Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on March 7th 2017
Source: Publisher, Edelweiss
Genres: Fairy Tales & Folklore, Fantasy, Young Adult
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A girl with a secret talent must save her village from the encroaching darkness in this haunting and deeply satisfying tale.
Alys was seven when the soul eaters came to her village.
These soul eaters, twin sisters who were abandoned by their father and slowly morphed into something not quite human, devour human souls. Alys, and all the other children, were spared—and they were sent to live in a neighboring village. There the devout people created a strict world where good and evil are as fundamental as the nursery rhymes children sing. Fear of the soul eaters—and of the Beast they believe guides them—rule village life. But the Beast is not what they think it is. And neither is Alys.
Inside, Alys feels connected to the soul eaters, and maybe even to the Beast itself. As she grows from a child to a teenager, she longs for the freedom of the forest. And she has a gift she can tell no one, for fear they will call her a witch. When disaster strikes, Alys finds herself on a journey to heal herself and her world. A journey that will take her through the darkest parts of the forest, where danger threatens her from the outside—and from within her own heart and soul.
This book reads like a folktale, has a cover that is as beautiful as its writing, and has stuck with me long after reading it. Originally I thought The Beast is an Animal was a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but I was very wrong. It has to do more with delving into your soul to determine who the real beast is. While the pacing was rather slow (especially for me, who likes things *snap* *snap *snap*), the lyrical and captivating writing was enough for me to keep reading. I’m super glad I did, because I would have missed out on the growth of a superb character and a striking message.
The book centers around a girl named Alys, and we start from her childhood at the age of 7. Wait, back up before that. Back up a biiiiiit more: enter two beautiful girls. Twins. Two girls that are different from the rest of the village, and are isolated and condemned as witches because of their differences. The Beast is an Animal is reminiscent of a historical European society that live in the rural area – a society that is scared of what they don’t know. But because of this antipathy, they doomed themselves. The villagers are afraid of the creature known as the Beast, who lurks around in the forest. And because of a recent drought, they started accusing the only unknown factor of the world: two twin girls born uncannily similar, and with a mark on their body. The girls end up getting their revenge after the villagers kick them and their mother out. And they continue to do so in the story.
Alys, in fact, had never been afraid. Her favorite nursery rhymes were the scary ones. The ones about The Beast sucking out your soul and leaving behind nothing but gristle and skin. Those were the ones Alys liked best.
We switch to Alys’s point of view: an innocent child who is just as surprised as the next child when they find out their parents – and anyone over the age of 18 – were killed overnight. Luckily, a traveling man passing by stops by the village and redirects the children to another village for them to live with. This time, the place is full of pious, religious villagers who barely treat the Alys and her friends well. We see the constant fears in the actions of these villagers too, and the reader can just experience how unjust these scared sheep can be.
‘Aye, we know what they say. But we’d never be so cold, so heartless, so evil as them. And evil it is. For all their talk of The Beast, they’re the beastly ones.’ And then he stopped, as if all out of words for his disgust.
Although this is a fantasy story, it had many self-introspective elements as well. What is the Beast? And is he as bad as he sounds in the nursery rhymes? Is he actually an animal? And what about the “Beast” residing in the hearts of the villagers – the one that gets riled up when they’re afraid? The book really delves into the heart of matters, and throughout the story the author really makes you think about what makes something a beast… no matter how they look.
As we follow Alys growing up and discovering more about herself, we also see that she starts developing similar eerie powers that the twins who killed her parents had. Brace yourself for a long ride, because the slow pace isn’t helped by the 10 years we see of her growing. But it was pretty necessary, as Alys sheds her innocence and becomes exposed to the cruelties of the world around her. She’s the one tasked with filling in the hole that formed when the twin sisters started their path on revenge, but can she do it?
Now she had to face what she had tried to ignore for too long. She couldn’t get away from the monster. She was the monster.
Although I adored Alys’s character, I also felt a bit of a disconnect. You would expect me to have more empathy towards a girl whose life I’ve been reading about from her childhood to adolescence, but I felt more like a spectator of the story throughout the book instead of someone who could experience it with her. I definitely couldn’t connect to the rest of the characters either (including some deaths), but in the end I figured I didn’t need to. This added to the mysterious and fairy-tale-like atmosphere of the story in general, which really fit in my opinion.
And WOW, the writing! Van Arsdale paints a pretty, picturesque painting of a rural setting with villagers and forests and hills using compelling descriptions that just draw the reader in. The narrative overall was just flowing and a bit haunting at times as well. Either way, it’s definitely something that should make you consider reading this one.
Finally, there’s a very small, very light addition of romance. Although there’s not much action that we really see between the two characters, there’s enough emotion to feel between them. It’s in the background of the plot and simply sweet. A great, light addition to the heavier, darker elements that surround the book.
‘I won’t let you drift away. You belong here. With me.’
Written almost like a fairy-tale or folktale, The Beast is an Animal takes on important messages through the actions of people in a picturesque setting. The slow pace was daunting at first, but saved by the engaging writing that the author employs. Alys was a resilient character who we see grow and strengthen into a young woman who has to choose between two paths: she could continue down the road of revenge, as the twins did, and inflict more hurt than what has been done to her, or she could close up the metaphorical (and in this fantasy, literal) dark hole of emotions that opened up in the beginning of the story. The answer was in her hands, and I daresay she – and the author – made a choice that would have me thinking about this book for days.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Thank you Edelweiss and Simon & Schuster for the review copy!