I read the books Meagan Spooner wrote with Amie Kaufman, the These Broken Stars books, which I loved, and when I saw that she had a Beauty and the Beast retelling coming out, I was super excited. I couldn't wait to see what Spooner would do on her own, and her Beauty sounded awesome: she's a huntress! How cool. So I snatched this up the day it came out. Luckily I had the day off work, because I absolutely devoured this book.
The story follows Yeva, the youngest daughter of a wealthy merchant in medieval Russia. When Yeva's father loses everything in a caravan that's attacked by the Mongols, he moves the family to his old hunting cabin. Once a great hunter, he takes to the woods once again...but something is hunting him in return, and it begins to drive him crazy. When he vanishes, Yeva, who used to hunt with her father, sets out in pursuit of him.
The family dynamics here are so wonderful. Yeva has such a loving, supportive family. They all care for each other and lift each other up, even when one person's interests might go directly against another's. Positive relationships are so rare in fairy tales and young adult books, so seeing one here was a real treat. But what was an even bigger treat is the main story itself.
It does take a while to get going; this isn't a fast book. But the writing was beautiful, slowly drawing us into the Russian fantasy world that Yeva inhabits. Yeva is called Beauty, just as her sisters were named for Grace and Light (though they all have given names as well) but she doesn't get everything she wants just because she's beautiful. She wants more than her life in their town, desperately, and is actually relieved when they move to her father's hunting cabin, because she thinks she'll be happy if she can just return to hunting in the forest with him like she did when she was younger. What she really wants is to find the mythic Firebird that her father told her stories of, but she'll settle for hunting. But as she begins to hunt, working hard to regain skills she's lost, she stumbles into the problem of her father's vanishing--and then his evident death. Catching and killing the Beast responsible for his death becomes the next thing Yeva wants, and the driving force in the story. Even when she's the Beast's captive, her motivation is to stay long enough to find his weak spot and kill him, no matter what kindnesses are shown to her.
Minor spoilers here regarding the nature of the curse and the flaw at the center of the story. There is one big central flaw in this story that I could find, and it has to do with the nature of the Beast's curse. The Beast has been cursed by the Firebird and the curse can only be broken if the Firebird returns to him on its own. There's a little twist here, of course, which I won't reveal, but if it's believed that the way to break the curse is to get the Firebird to come back voluntarily...then why would the Beast be trying to kill it? *scratches head* I don't think killing it really counts as it coming back voluntarily.
So, yes, there's a central flaw in the logic of the story. Spooner kind of accommodates for this at the end of the book, where of course breaking the curse isn't what they thought it would be, but it definitely did mar the reading experience for me. However, I still loved this book. The slow build (though not a slow burn) and the way that Spooner parallels Yeva's and the Beast's stories was wonderful. There's a very, very slight love triangle but it's not used in a typical sense, and there is no Disney Gaston here to serve as a central villain. Really, there is no villain in this book, which I think actually is one of its strengths, because it means the characters are pitted against nature and against their own inner selves, which is a strong conflict to go with. The overlaying of the fantasy world with the normal world also really worked here, as did Yeva's growing awareness of it.
So, this is not a perfect book. But I loved it nonetheless, and I can definitely see myself reading it again in the future. If you like fairy tale retellings, I would definitely recommend this one.
4 stars out of 5.