Goodreads: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
Age Category: Marketed as Middle Grade; More Suitable as YA
You think you know these stories, don’t you?
You are wrong.
You don’t know them at all.
Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.
A prince has a surprising awakening . . .
A beauty fights like a beast . . .
A boy refuses to become prey . . .
A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.
New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.
Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales promises readers that these are stories “for a new era” and that they “understand you” and “reflect you.” The question while reading, however, is whether making the characters diverse and gender swapping some of the characters is enough to make them fully new. In many of the stories, negative gender stereotypes against women remain. And in many of the stories, there is no modernized “enlightened” moral. Rather, the “heroes” in several of the tales become the villains. It is unclear whether readers are supposed to cheer them on for taking on the role of their enemies– or not.
Ultimately, the book does a wonderful job in being dark, gritty, and somewhat depressing. Virtue does not really triumph over evil in this volume because none of the characters are that virtuous to begin with. And most of the endings are more bitter than sweet, with princesses finding themselves unloved by their husbands and many of the fairy tale characters getting divorced. Presumably this makes the stories more realistic. But most people do not read fairy tales for the realism.
Further, the content of the book really veers more towards adult or YA fiction, making this a really odd choice for the middle grade audience. Yes, tales such as “Bluebeard” have always had violence in them. But it does seem like the stories are crossing some sort of invisible line here over from MG to YA when there are (positive? neutral?) depictions of cannibalism, “happy” endings with the prince marrying two girls at once, and a lot of uncomfortable sexual overtones throughout the book. Usually this type of content is considered mature, and I am not sure what to make of a publisher marketing this content to educators, parents, and children who are likely unaware that it is in this book. Frankly, it does feel like a violation of trust because many people use age categories to find content that is developmentally appropriate for children–and this, by most people’s standards, is not probably not for the average 8-12 year old.
Below, I give my thoughts on a few of the selections from the book. To fully review the tales, however, I do spoil the endings and as well as any notable deviations from the original stories. Read on only if you do not mind being spoiled!
Not too original for a retelling. Instead of marrying and murdering girls, the titular character buys orphan boys. It’s unclear exactly what he does with them, but there does seem to be a creepy sexual undertone to this story, as with many. The story is not too remarkable, however, since the main feature is the gender swap.
I admit I had no idea what to make of this one. The original twist is that Prince Charming actually fell in love with a different girl–not Cinderella–who ends up being turned into a mouse by a witch. Now the mouse lives with Cinderella and is using Cinderella (by lying to her) in order to get into the castle for the ball. The mouse has a lot to say about the evil stepsisters, in a way that links their evilness with their ugliness. There is no clear messaging that this is wrong or that the mouse is just nasty and jealous, and probably should not be criticizing other women about their looks the way she does.
Normally, I would suggest that a book does not need a clear moral message from the narrator, but this is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a retold fairy tale in a book touting how wonderful it is that we have these updated stories that are presumably supposed to align with contemporary values. So why the woman-on-woman hate?
Additionally, the ending was unusual, to say the least. The prince ends up marrying both Cinderella and the other girl (yes, bigamy). I have to admit that I was not aware that this is something most contemporary readers would celebrate as a happy and appropriate ending.
“Hansel and Gretel”
The big twist here is that, instead of the witch trying to eat Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel team up with the witch to (apparently) eat their evil stepmother. Usually fairy tales try to have morals about how being virtuous will bring good things to a person. Are Hansel and Gretel actually the good characters here, though? Why do they get a happy ending for engaging in cannibalism? Is the point of this story something about how darkness is within us all and no one is really that good? Is that the modern twist–a belief that the world holds no light? Or are readers supposed to cheer on Hansel and Gretel for becoming like the witch readers are used to hating because, you know, killing and eating people is wrong? It’s all very unclear, but neither option seems like a good one.
“Jack and the Beanstalk”
This retelling shows how ineffective merely writing a gender-swapped ogre is in any attempt to make old stories feel less sexist. Negative gender stereotypes about women still abound here. They have, in fact, been added to the story! The ogre becomes a female who henpecks her husband. Jack’s mother, meanwhile, is understandably stressed and bitter because she married a lazy man who squandered all their wealth, and then got himself killed, and now her son seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. Somehow, however, Jack’s mother becomes the villain because Jack thinks she’s a nag. So evidently she needs to suffer so that Jack can go and be happy with a new family. Ouch.
“The Little Mermaid”
This one is one of the less imaginative retellings, largely because it is not really a story. It reads like a Tumblr-esque critique of the Disney film, with the sea witch merely running a monologue about how silly and shallow the little mermaid has to be in order to give up everything for a guy she has never even spoken to. I imagine most readers will not be particularly impressed by this one.
This is possibly the highlight of the collection. It is told by an older Wendy, who recounts her early adventures in Neverland, and then her growing understanding of how vile Peter Pan really is. She ends up falling in love with a pirate instead. The one aspect I really didn’t like was that Wendy marries someone, but has a years-long affair with the pirate. And I guess readers are supposed to be okay with that because her husband is boring. But being boring is hardly wrong. Why are readers supposed to be disdainful of anyone who does not want to engage in deadly adventures? I so wish that the husband had been fortunate enough to marry a boring woman who would have loved him.
I was not sure what to make of this one, either. It begins with the prince waking up every morning with bleeding wounds, and he worries that he is being attacked by a demon. It seems clear that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his being gay. However, he attacks the boy who has been attacking him at night, then ends up marrying a countess. But he now he is not happy, so he locks himself in a tower, so the boy can return to…hurt him?…every night? This does make him happy. His wife gets upset that her husband has locked himself in a tower, but readers aren’t supposed to worry about her too much because she’s a gold digger (ahem, sexist stereotype!) so she deserves what she gets.
I don’t understand the link between violence and pleasure here. Also, if the wounds are supposed to be some uncomfortable metaphor for sex, like in vampire lore or something, does that mean the the prince was being raped…and then decided later to become lovers with his rapist?? Because, remember, initially the night attacks were unsolicited and not consensual. They hurt the prince and worried him. How is this an appropriate story for anyone, let alone children?
Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with the collection. The originality of each tale varies a lot and often the author seems to rely on a gender swap alone to make a story “new,” but without removing gendered stereotypes. The content, too, is too mature for a middle-grade book. I imagine most 8-12 year olds are not developmentally ready to read a book where cannibalism is depicted as either a neutral or a laudable act, and certainly not ready for one where sex is equated with violence and where apparent rape is depicted as the prelude to romance. This is not what children should be learning about sexuality when they are at an impressionable age. That these stories are specifically marketed as updated to reflect contemporary values and sensibilities only makes many of the narrative choices stranger because it implies that readers should take the stories at face value.
Maybe read this one if you like dark tales where no one is the hero and everyone is the villain. But go in knowing that the content here is mature and that the book is not what most would typically call a middle-grade read.