Classic fairytales. Twenty-first century.
The phrase ‘old dog new tricks’ might uncharitably come to mind when looking into the synopsis of Beasts and Beauty, Soman Chainani’s newest work, a collection of classic Western fairytales remixed and retold for a modern audience, with an emphasis on diverse, inclusive storytelling that helps reinvent the tales for a new generation (or two or three) of readers.
In the book world, it’s impossible not to find a fiction bookshelf in 2021 without a retelling of a classic – whether it’s a Jane Austen novel updated into a murder mystery, an ancient myth that becomes an adult romance, or a centuries-old archetypal story turned into a YA fantasy thriller. While Beasts and Beauty falls into none of the forementioned categories, it shares plenty of similarities with a lot of the modern literary landscape – as well as Chainani’s own back catalogue.
Chainani is perhaps best known for his global hit series The School for Good and Evil, a fantasy epic which explores an academy bifurcated for the purposes of raising the next generation of heroes and villains. In these books, Chainani explores the myths and fairytales well-known to a majority of us and transforms them into a darker, more thrilling adventure that explores the themes of nature vs nurture and free will vs fate; if you’re destined to become a villain, is there any point in trying to fight your fate?
It’s no spoiler to say that these same themes emerge across the length and breadth of Beasts and Beauty as we explore the differences between the heroes and villains, each framed in a different light within each story. A puckish hero becomes an immortal monster. A passive princess uses her femininity as a weapon. A villainess becomes the grounding voice of reason. Chainani clearly adores playing with these tropes and well-established narratives, in turn making them a joy to read. Little ‘Red Riding Hood’ changes from a story about female peril to empowerment, replete with a squad of handsome, lupine pursuers. while ‘Beauty and the Beast’ explores the complexities of physical appearance and gender expectations with devastating, bittersweet grace.
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Chainani writes with a deftness of touch that helps infuse the archetypes of his tales with sly, modern freshness: ‘Bluebeard’ is cunningly reinvented as a metaphor for abuse and trauma and gives its protagonist, a guileful boy adopted by the azure-fuzzed pirate, an air of airy grace and subversive power. In another reimagining, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is transformed from a story about childhood neglect into a tale about the power of family ties through the delectable medium of traditional Middle Eastern and Asian confections; as an aside, anyone who finds a real joy in descriptions of food will source plenty to salivate over in this collection, with feasts replete for kings and wondrous repasts alike ready for reading pleasure, and anyone who can spot the cheeky RuPaul’s Drag Race Easter egg hidden within the book deserves some magic beans as a reward.
It’s impossible not to talk about the beauty (pun very much intended) of the book without taking a moment to discuss Julia Iredale‘s accompanying artwork and illustrations which fill and transform the pages, breathing animation and life into Chainani’s fables. Within a handful of pages, you can find yourself running the emotional gamut, finding yourself entranced by the horrifying sight of a giantess, more Medusa archetype than a woman of just colossal proportions, and then warmed by the sight of a beloved calf being guided into sleep. Iredale’s artistry evokes classic fairytale artwork – princes and princesses, wolves and devils – and gives them a modern spin that celebrates their heritage while moving into the future alongside their characters.
That’s not to say that every story ends on a happy ending – in fact, Chainani seems intent on changing the directions of each tale’s central figure. While some stories do end in tragedy or a deep, sweet melancholy of desired futures thwarted, there are plenty of stories that still subvert their original fate and give their heroes another, perhaps better chance – romantic love is eschewed for familial companionship, toxic cycles are broken, and protagonists are empowered to not only survive but thrive.
Beasts and Beauty is touted as an anthology of stories for young adults, and while it might be tempting to try and skew them lower, for a middle-grade audience who are perhaps more open to straightforward reimaginings of classic fairytales, the inherent darkness at the centre of each story makes it far more palatable for teenaged-and-older readers. In fact this same darkness makes each story in this enjoyable, immediately re-readable collection even more delectable, something to be simultaneously savoured and devoured, like a piece of gingerbread from a witch’s house, or, more fittingly in this case, pistachio and cardamom.
Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales is out now from 4th Estate / Harper Collins.