Sunday, June 5, 2016

Beauty (1978)

I feel confident asserting that Beauty (1978) by Robin McKinley is one of the best fantasy novels of the 1970's. The thing is solidly written and paced, from beginning to end. Where there are opportunities to pad the story, stretch it out, or make it into something more, she deftly avoids all such traps. Where she is given to description, she picks the most interesting things to describe while avoiding all the uninteresting things. She writes enough to tell the story, tells is with great heart, then concludes.

You know the story of Beauty and the Beast. There's nothing new there (except when there is). The cunning women drops us into a family drama, and this drama is what carries the story. Beginning the story, they are rich, but bad fortune ruins them, so they move to the country. They're a lovely family, not at all dysfunctional, yet not at all sappy. It's this bittersweet that gives the story its pop. By the middle of the tale, you'll want to give up all your belonging and move in with them.

The Beast himself is still the Beast. He's a tough nut to crack as a character, and in this story, his nut still ain't cracked. You'll understand why Beauty may grow to love the beast, but that affection won't extend to you. He's still a set piece with the emotional range of a scarecrow with a speaker stuffed inside. "Will you marry me?" it asks. And like a scarecrow that would ask that question, tends to feel a little creepy.

Honestly, if this hadn't been a fantasy at all, and Beauty had found someone in town, I'd've been more satisfied. Becoming a princess at the end just didn't feel right for Beauty or right for her family. It's like winning the wrong reward. Yeah, it's impressive, but it's not satisfying. However, that's a problem with the original tale, and not of McKinley's invention.

Even with all these flaws, the story is still marvelously told. If you ever see a copy, pick it up.