Sunday, August 21, 2011

Book Review: Roses & Thorns - Beauty and the Beast Retold by Chris Anne Wolfe

Roses & Thorns
: Beauty and the Beast Retold
by Chris Anne Wolfe
The romantic fantasy Roses & Thorns : Beauty and the Beast Retold  is a lesbian retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Chris Anne Wolfe that is well worth reading. It was original published under the title Bitter Thorns.

It is difficult to retell old stories and make them feel original, and in many ways, the plot of Roses & Thorns is predictable. All the elements are there - magical servants, a merchant father lost in the woods, roses, a mysterious and hot tempered 'prince', and the Beauty, a brave and bold and curious girl who loves to read and gradually learns falls in love with her mysterious captor, and then - just as they swear their love to each other, she has to return to a sick parent.

But there are more than enough differences to render it unpredictable, and the delightful chemistry between the two main characters works well. Better, the brooding My Liege (not many gender neutral titles - even Your Grace, becomes His or Her Grace in the third person!) is eventually revealed as a sympathetic, intelligent, understandably desperate and fragile character, rather than the spoilt (though she was once treasured and sheltered, it is unclear if she was actually spoilt and it doesn't matter), angry, overgrown child that the Beauty must 'tame' and civilise.

It strongly reminded me of the young adult version of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley, with the strong themes of magic workers, a slightly separate magical realm and its fey creatures, as well as with some of the interactions between the two leads, and the general feel of the story. This is a compliment, by the way - Robin McKinley is a very good writer!

Our Beauty's name is Angelique (because she is angelic, I presume), and this was really the only change that grated. Her name, and references to the Continent and the wee folk's migration from Ireland and England, imply that the story is set in France or Germany - western Europe, anyway. Which is consistent with the French setting of the original. Angelique's home life is made a little too dreadful, her saintly mother crippled by illness, her brothers malicious and her father greedy and selfish. But at least her decision is made easier and it makes sense for her to rush home later to see her mother.

Drew acts as a guardian for a local village of fey folk, which is by turns superfluous, entertaining, and useful to the plot. It also gives her a chance to be somewhat more heroic and active than the traditional sulky and brooding beast - she actively patrols her small kingdom and associates freely with the villagers. She even used to cross the boundaries to the fairy realms and make merry (drink, dance, song and sex) with the fairy maids.

Conflict mostly revolves around the changing relationship between the two women, and Drew's conviction that she's a monster. Angelique commits herself fairly swiftly, and puts her putative fiancée on the defensive. By the time Drew's sex is revealed, Angelique barely cares. This may seem unrealistic - on the other hand, it sounds like Angelique never planned nor wished to marry a man, and Drew is a hundred times better than Angelique feared.

Roses & Thorns : Beauty and the Beast Retold (Classic Tales Retold)The ending is nice and dramatic, with Drew getting to ride to the rescue... and an ancient enemy crawling out of the woodwork, slightly unbelievably!

Overall, a very nice romance without all the usual disturbing undertones and unfortunate implications, but still plenty of depth and conflict. The characters are well match, the story retains the essence of the original version while being unique in its own right, and the plot is generally interesting. Chris Anne Wolfe was a splendid author, and this lesbian fairytale is well worth picking up.

Sadly, Chris Anne Wolfe died of cancer in 1997 - she's most famous for her Amazons of Aggar books, which are also lesbian fantasy.

You can order or download Roses & Thorns : Beauty and the Beast Retold (Classic Tales Retold) from Amazon. The Kindle edition is only $4.99!

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