From the BLURB:
Fall in love, break the curse.
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she's instead somehow sucked into Rhen's cursed world.
Break the curse, save the kingdom.
A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn't know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what's at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.
‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ by Brigid Kemmerer is the first book in her young-adult fantasy ‘Cursebreakers’ series that came out in 2019.
I first started reading Kemmerer back in 2012, with her YA ‘Elementals’ series – and since then, she’s just become a YA-force with a slew of contemporary stand-alones, five books in the ‘Elementals’ overall and now the hugely successful ‘Cursebreakers’ series. And with ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ you definitely get the feeling that you’re delving into a new world by a seasoned author who absolutely knows her niche and writes to it *exquisitely* well.
Case-in-point is how entertaining and fresh this first ‘Cursebreakers’ is, even through the fact that there have been a *lot* of Fairytale retellings in YA recently and always; from ‘The Lunar Chronicles’ by Marissa Meyer, to the particularly expansive realm of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retellings specifically (‘Beast’ by Brie Spangler, ‘Cruel Beauty’ by Rosamund Hodge, ‘Hunted’ by Meagan Spooner … there are truly *so* many!). ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is an odd beast (sorry) in particular, because it is a beloved Disney-version but also it is an incredibly problematic fairytale (even knowing that all fairytales are misogynistic cautionary tales designed to keep women in check). The best summary I’ve seen of the specific ‘Beauty and the Beast’ issues comes from YouTuber Lindsay Ellis, and her 2017 video ‘Is Beauty and the Beast About Stockholm Syndrome?’ (SPOILER: kinda yes)
Modern retellings have had to really push a boulder up a mountain to counteract the inherently icky aspects of B&B, and the thing is … they still exist in ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ and they are still a problem, but; I still really enjoyed this book regardless, and truly appreciated Kemmerer’s deft hand in this retelling enough to not really care … which could also be linked to my just wanting to fall into a book during pandemic. And this novel 100% achieved a couple nights of taking my mind off the world, so I’m probably feeling disproportionate gratefulness here too, but still – I think this book works!
First of all; there’s a little ‘Enchanted’ (the 2007 film) going on here, in that there’s the magical world of Emberfell lurking behind Washington D.C. where heroine Harper lives a hard life with her brother and dying mother, when she is accidentally abducted by King’s guardsman Grey, and bought to the world of Emberfell which is currently 300-seasons into a curse. Prince Rhen slept with the wrong witchmage and sparked her ire, turning him into a deadly monster at the end of each season until he finds his true love. Grey has been slipping into our world to widen the net of women to bring back to his prince to try and make fall in love with him, and Harper happens to be the unwitting and unlucky latest candidate.
So – yes – abduction still a marker of this series. As is the disgruntled sexy witch who puts a curse on a selfish prince because he dismissed her affections. Kemmerer also somewhat disturbingly introduces a fair amount of suicidal ideation for Prince Rhen, who is truly at the end of his tether when it looks like his 300th woman is even less inclined to love him, more likely she’ll beat him to death with a rusty pipe … yes, there are problems. See the aforementioned Lindsay Ellis video.
But – there’s a lot to admire here too. Harper is a heroine with cerebral palsy, which is represented here – I think – with a lot of tenderness and spunk. Harper undergoes this transformation to warrior princess in a lot of ways, and I appreciated that she pondered her own ability while delivering action and heroism in spades. My real bone to pick is how many times derogatory terms like ‘cripple’ are used; I’d have much preferred incidental diversity in a lot of ways, and I think Harper’s own ability to prove herself to herself would have been more than sufficient.
I also really did love the dynamic of Grey, Rhen and Harper …. And yes; there’s tension here (was it just me though, who thought Rhen and Grey had a little somethin’-somethin’? I thought *that* would have been a great twist to the fairytale!) and the cliffhanger ending happily suggests that this threesome will become an even bigger story in book #2 (which I am starting ASAP!)
Overall; there were problems. Sure. But like I said – Kemmerer has an uncanny ability to write seamlessly and draw readers in, even to somewhat tired tropes and adaptations. She does it again here, and to great effect – I loved it.