Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: MONSTROUS BEAUTY By Elizabeth Fama

This is the ARC cover, so it's the cover I own.
Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.
I am so glad I just wrote about my internal rating system, because I think it will be helpful for you all to reference that post while reading this review. Yes, this book was that kind of book.

I've known about Monstrous Beauty for some time now. Back when I was just starting to look into industry blogs, I came across a site where the blogger was talking about a mermaid book. I don't remember what blog it was now; I think it may have been Ms. Fama's agent's. Maybe. Either way, I remember the blogger talking about this fantastic-sounding mermaid book that had originally been called Syrenka and was now being changed to Monstrous Beauty.

And then I went on with my life, because the book wasn't out yet, and I was a reader who read things that were out, not a blogger who had to keep up, so what did I care?

Then, once I had a blog and started keeping up with things, that mermaid book kept popping up. People were talking about it. And then I won it! Woohoo!

You'd think with all that forewarning that I would have some idea what I was getting into.

Not even close.

I expected a mermaid tale with some edge. I knew some modern-day stuff would be involved, but I thought the book would be heavy on mermaid and follow some of the same tropes of a mermaid and a human girl teaming up somehow. The curse brings the edge, but whatever.

This book is DARK. Like, Holy-cow-Fama-is-one-twisted-sister dark. Don't expect any singing crabs here. There's murder and betrayal and curses and just out-and-out messed-upness. (Don't judge me on my new words.)

The narrative bounces back and forth between Syrenka's time in the 1800s and Hester's time in the present day, and Ms. Fama handles both with equal skill. Syrenka and Hester are connected, so their narratives weave in and out, tightening as the book progresses.

In the earlier narrative, we follow Syrenka, a mermaid looking for love. She finds in it Ezra Doyle, a young naturalist. Unfortunately, she can't be part of his world (take a moment to sing, if you wish), because she's immortal and soulless. To gain a soul, she has to give birth to a human baby and... well, let's just say that everything, including souls and mortality, come with a price. There's a reason sirens/mermaids aren't spoken of very highly in ancient fables.

Syrenka obtains her legs and life with Ezra (not a spoiler; it's right there in the synopsis), but she sets off a chain of events that unfold through the rest of the story. Seriously bad things happen. These bad things keep unfolding and spreading all the way into the twenty-first century where they collide full force into Hester.

Ah, strange, foul-mouthed little Hester. She's spent her entire life throwing up walls. Even her best friend Peter is only allowed so close. Because if you get close to someone, you might fall in love. And if you fall in love, you'll get married and have kids. And in Hester's family, if you have a kid, you die. [Yes, I think in ungrammatical staccato sentences. Deal with it.]

See? Dark.

And that's not even half of it. I can't talk about some of the creepiest/most intense parts of the book, because I would be veering sharply into spoiler territory. I don't even watch scary movies, so I don't have a way to subtly prepare you for what you're about to get yourself into. It's like The Sixth Sense mixed with the trailers for those different exorcism movie trailers mixed with those old-timey straight-up Gothic romance novels.

Oddly, I didn't feel much of anything for many of the main characters. They were set pieces for me, moving the plot forward. The only exception is Ezra, who was so very real and so very wonderful. Even more oddly, I didn't mind. I felt sorry for the proper characters (Peter, Linnie, McKee, and especially Ezra), but I was focused completely on the mystery and the craft.

And oh man, what a mystery and what craft! Thanks to dropped hints, I could usually figure out bits before they happened, but Ms. Fama keeps this beautiful pace, dolling out inklings with all the languid certainty of a priest passing Communion wafers. My stomach was in knots, because I knew what was going to happen and I dreaded it all... and yet, at the same time, I wasn't sure that I knew and things might turn out worse than even I could imagine.

I could talk about the writing forever. It's languid in some places, bitingly vicious in others, and beautiful in every single sentence. It's one of those books that I've talked about before, the kind that feels more literary than typical YA books. It's like... like Lady Audley's Secret, but without all the hoke.

As far as ratings go, I'd put Monstrous Beauty alongside Before I Fall. I won't keep it. It has too much language, too much sex, too much what I dub ickiness for me to keep my copy. However, the exquisite plotting and writing earn this book my highest marks.

Points Added For: Craft, creepiness, a haunting setting, fantastic supporting characters, diabolical yet understandable villains.

Points Subtracted For: Absurdedly superstitious and backwards churchgoers/pastors (really, hasn't this malignant stereotype died out yet?), an unnecessary creeper, profanities that got pretty old after a while, an ending that left me going "Now HOW is she going to explain that to her parents?"

Good For Fans Of: Creepy gothic novels, deadly merpeople, gorgeously languid writing.

Notes For Parents: Heavy language, sex, rape, ghosts, murder, talks of exorcisms, nudity.

Disclaimer: I won an ARC copy from Fierce Reads on Facebook.

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