In her newest book, Of Beast and Beauty, Stacey Jay has penned a fractured fairy tale that also functions as a cautionary one. Although the core of the story is based on the familiar Beauty and the Beast plot, Jay moves the conflicts beyond the traditional to warn contemporary society about the effects of intolerance and divisive philosophies and policies.
Somewhat satirical in her style, Jay creates a world in which the Dark Heart’s magic has gained control via an ancient curse, and the only way to undo the curse is for one Smooth Skin and one Monstrous to build a relationship unfreighted by expectations and untempered by ulterior motives. If the two factions “can learn to love the other more than anything else—more than safety or prejudice, more than privilege or revenge, more even than their own selves—then the curse that division has brought upon our world will be broken and the planet made whole” (4).
Privileged and protected but born with a taste for defiance, seventeen-year-old Isra Yuejihua of royal blood lives in the domed city of Yuan, but she is far from safe since Yuan has its own monsters—among them her father’s most trusted advisor, Junjie, and perhaps her own father who keeps her locked in a tower with only Needle as her companion. Isra also has other challenges, not the least of which is coping with her mother’s death and a childhood accident that has left her blind since age four.
Brainwashed to believe that the Desert People are monsters and that she is an ugly mutation, Isra grows up caged and blind in many ways, thinking she is tainted and sullied, “the contemptible offspring of the king’s mad second wife” (73). When Gem, a Monstrous from the Desert, is taken captive while trying to steal roses from the royal garden, Isra begins to see beyond her parochialism and beyond the blinders created by those who supposedly love her, those who have taught her to see difference as something sad, strange, and frightful.
Pure of heart but plagued by dreams and able to communicate with the magical roses in the royal garden, Isra knows she’s different and yearns to do something “truly extraordinary to lift [herself] above all [her] failings” (73). In Gem, she finds a friend, a companion and kindred spirit who himself suffers from mutations. Listening to Gem’s legends, she discovers the beauty of another people who are far from monstrous. Having discovered the truth about difference and about true beauty, Isra decides to use her power to work against the cruel treatment of the banished, to thwart a world that judges outer mutation as a sign of a corrupt soul, of not being entirely human. When her father is killed, Isra is determined to be the kind of queen who wants to make other people’s lives better, who is willing to sacrifice for the people [she loves], who puts the good of the majority before the good of the few” (211).
Through Gem and Isra, Jay invites us all to examine our own ignorance: the darkness, the cages, the narrow worlds in which we sometimes live. She also spends immense space in defining love. Although love can feel like home, it also represents everything strange and uncertain and unknown. It means being vulnerable and beholden and embracing pain. With her two protagonists, Jay challenges people to see without the blinders of ignorance, selfishness, and elitist attitudes and to love a little harder to avoid falling into darkness.
- Posted by Donna