A tale as old as time, or is it?
Brigid Kemmerer’s YA Fantasy A Curse So Dark and Lonely is a dark and enchanting Beauty and the Beast retelling laced with sass, a bromance of the ages, and fierce heroine who does not let her cerebral palsy stand in her way.
This book stole my heart, and I was unprepared for it. At first glance, I was ready for another standard retelling of my favorite fairytale, but the more I got into the lives of Harper, Rhen, Grey, and the kingdom of Emberfall, I realized that this is not your mama’s Beauty and the Beast retelling.
The story follows two points of view, Prince Rhen of Emberfall and Harper from Washington, DC. Prince Rhen is cursed. He has been cursed since his eighteenth birthday by a powerful enchantress to turn into a vicious beast at the end of autumn, leaving his family, his guards, and his people brutally slaughtered in his wake. The curse restarts on his eighteenth birthday if he cannot get a girl to fall in love with him by the end of the Fall season. At first, Prince Rhen, thought it would be easy. He didn’t have any problem wooing women to his bed before. But nearly four hundred autumns later, he starts to believe that true love for him is impossible and his fate and his kingdom’s is doomed to be cursed forever.
Enter Harper. Harper lives in Washington, DC with her older brother and dying mother, living each day in fear as her absent father had run with the wrong crowd, leaving his family in massive debt. Not to mention that everyone keeps doubting her capabilities due to her cerebral palsy. One day while helping her brother with a job, she sees a man abducting a woman on a street corner. Without a second thought, Harper runs at the man with a crowbar and is suddenly teleported to the cursed Ironrose Castle in the kingdom of Emberfall. She quickly learns that she is in way over her head. Stuck with an arrogant prince, a grumpy guardsman, a kingdom on the brink of being conquered from outside forces, and monster on the prowl, she quickly learns that she is in way over her head and there is more at stake than she could ever imagine.
One of the main differences that stuck out to me while reading this novel is that it is a portal fantasy. What that means is that a character from our world gets taken to another fantastical realm (Think Chronicles of Narnia). I haven’t read much portal fantasy in recent years, so it was a fun and fresh take on a classic fairytale. I also loved getting to see how Harper, as a person from our time, interacted with such a fairytale like setting. Her feeling like an outsider in this world helped me feel closer and added to the tension.
Harper is spectacular. She is sassy and fierce. She has cerebral palsy, which causes her to walk with a slight limp, but she is not defined by it. We get to see her overcome her self doubt, as she takes on the role of Princess Harper of Disi (a mispronunciation of DC given to her by the people of Emberfall). She struggles with intense feelings of guilt for leaving her brother and dying mother without any notice. She also struggles with trusting Prince Rhen, since she knows that in order to break the curse he needs to seduce her. Their relationship kept me turning the pages. Kemmerer is a master of writing realistic emotion. Nothing felt forced or cliche to me.
Now my favorite part of the book is Commander Grey, Prince Rhen’s loyal and only remaining guard, the grumpiest sassmeister known to mankind. If you want dark and brooding, here’s dark and brooding. Grey is a rock on the outside and marshmallow on the inside. You can see how he is intensely loyal to the core and how much he cares for Prince Rhen (that’s right ladies and gents, we have a genuine bromance here and it is amazing). He will do anything to keep his prince (and princess once Harper enters the picture) safe from harm. He is also great with children, which is a huge plus for me. I love his cold and flat comedic delivery. His snark is my favorite. However, don’t be fooled, he has dark secrets and guilt of his own that follow him like a shadow.
Finally, Prince Rhen is beautiful. He is a strategist and a charismatic one at that. The way he always has to put his foot in his mouth around Harper is fantastic. Yet, he carries such intense sadness and guilt, I want to just give him a hug. While arrogant and manipulative on the surface, he deeply wants what’s best for others and to not cause any more pain. Through Harper and Grey’s friendship, he is able to become an even better man. There is the slightest hint of a love triangle between Grey, Rhen, and Harper, but it provides an excellent source of narrative tension and is not annoying like it can often be (also Grey is too loyal to Rhen to do anything like that).
The pacing in this book is phenomenal. Everything built upon each other, and I never found myself bored. The stakes just keep building and building. While the ending was satisfying, it did end with a cliffhanger.
Thankfully, the pain from the cliffhanger ending will be over soon, for the sequel A Heart So Fierce and Broken is set to be released on January 7th, 2020. So get ready to grab a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, because it is going to be a heart-pounding ride as we continue the tale of Prince Rhen, Harper, Grey, and the Emberfall kingdom.