Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: The Beast Within by Serena Valentino

ISBN: 1423159128
Published: July 22nd, 2014
Publisher: Disney Press
Read from July 7th to 14th, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
A cursed prince sits alone in a secluded castle. Few have seen him, but those who claim they have say his hair is wild and nails are sharp--like a beast's! But how did this prince, once jovial and beloved by the people, come to be a reclusive and bitter monster? And is it possible that he can ever find true love and break the curse that has been placed upon him?


I knew absolutely nothing going into this book except that it had something to do with Beauty and the Beast, and since it was published by Disney (and had the Disney version of the Beast on the cover) that meant the Disney movie, not the original fairy tale. I got the book as a gift, and the synopsis on the inside flap is short, so that was all the information I had. I love Beauty and the Beast though. The Disney version is my favorite movie of all time, and I also love reading all the different versions of it. It's always interesting seeing what people do with the story, even if it's not as good as other versions I've read before. So, I was really excited for this book.

This book is the Beast's side of the Disney movie. The book opens with the Beast's reaction to Belle being in the castle, so I assumed this was going to be the events of the movie in his point-of-view and nothing before or after that. I was wrong. The book goes into a flashback pretty early on, and the vast majority of the book is the Beast's story before becoming the Beast and is known as the Prince (The book sticks with the Disney movie of never actually sharing his name.) and after the curse but before Belle. The actual events of the movie are pretty condensed and make up just a short bit of the book at the very end.

That wasn't what I was expecting, but it was probably a good idea. Direct retellings of a story just from a different point-of-view are typically boring to me. They can occasionally be done well, but most of the time they don't add enough to the story to justify it in my opinion. This book could easily have just become a novelization of the movie if it had gone that route, and that's definitely not what this is.

And this book does add to the movie. I still can't really decide if I like what it adds to the movie. You get the entire story of how the curse came about, but I think I preferred having that be vague and somewhat mystical. The actual event of it in the book doesn't quite work for me. There's four witches instead of one. One of them is the stereotypical sort of good witch who is spurned by the Beast once he discovers that she is poor. She does the actual curse because she genuinely wants the Beast to become a better person, but her three sisters are "wicked" witches who want the Beast to suffer for hurting their sister. I put wicked in quotations because they never feel like all that much of a threat. They're more along the laughably stupid side of things. Even for Disney villains, they're not scary, and they come across more as annoying nuisances. They do interfere and make things worse for the Beast, but even if I had been unfamiliar with how the story ended, I never felt like they could successfully pull anything off.

I accepted that part of the story pretty early on though, and I was willing to go along with it. The only thing in the book that I'd really say I had a problem with was the characterization of both the Beast and Gaston. They're childhood friends in this book, and I found both of them to be too sympathetic. Yes, the Beast refuses to marry the witch because she's poor, but the actual builds him up as being absolutely terrible to everyone around him. That's not how he came across in the book.

In the book, the Beast has a pretty great relationship with all of the servants, and it's clear from the beginning that they're basically his family. We never really see him be rude to anyone all that much except for spurning the witch. He's definitely on the shallow side and a bit annoying in his vanity, but he wasn't horrible enough for the curse to feel like adequate punishment. The curse is supposed to be about him learning to love at all, but in the book he seems to clearly love already. Yes, he fails at romantic love by focusing more on wealth, but he has relationships with both his servants and Gaston that clearly come across as platonic love. He's not a hopeless sort of case that would have justified everything better.

Gaston, too, is presented sympathetically. He has a sob story past, and again, he's not seen as all that bad because he's close to the Beast. The curse making him forget his friend is the only reason presented in the book for why Gaston's willing to go after the Beast later on. Again, he's shallow like the Beast, but he's given more of a sympathetic view than the Beast in this book due to his friendship with the Beast and what you're told about his past. That makes his eventual death feel unjustified as well. He doesn't seem like he deserves it in this context, and I didn't like that. I think a huge point of the original movie is that someone who looks like a beast can learn to love while Gaston, stereotypically "beautiful" on the outside, can have no redeeming qualities. In this book, he has redeeming qualities.

Overall, I'd say I enjoyed the book, and I love the idea of having a story about the Beast's curse. On the surface level, it's enjoyable to read, and it does have a very fairytale-esque feeling to the writing style. The book's nothing amazing, but it's a quick and fun read. But in the context of the movie, the Beast and Gaston didn't work as characters to me in this book.

(I also just have to shout out the cover really quickly. The dust jacket is a picture of the Beast while the actual cover itself has the Prince in the exact same position. I really love that design.)

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