fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBeauty by Robin McKinley

fantasy book reviews Robin McKinley BeautyI hate writing negative reviews, especially for books that are obviously both loved and respected. Beauty appeals to a lot of people, and you may well want to disregard my opinion and go with the majority. But for what it’s worth, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend Beauty for those of you out there who enjoy reading novels in the fairytale genre.

To McKinley’s credit, Beauty was written before the sudden demand in retold/fractured/fleshed-out fairytales. In fact, she may have very well started the trend with this novelisation of the traditional Beauty and the Beast story. But these days, authors tend to put a spin on the source material. For example, Donna Jo Napoli often gets the villain’s side of the story, as she does in Spinners, Zel, and The Magic Circle. Helen Lowe told the tale of Sleeping Beauty from the Prince’s point of view in Thornspell. Gail Carson Levine‘s adaptation of Cinderella gives us a reason why the original heroine was such a pushover (fairy spell of obedience gone bad) in her comedic Ella Enchanted.

McKinley’s Beauty simply tells the tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, based on the French version by Charles Perrault. A wealthy merchant with three daughters looses his fortune and is forced to relocate his family to the countryside. On his way back from a business trip, he loses his way in the woods, finds an enchanted castle, and is treated like a king for a night. The following morning he leaves, but picks a rose for his youngest daughter Beauty, leading the master of the house — a disfigured beast — to demand repayment in the form of the merchant’s youngest daughter. Her father returns home with the news, she agrees and sets off…you know the rest. There are no surprises, no variations in the tale, no need for a spoiler warning. This is Beauty and the Beast as you’ve always known it, complete with Beast’s nightly proposals, Beauty’s longing to return home, and the final mercy dash through the forest and transformation sequence.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBut it does not necessarily follow that predictability means the story isn’t worth it — for if the journey is compelling and original then it doesn’t matter if there’s a foregone conclusion. And in this case, McKinley adds meat to the story by fleshing out the characters with likeable personalities, adding detail to the whys and wherefores of the familiar storyline and including a few inconsequential subplots concerning Beauty’s family. But it is in this attempt that the story feels a little flat.

Beauty is a nice enough heroine: she’s courageous, humble and intelligent. But it turns out that “Beauty” is just her nickname (her real name is “Honor”), and she considers herself quite a plain girl. And yes, I know it’s horribly unfair considering Beauty was published many years before Twilight hit the shelves, but when Beauty comes out with the following: “You should marry a queen or something, a duchess at least, not a drab dull little nothing like myself,” I had hideous flashbacks of Bella Swan.

I’m all for a heroine who isn’t a glamorous supermodel, but when it comes to this particular fairytale, my preference runs toward versions in which Beauty IS reflective of her name. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of this fairytale? That someone stunningly beautiful is capable of falling in love with someone who is hideously ugly? Anything else just doesn’t have the same sense of grandeur and Romance-with-a-capital-R. However, that’s just personal preference, and shouldn’t be taken into account in an objective review (if there is such a thing). I’m sure there are many who prefer an ironically-named Beauty.

Beauty’s family is given plenty of screen-time as well: her father, her two sisters, her brother-in-law and even her horse Greatheart, and there is more detail surrounding their fall from wealth and their integration into country living. Yet despite the fact that they appear as a loving and supportive family (no spiteful, spoilt sisters here!) they remain rather flat. Beauty’s sisters are called Grace and Hope, both are given little sub-love stories (one gets married and has twins, the other pines for her love lost at sea), but don’t ask me to name which one did what. I couldn’t tell them apart.

More padding is achieved in the six months or so that Beauty spends at the Beast’s house. We get lavish descriptions of the elegance and magic of the castle, including a library full of books that haven’t been written yet (Beauty peruses a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) as well as her interactions with the Beast. And this is where the story disappoints.

The centerpiece of any “Beauty and the Beast” story is of course the romance that blossoms between the two leads. But here…I just didn’t feel it. There is very little to their courtship: they hang out, they exchange small talk, they wander through the gardens and they read books together. But where’s the connection? Why do they fall in love with each other? The answer seems to be: because there was no one else available. McKinley spends more time strengthening the bond between Beauty and her plough-horse than she does with her love interest.

Likewise, the sense of “taming the beast” is missing, since the Beast is already noble and gentlemanly. There was a wonderful opportunity here to present the dark side of the romance: Beauty’s yearning for freedom, Beast’s desperation and despair, their mutual distrust and longing for companionship…all this psychology is only ever touched on briefly in an intriguing scene in which Beauty awakes to find herself sleeping in the Beast’s arms. She panics and flees, but after the event occurs the moment is never mentioned again.

Finally, it seems to me that when you flesh out the bare bones of a traditional story, you should take certain aspects that stretched credibility and give them weight and meaning. Case in point: Beauty’s father’s decision to let Beauty take his place in the Beast’s household. No self-respecting father would ever allow this, but we accept it in the fairytale because it’s a plot device to demonstrate Beauty’s selflessness and get her where she needs to go. But in a novelisation it deserves some more thought. Here however, Beauty states that she’s going, her father puts up a mild protest, and then drops her off at the castle with minimal fuss. There’s no attempt on his behalf to prevent his youngest child from going to what may be her death, and as such it’s entirely unconvincing if we’re meant to believe that he’s a loving father.

I realize that his review is extremely subjective, and that my own preferences have clouded what many find to be a very good book. However, I also think that a good book (and a good author, as Robin McKinley is) can hold its own against criticism and that this review certainly won’t harm its reputation. But on a final note, it’s worth saying that in recent years McKinley once more dealt with the subject matter of Beauty and the Beast in her novel Rose Daughter which suggests that even the author herself was somewhat unsatisfied with her first effort in Beauty.

~Rebecca Fisherfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBeauty is the ultimate comfort book, romantic and beautifully written. Goes great with hot cocoa.

~Kelly Lasiter

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBeauty has been for a long time one of my favorite fairy tale novelizations. It’s a delightful read, not as long or complex as some of Robin McKinley’s later works, but it has sweetness and a heart and has withstood many re-readings. I remain convinced that Disney swiped several details of this book for its “Beauty and the Beast,” like the book-loving heroine and the servants that seem to have become part of the furniture. It’s been 10 or 15 years since I read this and I probably should do a re-read one of these days to see if it’s really a 5-star book or if it’s just an excess of nostalgia for an old favorite that’s driving my high rating. Till then, just don’t go into this expecting something really deep or earth-shaking; it’s more of a lovely, sweet, gentle comfort read.

~Tadiana Jones


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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