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Monday, September 3, 2012

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

I suspected mermaids were the next wave in YA fantasy creatures, and Monstrous Beauty has proven that even if they aren't, they should be. Author Elizabeth Fama creates a well-defined mythos full of terror and the sorrow of never being able to love without tragic consequences. Many non-YA books wish they were as well conceived and constructed. Mermaids allow readers into the female side of the fantasy world in a way vampires and wizards have thus far been unable to do.

The history of a place like Plymouth, Massachusetts, makes it the perfect setting for a book like this. I was skeptical when I first picked this story up, but the setting and the history-loving protagonist drew me in even more than the vivid descriptions and mysterious atmosphere.

The best feature of this novel is that the origin story is interspersed with present-day chapters, so the reader not only has time to care about both sets of characters, but also to enjoy an important dramatic irony by the middle of the story. The reader knows what Hester is looking for better than she does, but the complete sequence of events only becomes clear at the end, when Hester herself finds out the final pieces of the puzzle. It's masterfully done.

One sticking point for me was Hester's antique perception of love=marriage=babies. Perhaps I just can't sympathize, but it seemed like a weird leap to me, and her admission near the climax of the book that she's planning to never have children (in order to escape her family's curse) fell a little flat for me because it was only logical. In the end, I decided to forgive it because the century-long curse really doesn't have any effect unless the women are having babies. There is a rape in this book, which is necessary because it sets all the other elements in motion to create the curse. Without it, there's no story. Or, at least, there could have been a happier one. That doesn't make it less disturbing.

In spite of the intertwining stories, the novel is fast paced. Hard to put down, especially for readers who love the ancient lore of the sea.