Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bryony and Roses

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.

But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?

Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

My Reaction:
Yes, this is a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast"-- and the author acknowledges in a note at the beginning that she read and loved Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter, an earlier B&tB retelling, which I read for the first time fairly recently (within the past year).

I imagine that-- with the exception of the lesser-known tales-- most of us read these fairy tale retellings because we love the original story.  (Otherwise, why bother, right?)  Maybe we want to see the story from a fresh perspective; maybe we just want to reread an old favorite without knowing exactly what will happen-- and when and how and why.  Usually the author puts a new twist on the old story (with varying levels of success), but for the most part, you go in knowing the gist of the story (unless there are very drastic deviations from the source material).

There's a fine line authors walk between either simply regurgitating the traditional story in a predictable, pointless paraphrasing of the tale or changing things to the point that it confuses, disappoints, or alienates many readers who, again, are probably reading the book because they like the original version.  Bryony and Roses does a decent job of walking that line.

This is B&tB from a more humorous perspective, compared to Rose Daughter.  (However, it's not exactly a perfect match for my personal sense of humor...)  Though definitely set in magical Fairy-Tale Land, it has a much more modern sensibility than I was expecting.  It also has a faster pace than Rose Daughter-- a definite improvement, imho-- and it feels like there's more interaction between heroine and hero-- another plus.  Though I still didn't feel quite enough intense, building chemistry between the two, at least there was an effort.

The female protagonist (Bryony) is an essentially practical character who stands up for and takes care of herself, but she also has her share of flaws and weaknesses.  (No Mary Sues here.)  Don't read Bryony and Roses expecting major character development, though; the story happens to and around Bryony and the Beast, but it doesn't change them much, beyond their feelings for one another.

Unfortunately, there were several things that annoyed me or made me roll my eyes (which I'll address in the "Specifics" section).  While I liked it well enough, I didn't love this book, I'm sad to say.  It's probably a 3 to 3.5 (out of 5) for me.  I'd probably rank it higher than Rose Daughter, because though that retelling had some beautifully written passages, it also put me to sleep with its slogging pace and a dearth of interaction between Beauty and the Beast.  Going on my memory of McKinley's Beauty, I'd still rate that one the best of the three, but that may be an unfair comparison, since I'm viewing Beauty through the rosy-tinted lens of nostalgia.  (I plan to reread it, one of these days, after I've had time to work up an appetite for more B&tB...)

I'd recommend Bryony and Roses to readers who can't get enough B&tB or fans of fairy-tale retellings with more modern-seeming heroines.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  I'm a gardener, like the author and her heroine, so I probably found that aspect of the book more interesting than would a non-gardener.  That said, some of the gardening bits were just odd or silly or irritating.  For instance, why did she just have to take home pieces of all the plants from her garden at the manor house, even though they all came from plants that she still had in her old garden?  (Seems like a lot of effort for nothing, to be honest.)  Oh, and her ridiculous decision to stop and pull weeds (or whatever) before going inside, when she finally got back home!!

--  It's an interesting angle, to make the rose the "bad guy" of the book.  I don't know that it works particularly well, imho, but it's interesting... And the thornier ones can definitely be mean when you're trying to prune them.

--  The decision to do away with the father character is another interesting choice.  He does bog down the story, sometimes.  In this version, Beauty/Bryony is responsible for her own fate, which is an improvement.

--  There were quite a few instances of crudeness in this book that felt out of place-- and all too often, they were played for juvenile humor.  It starts with Fumblefoot pooping on the floor of the manor house, but it only gets worse from there.  Bryony pees herself the first time she sees the Beast, and as if that's not bad enough, it's referred to again later on (because I guess once wasn't enough).  Then there's the whole thing about how she's not a virgin.  Um, ok.  Good for you?  It seems a really odd thing to include in this story.  Why did it need mentioning at all?  Then there was more "light cursing" than expected... I mean, compared to the last novel I finished (You, by Caroline Kepnes) this was all the tamest of the tame, but still, not what I was expecting.

--  Bryony goes too quickly from wetting her pants in terror to speaking jokingly/sarcastically with the Beast.  A slower transition would've been nice.  As it was, the Beast isn't really very scary at all, and even though Bryony says she's still afraid of him, for a while, it certainly doesn't show in the way she speaks!

--  Far too often, when I was supposed to be laughing at Bryony's wit and humor, I ended up rolling my eyes instead.  And when Bryony describes the Beast to Holly: "And-- and-- he's funny.  Like we are.  Sarcastic."  Just ugh.  You're really not that funny, Bryony.  Not to all of us, at least.

--  When Bryony returns to the manor house, she somehow ends up in a nightgown, in bed with the "man" from her dreams.  Which is pretty weird, since she was fully dressed before that... But ok, whatever.  So she needs to get dressed to go fight the rose and find the Beast.  Well, despite the desperate circumstances, she decides to dress under the sheets because she doesn't want the roses at the window to see her naked.  ...???  Yes, that's very important.  Mustn't have the evil, sentient rose seeing you naked when you're about to fight for your life.  (Bryony's priorities are kind of messed up, is what I'm saying here.)

--  When I read Rose Daughter, I was not altogether pleased with the fact that the Beast kept his beast-form.  Here's part of what I wrote then, and it applies to this book, too (since once again the Beast remains a beast):
I have mixed feelings about this twist. On the one hand, it always felt odd for Beauty to finally realize she loves the Beast, only to have him change into a complete stranger (physically, at least). However, the whole point of the story is that she loves him for his personality/heart/spirit/soul, no matter what his appearance. (You can't judge a book by its cover, etc.) Also, in the original tale, the Beast is only a Beast because he's being "punished"/taught a lesson for his bad past behavior. The fact that Beauty loves him demonstrates that he's grown as a person, and his change for the better is rewarded by the breaking of the spell.  In this version, he hasn't really done anything very wrong, so he's not being punished...
At least in Bryony and Roses there's a more legitimate reason why the Beast needs to keep his beastly body-- he's lived so long as a beast that if he changes back to his frailer human form, he will die almost instantly.  I mean, yeah, it's still just an excuse to keep him a beast, but it's an improvement over the explanations offered in Rose Daughter.

Also, in this version, I guess the Beast is (kind of) being punished for his behavior-- for not loving the sacred birch tree that nursed him back to health-- but it's not quite on the same level as in the classic version, where he's punished (albeit very harshly) for something worse than just failing to love some bizarre magical tree.

--  In the note at the end, the author thanks her editor, who had her remove "about sixty percent of the dashes".  So even if we obviously would have our differences on a number of topics, we have dash addiction in common...  And gardening, of course, though I don't hate roses, even if I do live in a hot, humid climate.