Everyone should be familiar with the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast: a father takes refuge in an abandoned castle and picks a rose without permission, so his beautiful daughter must come live with the Beast, who she restores to humanity when she agrees to marry him. You’ve probably seen quite a few versions, all with the same basic story. Fortunately Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) has created a version that’s a lot darker, quite a bit stranger, and just far enough off from the original that it becomes an entirely new story.
Bryony would never describe herself as a beauty, but just like in the original fairytale the cost of taking a rose leads to her being trapped in a mysterious mansion with someone who’s been cursed to be a Beast. This version of the tale still has the daily marriage proposals, and the invisible servants who cater to Bryony’s every whim. But there’s something else odd going on in the mansion, with strange footsteps in Bryony’s room at night, and bizarre dreams, and there’s something the Beast isn’t allowed to say, because the entire house seems to be alive. And it’s listening.
…I am dreaming of terribly attractive men and daydreaming about fussy poets and living in an enchanted manor house with an equally enchanted beast. For the first time in my adult life, weeds are the least of my worries.
There’s no father in the picture; Bryony’s more than capable of getting into a fix all by herself. (Almost dying in an early snowstorm after collecting seeds from a particularly hardy batch of rutabagas, how embarrassing. And she doesn’t even like rutabagas.) She probably should have known better than to take shelter in an obviously enchanted manor house, and she really shouldn’t have tried to take home the single rose she found on the dining room table. She’s not happy about becoming a captive of the House, but at least the Beast gives her a chance to say goodbye to her sisters, and to bring back whatever prized possessions that would make captivity easier. “Prized possessions” in this case being plants, as many cuttings and seedlings as she can dig from her garden and load up on a pony.
If you haven’t guessed, Bryony is a gardener with a capital “G”. She’s someone who will dance for joy at getting a really good batch of chicken manure just in time for helping seedlings along, and who thinks planting mint in the ground, where it will spread, should be a crime. Bryony loves her sisters dearly, but that doesn’t even come close to how she feels about her garden.
The Beast of this story is just as beastly as he is in the original, but also very apologetic when Bryony becomes trapped along with him inside the manor. What makes him even more interesting it that he can be sarcastic as well, something which makes for some very entertaining dialogue, and which endears him to the feisty Bryony a lot more than if he’d been domineering (not putting up with that, thank you) or eternally polite (boring). And he tinkers with clockwork inventions to pass the time, leading to a surprisingly touching scene involving a tiny wind-up bee that’s the perfect gift for a gardener like Bryony.
If our every wish is granted, we begin to invent work for ourselves, so that we have a thing that we have earned that is ours…
She felt a sudden rush of kinship for the Beast…
Just like Vernon’s story The Seventh Bride and her collection Toad Words, my favorite part of the writing is the wonderful mix of magical and mundane. Both the Beast and Bryony have irritated reactions to the House trying to get its own way on certain things (that bedroom, dear me.) And there are several occasions where Bryony is confronted with something horrible and supernatural, and instead of fainting she’ll end up getting soap in her eyes and swearing, or having imaginary conversations in her head with people who aren’t being at all helpful, or falling back on the personality quirk that’s plagued her for her entire life: inappropriate laughter. And the very normal fear of having something under your bed, something that ducks out of the way or presses itself flat to the underside of the mattress when you try to look for it, something that’s waiting for just the right moment to reach out and grab your ankle, that plays a big part in the story as well.
There’s also very fun scenes of reading aloud really dreadful poetry late at night, and younger sisters who are completely unfazed by enchanted Beasts (once they’ve decided that they have an acceptable level of sarcasm), and of course the all-important gardening. Vernon mentions in the author’s note that she spent a lot of her early twenties as an apartment dweller who desperately wanted her own garden, and this comes through loud and clear in the story. There’s a scene towards the end that involves the loyalty between gardener and garden that would have made me cheer if I hadn’t been getting a little teary-eyed.
The heart of the story is actually in two parts; the very unlikely and yet totally believable growing romance between Bryony and the Beast, and the mystery of whatever it is that’s keeping the Beast prisoner. The story is not quite a reboot of the original, and almost a sequel, with the new tale absorbing the original the way a patch of oregano can take over your herb garden if you don’t watch it carefully. The Beast’s origin is a bit more complicated than just a simple curse, and it all dances around the idea of unrequited love, and terrible decisions made in haste, and how a broken heart can be an explanation, but not an excuse.
And the ending? I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s slightly different from the original fairytale. And I think it’s perfect.