they're also not utterly despicable to the point that you don't want to root for them. It was an interesting balance, and I think that was an aspect that Hodge handled very well.
Ultimately, this is a first book, and I think the construction of it shows in the end. I'm still interested in reading more of Hodge's work, because I think authors certainly learn a lot from the first book they produce, and come back much stronger in future volumes. Hodge had strong beginnings here, and with a bit of refinement, I think she could become a real powerhouse in the "fairy tale retelling" genre.
3 stars out of 5.