Review written & published on www.criticalwrit.com
A fantasy F/F romance that is heavily inspired by The Beauty and the Beast, without the creepy stuff from other versions like Disney’s, and with women? Count me riiiiight in. And now I want more F/F retellings of fairy tales. Why do we cater to men who think that it’s ok to stalk someone by stealing their shoes or kissing people in their sleep (don’t read the original version of that one, I warn you)? And who cares about royalty anyway? Let’s reclaim the means of production and be farmer princesses, or, I don’t know, itinerant warrior princesses.
Strange things are happening in the village’s forest— howling, sounds of a woman weeping, mysterious sightings of monsters from fairy tales. For Lise, a level-headed, hardworking girl who does most of the work in her impoverished family’s farm since her father’s death, this is nonsense. And when she heads into the forest to seek answers, she finds no monster but instead a strange woman with bottomless sadness in her eyes. She soon learns that the woman is cursed, doomed to never form any bond, forced into an endless flight for survival as the ignorance of men leads her to be hunted. Lise had always been afraid of her attraction to women, but she finds acceptance in Senna… And soon, reciprocation. As the villagers gear themselves toward a hunt for the creature that lives in the woods, and as Senna prepares herself to leave this place forever, Lise will learn she will have to fight for her love.
Senna suffers from a terrible curse. Once the object of many people’s envy, she was cursed to become what they loathe and fear the most. Living in a house that provides to all her needs and keeps her alive, she is drawn to face those who enter the woods and reveal them the extent of their fear, their guilt, their shame. The spell, like all curses, is bound to conditions and can only be broken two ways— one is the easier way, to cut the white rose the curse is bound to and disappear forever. The other, well, she's lost hope of that happening years ago...
It’s a surprisingly cruel spell to have innocent people be subjected to (although it soon becomes clear that not everyone is innocent), considering why it was cast in the first place, but it’s suitably terrifying alright. It reveals the pain of others, make it impossible to ever be accepted or loved. It's especially hard on Senna, who feels and sees everything they feel. She knows and understands people's fear, and the disgust they feel when they gaze upon her.
But the spell doesn’t work on Lise. Her family has fallen on hard times. They used to be the family of the King’s Hunstman, and as such, they were never in need of anything. But when their father was killed by wolves, they had to sell what they have and become cheesemakers. Lise works hard, and while her mother would have her wed to the current Huntsman’s son so as to secure their future, she prefers the work of the farm and her freedom to staying at home and raising children. She obstinately refuses the boy’s advances but cannot help falling head over heels for Senna.
True to the material its inspired from, The Beast That Never Was deals with complex ideas such as self-empowerment, economic and social independence from men, what we think is best for us versus what people think is best for us… I also believe it acts as a metaphor for bigotry and more specifically, lesbophobia. Everyone who sees Senna will see what they fear and hate the most, but Lise sees the real woman underneath. Their relationship starts free of bigotry and prejudice, and the bond they form is true despite each of the protagonist’s fear that their difference (being interested in women for Lise, and being a “monster” for Senna) will repulse the other. On the other hand, other villagers will be unable to see beyond the curse and their fear and violence will escalate.
Caren J. Werlinger writes beautifully and this book was an extremely enjoyable read that makes me want to see more works inspired of old fairy tales; works that remove the twisted and outdated morals these fairy tales still carry to this day. Perhaps the only problem I had with this book however, was that it uses the “Gypsy” slur at one point, something I feel should definitely be changed in a future edition.