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Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Beauty and the Werewolf (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms #6)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 408 pages
Genre: fantasy romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active, because there’s no way to discuss what I liked and disliked about this book without “giving away” the ending.

This book suffers from its predictability. And that’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here, and I did enjoy this book — but very much in a fluffy, easy-to-digest sort of way. This book is the latest in Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I generally enjoy but which are far from the best fairy tale adaptations out there. She’s starting turning them into mash-ups more than just retellings, and this one smushes Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood (as though the cover didn’t give those things away). So we meet Bella (and as a sidebar: is anyone else really sick of that name for heroines? Which is a shame, because it’s a lovely name, really, but Twilight has just caused it to be so overplayed. Especially as short for Isabella. Couldn’t we get more creative? Arabella? Annabella? Orabella? Something?), the eldest daughter of a merchant, who has for years run her household, keeping her stepmother and stepsisters in line. She also periodically makes trips out into the woods to chat with “Granny”, a wisewoman who lives out there — and while coming back from one of these jaunts, she gets nipped by a werewolf. When the King’s forces find out what happened to her, they essentially kidnap her and take her to the home of Duke Sebastian — the werewolf — for a quarantine to see if she’s infected. Sebastian’s werewolf curse is a great secret, kept from the world at large, and though not only a Duke but a magician in his own right, he is looked after by his illegitimate half-brother, Eric, a woodsman and gamekeeper who patrols the forests to try and keep everyone safe from him. Ostensibly. We first meet Eric when he’s sexually assaulting women at a party in town, and then when he encounters Bella in the woods and mistakes her for a peasant girl rather than the daughter of someone of consequence, he tries to coerce her into having sex with him — and as good as says that he takes that “in trade” when he catches female poachers, in exchange for letting them off. So he’s pretty clearly a sleaze and set up from the very beginning to be the villain.

I was so hoping he wouldn’t be. If Lackey hadn’t given him those casual rapist qualities, he would’ve been a really interesting character — because he knows his trade well, and . So I kept vaguely hoping that he would turn out to be other than he seemed and that someone else would be the real villain, because it would’ve allowed him to be a much stronger character. The trouble is that… we never meet anyone else. If Eric was a red herring, there was never any indication of who he might be a red herring for, so it’s pretty clear that there are not, in fact, any other villains in the story. And the other problem is that — again, casual rapist qualities aside — he’s a much more interesting character than our theoretical male hero, Sebastian, who is pretty much just a complete milksop. As is often the case in the Five Hundred Kingdoms stories — and this has been a criticism I’ve had of the whole series — the love story seems completely slapped on. There’s really no reason for Bella to fall for him except proximity, and we don’t get any emotional depth out of either of them. They just sort of… decide to get married because of … reasons. It’s odd. These books would, on the whole, be better without the romance angle at all.

All of that said — there are things to like about this book. I didn’t find Bella as annoying as it seems some Goodreads reviewers did. I thought she actually avoided a lot of pitfalls, and if there were points that were a little too “look how unconventional a female she is!”, well, that’s often true of many of the historical romances I read as well. The very best parts of the book, in my estimation, were the ones where Bella was interacting with the invisible servants, learning to communicate with them, and learning from them. That was very clever on Lackey’s part. They’re sort of wraiths (in a ghostly way, not a Dementor way), largely stripped of memory and personality, but a few of them hold a sense of themselves as individuals, and the way they interact with Bella is a lot of fun to watch develop. I always enjoy when she thinks about magic and explains its workings in new ways. Some of Sebastian’s practices are definitely reminiscent of her Elemental Masters series as well, and it gives a little more shape to magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms. We also see Godmother Elena back again for a cameo, which is a nice sense of continuity.

Overall, this is perfectly serviceable fluff. Not exquisite, and I’m pretty sure that The Fire Rose is a far superior version of this story from Lackey, but it was a quick and enjoyable enough read.

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The Sleeping Beauty, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Sleeping Beauty (Five Hundred Kingdoms #5)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 404 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 3.5 stars

So, I was saying how I love retellings of fairy tales?

Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series is that, precisely. She’s created an Earth-analog world where a powerful force, called the Tradition by those in the know, manipulates human lives quite literally, shoehorning them into stories wherever possible. Her books chronicle the lives of some of those in the Five Hundred Kingdoms who fight the Tradition, who warp it, who bend it to their own needs — knowing that The Tradition doesn’t just like happy endings. It likes tragedy just as much. All it cares about is the dramatic quality of the story being lived out; the ultimate end is a null set, as far as the Tradition is concerned.

The Sleeping Beauty is the fifth in the series, and a return to more traditional Western-European-centric stories (books Three and Four, Fortune’s Fool and The Snow Queen, explored Russian, Scandinavian, Japanese, and Arabic tropes, among others). As the title suggests, the character in question, Rosamund, seems destined to be a Beauty Asleep — except that the godmother of her nation steps in way ahead of time. Godmother Lily, in charge of the tiny but effusively wealthy kingdom of Eltaria, has had centuries of practice manipulating the Tradition, and she heads off the trouble at the christening early on. Unfortunately, nothing she could do could stop Rosamund’s mother dying when Rosamund is sixteen, setting off a chain of potentially disastrous events. Her father, the King, goes off to try and prevent all five of Eltaria’s neighbors from invading simultaneously, and in his absence, Rosamund is nearly kidnapped and flees into the woods — only to be snatched up by the “Snowskin” (or Snow White) tale rather than Beauty Asleep. The seven dwarves she ends up with, though, are not at all as nice and cheerful as the Tradition would generally require them to be. Godmother Lily has to extricate her in a way that the Tradition will find suitable, but without accidentally marrying her to a rescuing prince who she might not actually be compatible with. And from the back of the book, you’d rather think this was the whole plot, but I was presently surprised — it zips through this in the first few chapters, bringing us to the real meat of the story: Godmother Lily, after the King gets himself killed, decides to hold a contest for Rosamund’s hand, inviting princes from all over (including from the invading neighbors) — thus providing herself with an awful lot of well-born hostages. This keeps anyone from invading, lest they bring the countries belonging to the other princes down on their heads, and buys the ladies some time to figure out how to end Rosamund’s story both happily and in a way that will satisfy the Tradition.

We do also get a healthy dose of Norse mythology as well, brought to us by Siegfried, who is desperately trying to escape his fate as a Doomed Hero — doomed, in this case, to fall in love with his Shieldmaiden aunt, then betray her, leading to a round of homicides and suicides and possibly the twilight of the gods. Siegfried happens upon Rosamund (while Lily’s freeing her from the Snowskin entrapments) at the same time as another princeling, Leopold. Siegfried is the stoic warrior type, a lot of brawn but a fair bit of brain as well. Leopold is a dark and handsome charmer, a preternaturally talented gambler, kicked out of his own kingdom by his father for being too popular. They decide to join the competition for Rosamund’s hand. They also decide to team up to help each other through the first few rounds of challenges, agreeing to part amiably when it comes time for the final test, and it creates a wonderful Odd Couple dynamic. Their interactions are some of the best moments in the book — quick, funny, and clever.

One of the flaws of these books, especially as they’ve gone along, is that there can be a lot of telling and not a lot of discovery. When your characters already know how the Tradition works, when they’re so adept at avoiding its entanglements, what you get is a lot of explanation. I can understand how Lackey wouldn’t want to re-introduce the Tradition each time, because reading as characters discover it over and over again could be just as tedious in a different way, but, it is a narrative flaw, in my opinion. I wanted her to show more, tell less.

I also find myself wishing that the romance were a bit more pronounced — which isn’t particular to this book, it’s how I feel about the series as a whole. It’s marketed as a fantasy romance, it’s published under the fantasy wing of freaking Harlequin, for heaven’s sake… but the romance is always very lightly handled. Certainly not any heavier (or steamier) than in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series (which is not similarly categorised). So I always feel it’s a bit misleading to promote these as having a romance angle. This one was, for very PG-rated romance, actually better than others in the series, as we do get to see Rosamund considering her suitors — but there’s definitely no sizzle whatsoever, and Rosamund spends less time with her suitors (Siegfried, Leopold, and another talented-but-unsettling stranger named Desmond) than she does with Lily, figuring out how to thwart Tradition. There’s also an odd and only ever half-explained romance between Godmother Lily and the spirit in her magic mirror.

Lackey does avoid another of her usual flaws, though; her books have a terrible habit of cramming the climax and the denouement all into about the last five pages. She draws things out more nicely here — still a little rapid at the end, still crashing into the climax rather abruptly, but at least she gives the wrapping-up bits enough space to breathe in. (Apparently she also continued the story of two of the side characters in a short story, which I now sort of want to locate).

Overall, this is a fun, light read. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s not entirely forgettable either. If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll enjoy this (and the rest of the series) — finding all of the references is a fun game to play while reading, and if your head works anything like mine, you’ll like thinking about the twists and turns of the Tradition and following along with how a clever, knowledgeably person might outwit it. Probably on sheer technical merit, this book only deserves 3 stars, but I laughed out loud a few times and it left me feeling happy, and I’m proud of Lackey for avoiding some of the problems that have irritated me in the past, so I bumped it up another half star on credit.

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