Bitterburn by Ann Aguirre (2020)
Heat Factor: It’s cold in the castle but they make their own fires
Character Chemistry: Gothic with a side of romance
Plot: Beauty and the Beast, but in an ice castle, and the evil witch is still there
Overall: Slow pace, rich writing, creepy atmosphere, unique retelling
His Beauty by Jack Harbon (2020)
Heat Factor: Horny AF
Character Chemistry: Beasts of a feather boink together
Plot: Beauty and the Beast, Disney .0, but with extra graphic violence
Overall: The TSR team is divided on this one
In the fairytale we’re familiar with, Beauty falls in love with Beast as a beast, but then he is ultimately transformed—both inside and out. There are, however, Beauty and the Beast retellings that explore the idea of a beast that does not transform back into his human self at the end of the tale, and we chose to read two for this month’s examination of monster romance.
What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Bitterburn?
Ingrid: It is a slower-paced, suspenseful book with a very dense plot that’s separate from the romance.
Erin: I didn’t love it as a romance but I didn’t think it was an uninteresting book. As a retelling, it does a good job of staying true to the ethos of the original while also being a unique story.
Holly: It’s really atmospheric. The sense of place, and the place as a character, is much stronger than in almost any other romance I’ve read.
It was kind of a slow read for me, because while there was a lot of plot, it was not super propulsive. The prose is dense and it’s not a book that you can just sit down and read in an hour.
What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting His Beauty?
H: It’s beat-for-beat the Disney movie except with a fuck ton of violence in it.
I: It’s pretty much Disney but also remember the ending is not the same.
E: I dispute nothing and have nothing to add. Except that it’s fast and horny.
Let’s start with the important stuff: How did Isla (in His Beauty) suddenly learn combat skills?
E: Who asked that! I thought the same thing!!
H: ME. Suddenly she can knife fight?
E: Why is this a thing in romance that people who we never knew could knife fight suddenly have mad skills?
I: She didn’t even cut herself. But then she cleaves that guy like, entirely in half?
H: How much upper body strength does she have!?
I: And also, did you catch where he gets all up in her business—but he’s got giant claws! I was worried.
E: His claws are retractable. He’s like a cat.
I: Ah…that was unclear. Besides the claws, the other thing that got me is that he’s got these hairy paws and he’s sticking them all up in that business. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the shedding factor, and what about yeast infections? Also, the retractable dick thing authors are doing right now can die in a fire. Can we not do the retractable dick anymore?
E: I’m sorry my Yeti has a retractable dick.
I: Yours was the first one I read so you get a pass. But no more.
H: Also, WTF is up with his servants? They’re not cursed, and can leave the castle at any time. In fact, they don’t live there at all but walk in from the village every day. They have a terrible boss who literally slashes their faces when he’s angry, plus he pays them shit wages. Why don’t they just…quit? At the end, Isla’s fix for it all is building houses on the property, so the servants can live there all the time.
E: Beast’s bad features are being temperamental and miserly. Isla becomes the voice of reason, and that boils down to him learning some manners and later, on site housing and a pay raise. Her actions and sentiments are supposed to be good, more egalitarian, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how many late 19th C. entrepreneur barons used similar actions as a means of control of their employees (see Marrying Winterborne).
I: And just generally I don’t buy with the number of servants that he had that no one in the village knew what was actually going on in the castle. There was a huge plot gap in that he was this unknown factor—Isla and her father weren’t even sure if he was really real—but he had these servants trudging up from town every day. And then all of a sudden, everyone knows what’s going on in the castle and are intimately knowledgeable about the keep drama.
E: Why didn’t all the servants leave when they got pay cuts after his father died?
H: Seriously! They work for a giant lion monster!
I: Also, (and it isn’t just this book)—I hate the journal reveal. I don’t understand how that’s an intimate disclosure. If someone did that to me, I’d be so annoyed. The journal giver always seems to deposit the journal reader in a room and leaves, too. Just tell me what is going on, don’t make me slog through your journals. I have to sift through a ton of extraneous information to figure out what you’re trying to tell me? That is the coward’s way out. You are making someone do homework to get to know you and it bugs the shit out of me. If you want to be vulnerable, be vulnerable. And it’s always the woman having to sit down and do HOMEWORK to figure the MAN out. Annoying.
His Beauty has a lot of visual intensity (blood and gore and battles and standoffs)—how did we like this?
I: Yeah, I personally hated it. I fully accept that there’s a pretty fine line between that battle euphoria and super good sex in books but you could not douse the flames more permanently for me than graphically telling me about people getting cut to death. A swift death to my warm fuzzies. The second that the guy gets his neck sliced open in such graphic detail, I was done.
H: I didn’t think the graphic violence in and of itself was interesting, but I did think what Harbon was trying to accomplish with the violence was interesting. Isla kills a bunch of people, and then says that she’s the beast, too, which is a unique twist on making Beauty and Beast “match” each other at the end of the story. But in its execution I didn’t think it worked very well because there was no buildup to it.
I: It went from romance plot to kaboom very abruptly. Even the resolution after the battle scene was rushed and too short, and I walked away with a very unsettled feeling. I thought that the idea of this book was really badass and I loved the principle of it, but the execution was not fun for me, personally. It didn’t feel like happily ever after. It’s like with BDSM, you’re supposed to comfort and care for the person afterwards—if you’re going to write a violent romance novel, you need to comfort and care for your reader!
H: I’m surprised by your visceral reaction to the violence in these books, because you liked the books by Ashton Abbott, and the one by her that I read was basically 100% battle euphoria.
I: In those books, there was a lot of battle, but battle was used as a tool to further the plot and further the connection between the characters. So even when the battle was happening, it kept circling back to the characters and there was just constant connection. And, I didn’t LOVE those books on a personal level because I don’t dig dark violence, I just thought they were well executed.
In His Beauty, if the narrator hadn’t flat-out told me that she was becoming the beast then I would have been like what the f is happening and why are you doing this to me. The journey wasn’t intuitive. And I wanted 30% less gore.
E: From the perspective of someone with a very high tolerance for violence (I was thinking about the Juno Rushdan books, where Holly read one and was like…we need to talk about content warnings), I wasn’t really yucked by the violence. The idea that it’s a way for her to be the beast is interesting, but, yes, it was very sudden. Isla’s violent streak / willingness to embrace violence is not necessarily novel, but the tone of it was not the glorified, righteous tone we see in so much romance. She was 100% embracing the violence without romanticizing that aspect of it. More often, it’s “I will defend what’s mine if I have to, but I will do it virtuously.”
H: So did it work for you?
E: No, but for other reasons, not because of the violence. It was too close to the Disney version, and the differences didn’t make it more engaging. The graphic violence alone wasn’t enough to thrill me.
Let’s talk about the influence of Disney on fairy tale retellings. His Beauty tracks closely with the 1991 Disney version of the tale. Do the differences meaningfully change the story?
E: His Beauty tracks almost too closely with the Disney version, and in some ways that’s fun, but at the end of the day I would have preferred a more original story to keep me intrigued.
I: Sigh. No. I think that was kind of the point, but it’s supposed to be a fairy tale. It was a magical book, there should be a magical ending. In Bitterburn there was that thread of magic that continued into the ending, so we did get a resolution for the Beast that was satisfying. Now, in His Beauty, we end with the whole village being scared of them, they’re more isolated than before, and he still has cat paws. I was not anticipating that I would walk away with the feeling that “we have accepted our lots in life and have found great happiness in one another but the cost was the loss of the outside world”.
H: For me, speaking more broadly, the influence of Disney is so huge. The 1991 Disney movie is a classic, and it’s a great cultural touchstone, but I don’t love the way it’s had such a huge influence on shaping retellings of the story.
For example, it seems like, if you write a BatB romance, you’re contractually obligated to give Beauty a library. This is not a requirement! Especially if it doesn’t make any sense for the character. In both of these books, the Beauty character grew up in poverty and had few books, but thought “reading is really important to me” in a way that felt tacked on. Both books skipped the opening scene of the Disney version which is literally about Belle spending all of her time reading, which sets up the library later in the movie. In these books, having the library be a super meaningful gift did not make sense for the characterization.
E: I could have done without the library gifting scene in both of these books. It didn’t particularly add to the story.
I: Now I have to disagree about the library in Bitterburn. Because I thought the library was used as a tool—it was one of the most supportive tools the house used that Amarrah really depended on. All of the other tools are a little scary, like when she gets hauled through time, but the library was a safe and nurturing space.
E: I did not get that feeling at all but I can acknowledge where you’re coming from. Also Njål didn’t have the information that Amarrah needed in order for her to achieve success.
I: It gave her the witch book!
E: That’s what I’m saying. It’s not about the safe space, it’s a tool to support her. In terms of what Holly’s saying, Njål giving it to her as a romantic gift didn’t make sense. She didn’t need it as a gift, she needed it as a tool shed.
H: Why does the pinnacle of romance have to be the gift of books. What can’t it be…
I: Throwing stars?
H: Yes, exactly!
In Bitterburn, there was the scene where the Beast gets all dressed up and they go dancing in the ballroom—also straight from the movie. And I thought that romantic gesture matched their romance better than gifting the library.
I: And she had the dress that she stitched together herself. It was a sweet scene, because they made do with what they had. It made sense. I liked that part.
H: I will say, I thought that Bitterburn did draw on other versions of BatB in fun ways. In the most commonly retold French version, the only interaction between Beauty and the Beast is that he comes and eats dinner with her every day, which we saw mirrored here with Njål visiting Amarrah in the kitchen as she cooks.
I also saw parallels with the Cupid and Psyche story. Psyche marries a “monster” whose face she never sees—he only comes to her in the dark, at night, and all the trouble begins when she lights the lamps and sees his face. In Bitterburn, Njål slowly reveals himself to Amarrah, and Amarrah devotes a lot of attention to not looking at him until he tells her to.
E: I know almost nothing about original fairy tales or mythology (I missed that year of school), but that’s very interesting and might have made the reading richer had I known it.
We’ve talked a lot about His Beauty, so let’s focus on Bitterburn for a minute. What did you think about the castle as a character? (Or, spoiler, kind of not as a character?)
E: It was central to creating the ambiance and gothic vibe of the story. The rest I might have to leave to you English majors. For me, it started off powerful and eerie, a serious force for tension and atmosphere, but as the story went on and it became clear that there was at least one other insidious voice present that was not the castle, it lost a lot of its power. At that point the ominous vibes all came from the mysterious “other”.
H: That shift is exactly what I was thinking about when I posed this question. At the beginning when Amarrah first arrives, the castle is creepy AF. There are statues of dead people, and when she wishes for things she gets them, and none of the food goes bad except the food that is from the village, and there are the creepy red tiles that she never steps on. It’s really scary. But as you realize that there are multiple magical forces warring, and that the presence she feels it’s not the castle itself but rather other magical humans who have left their mark it lost a lot of its…oomph? The demon baron/baroness was a much less interesting antagonist than the castle itself.
I: It was even more complicated by the good force and the bad force. It was such a gripping plot point to me. I loved that they were working against something they couldn’t see, and that the truth came in drips and drops. However, the battle that resolved the house/magic issue was so abrupt and after everything they had to untangle to get there I think I expected more detail. And the recovery from the battle ALSO felt a little rushed. The author spent more time talking about them preparing cheese than the battle scene. They’re just chilling, and then suddenly Amarrah is just like, “Get the knife, let’s go.” It seemed like…
E: Not a lot of risk to life and limb.
I: The house was this integral character, critical to the plot. Then the battle happens, and it’s just…gone. I missed it.
H: But it’s not even gone in a dramatic way. It’s not like the house starts shaking and the walls start crumbling. They can see that it’s slowly starting to decay and calmly make their preparations to leave. I guess that slow decay made sense because, evil baroness notwithstanding, it wasn’t a very dramatic book.
I: There was that constant feeling of dread but yes, little drama.
E: There was in the beginning, but then she finds that first spellbook and nothing really bad happens. Once Amarrah starts learning her magic, the tension from the magical unknown is almost nil.
I: But I dreaded the moments where she slipped away in the past to those memories.
E: I didn’t think the dream-walking was attributable to the castle. The castle definitely gave her the spell book, and there’s a question of should we trust the castle or not? But the dream-walking didn’t feel like something the castle was doing to her, more like something she experienced because of her witchiness.
I: There’s a scene where the house wants to pull her back and she fights it. The only place where she was truly safe was the kitchen!
H: I agree that every place in the castle is creepy except for the kitchen. Even the library isn’t exactly a safe space. Except for the journal, she doesn’t read in there; she takes the books back to the kitchen with her.
But going back to the question of tension, once she starts claiming more of the castle by placing wards, it’s not like she got any pushback.
I: I did wonder why there wasn’t more of an attempted confrontation with the baron and baroness’ magic. They know she’s there—why isn’t the demon baroness targeting her? Especially in the scene where the baroness was like “I know you’re there”—that was so creepy! I needed a smidge more of that. When Amarrah opens the link with her newfound witchy powers, I expected them to have the ability to mess with her more.
Both of these books are told in first person POV, only from Beauty’s perspective. The hero’s thoughts and feelings and history are therefore largely obscured during the narrative. How does this impact the romance between the two main characters?
E: As a straight-up romance, I found Bitterburn unsatisfying because there was no build-up. She meets the beast, he’s temporarily standoffish—even when he doesn’t want her to see him, he’s already completely devoted to her—and then she has sex feels and all of a sudden they’re a couple. I did like that there wasn’t a lot of angst about their relationship except for her doubts about whether her perceptions were reality, but in terms of them building a romantic relationship, those beats were not necessarily present with the exception of the dance. Or little things like baking him bread and other caregiving gestures built it. But in terms of heavily romantic vibes, there was nothing that made my stomach drop. Nothing to make me think, ”Oh, I see, this is love now.” It was more about the gothic mystery than about the romance.
H: I think you’re holding this book to a higher standard than anything else we’ve discussed this month! I mean, MAYBE in Morning Glory Milking Farm there were those moments? But none of the others…
E: I hear what you’re saying about the aliens and the minotaurs and you’re right. So I will amend my statement. Here we’re dealing with a single POV and a very external plot that overshadows the relationship. So maybe it doesn’t matter that I didn’t get these “Oh!” moments because I didn’t get them with MGMF, but if we go back to “what makes a romance” (I see you, etc), the romance in Bitterburn is a substory. The primary story was Amarrah’s relationship with the castle and with history.
H: Counterpoint. If we’re talking single POV, doing a BatB retelling as a dual perspective wouldn’t work because a huge part of the story is the slow reveal of what the Beast is like and why he is the way he is. So if you’re in his head from the beginning then you lose a huge part of the mystery.
E: I don’t disagree with that either. This needed to be a single POV romance. But were the secrets built in a way that made it feel that there was relationship engagement occurring over time? Amarrah was already falling in love with Njål before she really knew anything about him. She saw his blue hand and was like…I’m gonna go masturbate now.
H: Maybe she had read Ice Planet Barbarians and was like “BLUE HANDS!!!!”
I: I liked his depiction. He had some funky, creepy features, but he seemed a bit more human so I could picture the intimacy better. And the things that weren’t human were very carefully described.
Did you like that the Beast never transformed back?
I: I don’t like it but I wanted to know what you guys thought. For Bitterburn there was some magic involved, so I hated it less.
E: I knew that he wasn’t going to change back going in, so it wasn’t part of my expectation and I didn’t really think about it. There were points in time when I wanted both of the beasts to transform back, but I also wanted to be open-minded to the idea that transformation was not necessary for them to be lovable and also to see how the authors would play with the lack of transformation. So I guess the question becomes: were the authors successful at what they tried to do?
I: I mean that it was obvious that they were lovable to me because Beauty fell in love with them as they were.
E: I think you make a good point about where they end up as couples. Free vs. not free. With the world before them vs. isolated. And I didn’t think about it while reading His Beauty, but while it’s an optimistic ending, they are still isolated at the end of the story.
I: With romance it’s supposed to be the HEA and the beauty of the genre is you know they’re going to get there, you just don’t know what it’s going to look like. In Bitterburn there was a yearning for travel. I was really attached to the house and I thought I wasn’t going to be happy when they left, but the way they were so happy and free and the night under the stars without being encumbered by the decaying castle. But in His Beauty I didn’t walk away with the feeling that they solved their problems, they just had this battle. It would be one thing if they were isolated and he transforms back because then there would be a change. It was disappointing, and I wish that he had changed.
H: So I was trying to read these books as monster romances, and not just Beauty and the Beast romances—and if we’re talking about them as Beauty and the Beast romances, then Ingrid I agree with you. But if we’re talking about them as Monster romances then them becoming not monsters kind of defeats the purpose. So I think it boils down to expectations.
These retellings may have featured beasts, but the focus was much more on the transformation of the human Beauty. Does the simple lack of the beast’s physical transformation make for satisfying monster romance? YMMV.
Next week for our final smashdown, we’re talking tentacles. Let’s get weird! (Fingers crossed)
Buy Now: Bitterburn | His Beauty
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