Beauty in the Beast – Christine Danse (Netgalley novella)

Expectations. A little while ago I said Royal Street was a lovely coconut-filled piece in the Netgalley chocolate box? (If I had the energy and proclivity I’d start assigning a candy type to each book; on the plus side I’d need to do lots and lots of research. On the negative, I’d probably start annoying myself, and I’d probably end up insulting someone who just loves those weird taffy bits (or who believes that some nobleman is the actual maker of Russell Stovers, since Mr. Stover couldn’t have made candy without being covered in chocolate himself). But, shockingly, I digress. Royal Street. Coconut.) The point, of course, was that given the way I use Netgalley (for this was a Netgalley listing provided in exchange for an honest review, many thanks), the only time I read the books’ synopses is when I request them, and on the Kindle there isn’t one; when I go back in weeks later to pick a book to read I have only the title, author, publisher, maybe a thumbnail cover, and my memory to guide my expectations: they all kind of look alike. Well. Beauty in the Beast is a cool, fresh, lovely nugget of mint filling covered in dark chocolate.

Which was a typically rambly way of saying it’s wonderful. It is very, very badly served by the YA/Romance-Novel/PNR cover; it’s attractive in its way, but in no way fits the book. The girl is wrong, the guy is wrong, and the flower is wrong; the composition isn’t very good. It led me to jaded expectations of all sorts of things that just aren’t the case. What it is, in fact, is a simple story of a theatrical troupe – a puppeteer, a thespian, a storyteller, and a musician – who are caught in a blizzard and seek shelter in the first place they can find. The inhabitant of this cabin is a strange man, gruff and standoffish, but he opens his home to them, offering food and shelter if not exactly a bon-vivant atmosphere, and from the first sparks fly between him and the storyteller.

In return for the not-quite-grudging hospitality, and partly to break the heavy silence, the troupe decides to thank him with a display of their abilities. Tara – the first-person narrator of the book – tells a story, Beth tells a story enacted by her puppets, and Miles tells a story in dramatic fashion, all accompanied by Frederick on his lute. And their host, Rolph, is inspired to tell them – or perhaps to tell Tara – a story in return, a dark story about transformation and a good man struggling against evil.

Each of these tales is brilliant. I was riding the current of the book to that point very happily, and was reluctant to see it interrupted by the stories, thinking it would disrupt the narrative. I underestimated Ms. Danse. The entertainments flow from and into the book effortlessly, move the story forward, and – apart from being new and unique and wonderful in and of themselves – shed a little light on each performer, and on Tara telling of the telling, and on the listeners.

This is not urban fantasy. Fantasy, yes: lycanthropy and functional alchemy and faery settle in firmly in that genre, and comfortably. It’s steampunk, by virtue of the technology lying here and there in an otherwise Victorian world (embodied in the little troupe’s wonderfully steampunk conveyance), but the blizzard and the limited glimpses seen of the setting outside the snow-isolated cabin make it simply other. It could be anywhere, anywhen. The steampunk elements are neither indispensable to the plot nor awkwardly grafted on; they are happily explored in so far as they touch on events, and otherwise as unregarded as other commonplaces in the characters’ universe.

This is not Paranormal Romance (PNR), in the much-degraded sense of the phrase. Paranormal? I suppose; Rolph is cursed, and Tara is not what she seems, and magic flows through the story. Romance? In an almost old-fashioned sense, definitely: there is no RomanceNovelese in this, but instead the romance of eyes meeting and looking away quickly; of hands touching and not pulling away quickly; of flirtation and saying the exact wrong thing and, sometimes, the exact right thing; of cautious and then heady exploration into what someone else is thinking and feeling and wanting. Romance? Not the Harlequin type. (Ironically – since it’s by Carina, which means the publisher has also defied my expectations and I’m going to have to go back to looking through their books again.) Romantic. And, of course, in a much older sense of the word, this is very much a romance.

I’ve been thinking about the stupidity of Goodreads’ five-star rating system, how in just such a case as this four stars is not quite enough and five stars ranks a book with Guy Kay and Tolkien, Jane Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare. It’s in just such a case as this that I want to be able to give four and a half stars: it’s not Great with a capital G, not necessarily something that should be parsed over in college classrooms and studied for decades or centuries to come – but better than simply good or very good or “really liked it”, better than nearly everything else: great, small g. So imagine four and a half stars – and I have no choice but to round it up.

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