Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
Sarah’s family moves all of the time, away from the cold that her mother despises. But when her mother walks out one day, Sarah’s father falls apart. He barely eats and never grocery shops. It all falls to Sarah to keep them both alive. Her father seems to be becoming less human by the day, descending into an animal with scruffy hair and yellowed teeth. Unable to care for Sarah, he takes her to her grandparents’ home, grandparents she had been told were dead. Left in a moldering castle in a deep woods, Sarah begins to figure out the deep curse that keeps her entire family prisoner. Her grandmother treats her coldly, putting her to work in the gardens. Her grandfather is trapped in a cage, fully transformed into a beast yet still able to speak to Sarah at times. Sarah doesn’t believe in the magic at work at first but soon is forced to admit that something is happening as she witnesses it for herself. Yet there are twists to the curse that bind her to witches, boys in the wood, and the beasts of her family, including the beast inside herself.
Hellisen beautifully converts the story of Beauty and the Beast into something quite different and extraordinary. Her writing is as lush as the forest itself and she weaves amazing descriptions onto the pages that bring the entire book to life. She uses this technique for both characters and the setting. Here is her description of the castle when Sarah first sees it on page 48:
It was a single squat turret, like a jabbing finger or a lone tooth, made of mottled stone, dribbled and spattered with lichen in yellows and reds. Furry clumps of moss clung velvety and green at the base. Ivy grew wild, so thick in some places it distorted the shape of the tower, and sprays of leaves crowned with little blue-black berries rose over the low walls around the outskirts. Tumbled boulders marked the faint outlines of rooms that had long since fallen.
Talk about showing and not telling! She is a master at that, creating mood with details that linger in your mind. This castle is no fairy tale one, or is it?
Hellisen does not set her protagonist on a simple quest either. Sarah slowly reveals the twists and turns of the curse, binding herself closer and closer to disaster with each revelation. Disaster waits on the other side of each breath and at times it seems to have already won. Sarah though is up to the challenge, willing to sacrifice herself to try to prevent the curse from continuing onward in her family.
This is a gorgeously written tale of love, betrayal, revenge and family. Fans of retellings of classic fairy tales will find so much to adore in this fantasy novel. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Co.