Seventeen year old Bryony and her sisters, Holly and Iris (I’m sensing a horticultural theme here) were the daughters of a wealthy merchant who lost his fortune through risky investments three years earlier. They moved to the remote village of Lostfarthing, where the now-orphaned sisters are barely scraping by. Bryony, a dedicated and enthusiastic gardener, hears about some particularly hardy rutabaga seeds available in a nearby village, and sets off to get some. Unfortunately, on the way back she’s caught in a spring blizzard. She and her pony are nearly frozen when they come across an impossible road that leads to an equally improbable manor house in the forest. In the manor house is magically provided food, a lovely rose in a vase … and, of course, a Beast.
For about the first half of Bryony and Roses (2015), this novel tracks the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast fairly closely. The menacing Beast insists that Bryony stay with him (he does allow her a quick trip home to say goodbye to her sisters and bring whatever she wants back to the mansion; Bryony chooses to load her pony down with seedlings and plants); he and the magical house treat Bryony well, even if the house does present her with fancier dresses than she really wants to wear; and the Beast asks her to marry him each evening.
It’s a charming retelling, enlivened by Bryony’s sarcastic narrative voice and her banter with the Beast. There are some nice additions to the story, like knowledgeable tidbits about gardening, and how extremely annoying rose plants can be. As the story progresses, there are more intriguing twists on the familiar tale: some dark powers exhibited by the magical house, a strange man who visits Bryony’s dreams, roses that chokingly twist around a birch tree in the courtyard and send out tendrils to invade Bryony’s garden, alarming footsteps in Bryony’s bedroom at night.
At different times Bryony and Roses reminded me quite strongly of both of Robin McKinley‘s Beauty and the Beast retellings, Rose Daughter (which T. Kingfisher credits as having inspired this novel, though I saw that connection mostly in the ending) and Beauty. I frequently saw echoes of McKinley’s style of writing:
“They’ve been there a long time,” she said.
“Yes,” said the Beast, “a long time.” The air made a little space around his words, in a way that was not entirely pleasant, and Bryony did not say anything more until they had left the courtyard.
In fairness, though, I doubt McKinley would have compared sleeping in an excessively pink bedroom to finding oneself in a uterus (“except with more flowers”) or directly considered the, ahem, practical difficulties of being married to a Beast.
Iris would have turned purple. Holly would have laughed and embarked on a very dirty-minded discussion of what those practical difficulties were likely to entail.
Kingfisher does eventually more develop a distinct take on the Beauty and the Beast legend. It involves a fair amount of info-dumping in the final chapters, but I was relieved to actually get an explanation that made sense … unlike Rose Daughter. There’s also an unexpected element of horror that surfaces toward the end, brief but quite dark.
While Bryony and Roses is a fairly traditional retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and I’d recommend it mostly to readers who are enthusiastic about fairy tale retellings, its slyly witty tone, appealing characters, and occasional twists and turns were enough to keep me invested in this engaging version of the story.