Dark and beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, miscarriage, and misogyny.)
It would have been better not to have any babies at all than to give birth to two girls. Some even said it was an act of spite on the mother’s part. Only a truly disobedient woman would do such a thing.
She couldn’t get away from the monster. She was the monster.
— 3.5 stars —
Once upon a time, in a village near the forest in the land of Byd, two babies were born. They came into the world a mere two minutes apart, after their mother had labored for days. They were girls in a world that considered female children useless and unlucky; identical twins in a land ruled by superstition and mistrust. Mirror twins, at that: each a reflection of her sister, her other half.
Mindful of their neighbors’ intolerance, the woman and her husband kept the children at home, hidden from prying eyes. At least as long as they were able. This grew increasingly necessary, as the village was wracked by drought and famine, year after year. But one fateful day a visitor selling eggs caught sight of three-year-old Angelica and Benedicta; and by nightfall, an angry mob had gathered outside the family’s door. Determined to be a witch and the offspring of her coupling with the Beast, respectively, the mother and her twins were banished to the forest upon threat of death.
The girls grew wild and feral while their mother withered and faded away. Eventually they became orphans, alone save for each other – and the bitterness eating away at their hearts. The resulting hole could only be filled with the fear and hatred of others; of people like the ones who created them.
Once upon another time, also in the village of Gwenith, there lived a precocious seven-year-old girl whose brain wandered at night. One fateful evening her feet and legs followed. Though Alys’s parents cautioned her to never go out at night, lest she encounter the much-feared soul eaters – or, worse still, their master, The Beast – she disobeyed. By morning, every adult in Gwenith would be dead. Killed by the soul eaters, who Alys encountered in the pastures during her midnight stroll. She failed to sound the alarm. She was as bad as the soul eaters. She killed them all.
The Beast Is an Animal follows Alys from her childhood to her new life in neighboring Defaid, which took in the fifty orphans … and promptly put them to work guarding the village. All the while, Alys is drawn to the forest, to the girls who wear leaves in their hair and perch in trees at night. Their voices whisper like wind in her ears, as does that of the Beast. Only everything isn’t as cut and dried as the Defaid Elders would have Alys believe. There is ugliness in beauty, and you don’t always find evil where you expect it. That which Alys sees as monstrous in herself, may very well be the key to saving them all.
My feelings about The Beast Is an Animal are complicated. The writing is lovely, and the story has a dark, fairy tale feel to it. The soul eaters are especially compelling, borne as they were from the hatred of others. Given what they went through, it’s hard not to empathize.
There are also some great feminist elements, especially as they relate to the labeling of powerful or deviant women as “witches.” See, for example, Alys’s adoptive mother, Mistress Argyll. A midwife and healer, she’s forced to hide the medicinal roots and herbs she uses lest she stand accused of witchcraft … even though they’ve saved countless lives over the years. Likewise, as a childless midwife, she’s a bit of an anomaly. Eventually Alys learns that Heledd suffered numerous miscarriages in silence, in fear of being called a witch (because abortion).
Yet the story felt like it should have some overarching moral, and I struggled to find it. I thought at first it might be a coming-of-age story, geared toward young women struggling to survive in a world that hates them, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Perhaps it’s more of a caution against dogmatic religions ruled by fear – and uncompromising, hypocritical, know-it-all men? Allow fear and hate into your soul, and it could very well eat the world? (An accidentally timely message, now that I think on it.)
I hoped the ending might clear things up for me, but I found it anticlimactic, especially given the buildup.
Idk, maybe it’s just me and my muddled mind? (Recent events, man.) Perhaps someone else has a more coherent take on this?
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Not a whole lot.
Along with their mother, three-year-old twins Angelica and Benedicta are banished from Gwenith for witchcraft. (Girls are unlucky; twins, doubly so. Add to this their mirror identical-ness and the fact that their arrival coincided with drought and famine, and they never stood a chance.) They become wild, feral girls and, after their mother’s death, the bitterness and hatred turns them into soul eaters.
The soul eaters kill all the adults of Gwenith, leaving ~50 orphans in their wake. The kids are taken in by neighboring Defaid, but become slaves of a sort, made to guard the Wall and pastures at night (reasoning being that they were spared by the soul eaters once, so they’re the safest doing this dangerous work).
Pawl is the traveler who discovers the orphans of Gwenith and goes to Defaid for help. He keeps in touch with Alys over the years and eventually she joins his caravan. Pawl and his wife Beti are alcoholics; they turn to drink to help drown out the voices of the soul eaters at night. Pawl can sometimes be a mean drunk.
The villagers from Gwenith and Defaid are all light-skinned. Alys’s love interest Cian is a brown-skinned boy from the mountains; he came to stay with Pawl and Beti after his parents were killed by the soul eaters. The travelers/Lakers show more diversity in appearance; they’re also scorned by the ‘good’ and ‘holy’ villagers, though this doesn’t stop them doing business with the ‘heathens.’ In one scene, we see the housewives of Defaid gossiping about how the travelers marry their relatives, and some are even (gasp!) gay or lesbian. (Pawl and Beti are white.) Alys describes how the Lakers aren’t just varied in skin, hair and eye color; fashion and customs; but also gender identity: “There were people who weren’t man or woman. They were both, either, neither.”
Mistress and Brother Argyll, Alys’s adoptive parents, have no biological children; Alys comes to learn that Mistress has suffered multiple miscarriages, which she must hide from the Elders lest she be accused of witchcraft (or, alternately, lose her job as a midwife).
The Elders in Defaid practice corporal punishment; once, they force seven-year-old Alys’s adoptive Father to beat her about the arms with a wooden rod, leaving red welts in its wake.
Animal-friendly elements: Mostly n/a, although Alys does eat a wolf’s soul in self-defense. I count this as a net win, since it means that nonhumans have souls (are sentient?) to begin with.