Friday, August 5, 2016

REVIEW: The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince (book) by Serena Valentino

The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince is a prequel to Disney's Beauty and the Beast. My embarrassingly old ARC says it's intended for ages 10 and up, but I decided to tag is as a YA novel.

I opted not to include any read-alikes. Also, be warned, my review includes some spoilers.


The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince takes place primarily before Belle met the Beast or even before the Prince became the Beast. Readers learn that the Prince (who is never given a name) was, in fact, once friends with Gaston. Also, the enchantress that the Prince rejected prior to becoming the Beast was actually his beautiful secretly-a-witch girlfriend, Circe, who had three wicked witch sisters. Circe's curse didn't immediately take effect, but rather gave the Prince time to meet and court another young lady, Princess Tulip Morningstar. Although lots of familiar characters make appearances, the story fans of the movie are familiar with doesn't really start until the last quarter of the book, and even then there are some changes.

This was from my pile of old unread ARCs. Based on the cover and the vague description on the back, I expected it to be a retelling of Disney's Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of the Beast. It had the potential to be boring, since I already knew the story, but Beauty and the Beast has always been my top favorite older Disney movie, so I was still looking forward to it.

It started in a familiar enough place, with the Beast avoiding going into his own castle shortly after Belle's arrival. Then three witchy sisters appeared and sneered at the Beast, and I began wondering what was up. It's been many years since I last saw the movie (I need to fix that – I know I have it somewhere in my DVD collection), but I hadn't thought my memory was that bad. From what I could recall, he was cursed by a single person who was gone before the story even started. Where did the three sisters come from?

I became even more bewildered during the flashback to the Beast's past, when it was revealed that he (as the Prince) was good friends with Gaston. Gaston. The Disney villain girls are most likely to (unfortunately) meet in real life, and who I was sure had never shown any sign of knowing either the Prince or the Beast in the movie.

What was I reading? A reboot of Disney's Beauty and the Beast? A retelling with huge continuity errors? In the end, it turned out to be neither, but this wasn't revealed until the last quarter of the book. I suppose that means this information counts as a spoiler, but I'm going to include it anyway: the reason why the Prince and Gaston didn't remember being friends, Belle didn't remember going to a ball at the Prince's castle, the details about Circe got muddled, and no one remembered that the Prince had ever existed (and had been at least as awful, if not more so, than Gaston) was because Circe's curse either wiped everyone's memories or blurred them.

Part of me feels like I should be glad the story held so many more surprises than I expected, but mostly I'm just annoyed. Annoyed that the explanation for what this story really was came so late in the book, that the author resorted to “magical amnesia” rather than write something that fit the movie continuity better, and that so much time was spent on the Prince's early days. Writing about the Beast before he became the Beast was a terrible idea. The entire point of the Beast was that he was an awful person who got cursed because of that. I could have done without the full details of his awfulness.

But boy did I get those details. The Prince was basically Gaston with a good bloodline. He wanted to marry someone with a similarly good bloodline. His future bride also had to look perfect at all times, fawn over him no matter how he behaved, and just generally be sweet and passive. Here's a good example of what the Prince thought about Tulip, the fiancee he chose after breaking things off with Circe: “He liked that she showed no interest in books, and that she didn't prattle on about her pastimes. In fact, he had no idea how she spent her time when she wasn't in his company. It was as if she didn't exist when she wasn't with him. He imagined her sitting in a little chair in her father's castle, waiting for him to send for her.” (page 107 of my ARC - I don't have the published book to check it against at the moment)

I imagine the author wrote lines like this to encourage readers to see the difference in how the Prince thought of Tulip versus how he came to think of Belle in the movie, but all I felt was grossed out by the Prince and sad for Tulip. Tulip, by the way, wasn't that bad. She was frustrated and sometimes a little embarrassed by her lack of a decent education (beyond good ladylike things, like how to walk prettily), but she wanted to marry a nice guy and be a good wife. She seemed genuinely sweet, and this book made me feel so sorry for her because of the view it gave me into the Prince's thoughts of her and because I knew that at some point things would go badly for her. I could only hope that she'd end up with someone better.

Yeah... About that... Since the bulk of this book was completely new material, I'd have appreciated it if that stuff had been wrapped up better. Unfortunately, things went very badly for Tulip (spoiler: she attempted suicide by throwing herself into the sea). She was saved (off-page), but her ultimate fate was never mentioned in detail and, darn it, by that point I cared more about her than I did about the Prince/Beast. I wanted to know that she and her family were going to be okay, and the author didn't give me that info.

This was such a strange book. Everything about its packaging screamed “for fans of the movie,” and you have to have seen the movie at least once for some of the scenes and many of the minor characters to have any impact, and yet I think I'd be more likely to recommend this to people who disliked the movie and wanted further justification of their dislike. The Prince was not a good person. At all. He viewed women as objects for him to collect, display, and throw away as he pleased. He arranged, via Gaston, for a minor character to be assassinated. He was apparently once a nice little boy, he liked his servants, and he and Gaston were good buddies and childhood friends, but none of that negated his basic awfulness. The 50 or so pages at the end devoted to scenes of the Beast falling in love with Belle also weren't enough.

There were some good things to be found here. The way the curse came upon the Prince was wonderfully creepy, with aspects that Belle and others couldn't see. It was nice to see more of Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and Cogsworth as humans, even though they only had a very minor part in the story. I enjoyed the references to other Disney movies (The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and possibly others I missed), although I could imagine the cross-over annoying some Disney fans. I sincerely hope that Cinderella's Prince secretly hated having to ever be in the same room with Belle's Prince. In the end, though, this was a disappointing read that left me with no desire to try the other two in the set (series?).

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