(Note: This review contains spoilers.)
A beautiful young woman and her family lose everything when disaster strikes her father’s business. Her father leaves her and her sisters behind to go out and try to salvage what he can. But when he comes home raving about a terrible creature in the woods, the young woman must resolve to go to the creature herself to save her father’s life . . .
You know the story. Or maybe you just think you do. Because Meagan Spooner has pulled off the feat of making her “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, “Hunted,” feel remarkably fresh and different.
Spooner sets her tale in a richly detailed Russian landscape, weaving Russian folktales into the plot. Her Beauty, a merchant’s daughter named Yeva, has learned hunting skills from her father, who was a hunter before he became a merchant. When he goes missing, she remembers his fear of and obsession with the giant Beast that he swore was stalking him, and sets out to kill the Beast herself. Instead, she is tricked and captured.
Convinced that the Beast killed her father, Yeva tries not to be swayed by his kindness to her. Though she has opportunities to escape, she chooses to stay in hopes that she will find a way to kill him in return. But a sudden shocking discovery upsets all her plans and changes both her fate and the Beast’s forever.
Spooner is an excellent writer who gives her characters great depth and appeal. Like Robin McKinley before her, she gives her Beauty loving and sympathetic sisters instead of jealous ones, and unlike Disney, she makes Yeva’s suitor a kind and generous man. She gives Yeva herself a great longing for something, she’s not sure what — “the want that filled her dreams of some other life, something beyond what others desired.” Yeva has to learn to balance this wanting with her obligations to others and her desire to help them. And she has to learn to ask herself whether it’s better to experience endless longing for something else, or to find a way to be content, or if there’s a way to balance those things as well.
There are only a few small content issues in this beautifully written story. There are a couple of gory descriptions when Yeva finds her father’s remains and later when she tries to kill the Beast; also, the Beast describes (not explicitly) how he once tried and failed to kill himself. There are a couple very brief references to religion, including a mention that the people in Yeva’s town still cling in many ways to the old religion they practiced before “holy men” taught them Christianity. There is a magical creature, part woman and part dragon, who appears to try to seduce Yeva, though it’s only a hint and again very brief. And I found the ending, which leaves it up in the air as to whether Yeva and her prince actually get married or just live together, a bit out of place and something of a letdown.
These things aside, however, “Hunted” is an exquisite and highly enjoyable story for high schoolers. Spooner skillfully honors the original story while blending in new elements and doing away with many of the tropes that bother some fairy tale readers. For instance, she deals with the idea that Beauty exhibits “Stockholm syndrome” by falling for the Beast, by having her choose to stay with him out of vengeance. Of course, now we have the problem of the Beast falling for someone whom he knows wants to kill him — but perhaps all stories, like all people, can’t help being a little psychologically messy.
Image courtesy of Harper Teen. Review copy obtained from Barnes & Noble.