Leife Shallcross’s The Beast’s Heart

The retelling of fairy tales is a time honored tradition. As a result, Leife Shallcross’s The Beast’s Heart is in excellent company. This volume attempts to do a perspective flip, by focusing upon the Beast of Beauty and the Beast rather than a more usual view of following the young woman. It is a clever decision, as the character is not quite an antagonist and thus somewhat easier to make sympathetic, but it’s still an unexpected point of view for such a tale. However this volume doesn’t simply reserve its sympathies for our lead, or vilify relatively heroic characters in other versions of the tale as works like Grendel or Wicked might. Instead this work dives surprisingly deep into the history of the characters and their lives.

Our beauty’s name is Isabeau de la Noue. Its a nice enough name, and I cannot help but think that it reflects back on Disney’s “Belle”, with Isabelle transitioning to Isabeau. That said, the deviations from both the Disney variation and traditional versions of this fairy tale are still noticeable, and fascinating. She is less studious than some interpretations of the character, but experienced with hard work. Still, she largely finds herself most comfortable when she can get some solitude, and cares for her family deeply.

Our Beast, on the other hand, starts off, as does the narrative, almost feral, with scant shreds of memory in place as he attempts to explain himself to the reader.

To start, Isabeau’s stay with the Beast (whom insists upon being called Beast) is comparatively consensual, he having kindly asked for her company for a year rather than demanding it. Further, there is not much of a traditional antagonist or villain to this piece, the sisters given sympathetic personalities, and any other potential suitors to any of them being either good people or long since out of the picture. It’s a rare combination in a romantic tale, or in a fairy tale, and quite a pleasant surprise for that.

This is not to say the text is perfect, none is. There is a suicide attempt at a moment which feels oddly chosen, and a part of me questions if it is the best presentation. Further, the repeated marriage requests, common in some stories, can be read the wrong way. That said, reading from within the Beast’s own mind shows that his thought processes are, if not exactly selfless, certainly not as possessive as they might seem.

Overall The Beast’s Heart was quite a good read, including self loathing from a viewpoint character without feeling either repugnant as an individual or unduly wallowing in self pity.  The characters were fairly well formed, and the changes to traditional storytelling expectations for the tale were a nice surprise.  I know that there is a school of through which regularly criticizes elements of consent in old fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, but I have to say that this book answers much of them. Well worth a look to fans of fairy tales and/or romance.

(Ace Books, 2019)