Author: Brigid Kemmerer
Publication date: January 29, 2019
Genre: young adult fantasy, fairytale retelling
My rating: 4/5 stars
With all the hype this book has gotten, I wasn’t sure I would love it–especially since apparently some Beauty and the Beast retellings these days (*cough* ACOTAR *cough*) have taken one of my favorite fairytales and turned it into a glorification of unhealthy relationships. Fortunately, A Curse So Dark and Lonely wasn’t that at all. Vividly imagined, if a bit predictable even in its “twists,” this book was nonetheless quite enjoyable, particularly because of its complex and compelling cast of characters.
So let’s start with those characters, because their identities set the plot up nicely and also cover a lot of my favorite things about this book:
Harper: one of our two point-of-view characters, a feisty, no-nonsense girl from D.C. whose life is anything but easy. She has cerebral palsy, her brother is facing threats from a bad crowd after their father made a poor decision with some loan sharks, and her mother has cancer. When she steps up to save what looks like a woman being abducted, she finds herself spirited away to another world, the kingdom of Emberfall. Quick-thinking, determined, and undaunted by conventionally terrifying concepts, Harper is kind but also strong in her principles, and she reacts with a realistic mix of bewilderment, fear, and anger that transforms into dedication and fondness for the kingdom and its people. Love this girl. Fantastic heroine.
Rhen: our other point-of-view character, the Crown Prince of Emberfall. He’s been cursed by the enchantress Lillith to relive the same autumn over and over, each season concluding with a transformation into a vicious monster that slaughters people thoughtlessly, unless he can love someone and have them love him back. Over three hundred seasons have passed, to no avail, despite his spectacular strategic and calculating skills. His frosty exterior largely masks his grief, loneliness, and internal turmoil over the fact that his kingdom has fallen into disrepair that he is powerless to stop, especially since all of his guards and family and castle staff have been killed, with one exception. I love characters with dark and complicated histories, and Rhen is no exception; his internal monologue is convincingly and realistically articulated, and you really feel both his failures and his triumphs.
Grey: the Commander of the Guard of Emberfall…though he is the only soldier left. He is Rhen’s only friend and is fiercely loyal to him. When he brings Harper to Emberfall, his initial mistrust gives way to a great friendship with her. Seriously, his friendship with Harper makes me so happy. It isn’t just royal loyalty–the two genuinely like and care about each other, but I never got any vibes that there was going to be some sort of love triangle (THANK GOD). He is a pro with any weapon, of course–Harper nicknames him “Scary Grey”–but he also is great with kids and animals. Wholesome beneath his stoic mask of “obedient guard,” his good nature and willingness to kill on command may seem odds with each other, but they actually fuse together to form a well-rounded character, even though he isn’t a narrator of the story.
Some others: while I won’t go into too much detail, because I would hate to spoil even a little bit of the tale for you, this story does a great job with its women in general. There is a very strong female friendship. There are women in the royal army fighting alongside the men. There is a wonderful maternal figure. The ties of family loyalty are strong, both between Harper and her family in D.C., and (previously) between Rhen and his sisters.
Oh, one more character note: I appreciate the diversity in this book. Harper’s cerebral palsy is treated like an intrinsic part of her character, not a flaw to be overcome, but simply something that is. It’s a disability that isn’t represented in literature very often, and it seems like people often underestimate just how much people with cerebral palsy can do. Kemmerer did her research–in the notes at the end of the book, she mentions how, in addition to actual online research, she would often talk to a friend of hers with cerebral palsy, checking with her about what she could or could not theoretically do (such as jumping from a moving horse to tackle someone; the answer is yes). In addition to that obvious disability rep, we do have some other flashes of diversity. Harper’s brother has a boyfriend, and one of Harper’s guards (and closest friends) is a woman of color. None of it feels obnoxiously shoehorned in there, so it feels authentic rather than gimmicky. I’m so here for it.
“They believe her limp is the result of a war injury, but Harper is quick to correct them. “I was born this way,” she’ll snap, “and I’m going to die this way, so teach me to work around it.
They love her for it.“
Some other things I liked:
- Though this is still somewhat character-related, I do want to emphasize that I felt like the relationship between Rhen and Harper was really genuine and healthy. There was no insta-love. They developed trust over time, and while there was some attraction early on, it took a while to build into anything more serious. They were friends and partners in addition to possible romantic interests, treating each other as equals and confidants.
- The worldbuilding was pretty good. While it’s not Brandon Sanderson-level (let’s be real, is anyone as good as Sanderson?), Emberfall does have a thorough history, and the reactions of the people to the royal family’s apparent abandonment of their people–anger, sorrow, betrayal, but also hope for their return–were varied and convincing.
- Just the mere fact that this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. What can I say? I love the story, and this is a very clear interpretation of it without being too similar to the original.
- Without too much detail…there’s a dragon?? Dragons automatically make a book about a thousand times better, in my opinion.
So why not five stars? It comes down to two key reasons: some slightly-cliched tropes, and a plot that was sometimes a bit too “easy” and/or predictable. As far as tropes go, a lot of this story was a very fresh take on the original fairytale, but it still fell into the trap of having very two-dimensional villains. Both the cruel enchantress Lillith and Rhen’s rival, the queen of Syhl Shallow, were pretty straight-up evil bitches. They taunt and insult people incessantly and cause pain just because they can, with no real endgame that I could discern. Not a fan of people who are just evil for evil’s sake; villains are people, too, and they deserve a degree of complexity. And the explanation in the final chapters, as far what will actually break the curse, felt like something out of a Disney movie.
Then we have Harper, who is definitely headstrong and hardworking, but she’s also just a little too good at things sometimes. She spins elaborate lies and people believe them far too willingly, even when those lies are not convincingly delivered. Or, the first time she uses a bow, she is an unusually good shot. Because of course our heroine is a master of the bow and arrow. I don’t know why, but that particular weapon tends to annoy me. Maybe it’s the Katniss vibes. Anyway, the point is that Harper excels a bit too easily at a lot of things, and often without putting in as much effort as one would expect. And finally, there were some moments that seemed like they were meant to be plot twists that didn’t surprise me at all, especially near the end of the book. Maybe I’m just getting better at predicting them, but again: things felt too easy.
In short: this book is great, if not flawless. Strongly recommended for people who love retellings, romantic storylines (but without anything smutty), strong-willed female leads, and character-driven stories. Meanwhile, I’ll just be here casually languishing in wait for the sequel, I suppose…