Roses, by Rose Mannering (Sky Pony Press), went on my to-be-read list when it first came out in 2013, and I read the Kirkus review--"A lyrical, remarkably unusual retelling breeds new life into the “Beauty and the Beast” tale." But other books happened, and I would periodically look at it in my Amazon cart and sigh, and continue to want to read it. So I was very happy when I was offered a review copy to coincide with the new paperback edition and sat down with high hopes.
We meet Beauty as an orphan, taken in by a wealthy woman who doesn't actually want her (the backstory to this is revealed as the story progresses) and she's unloved, unwanted, and freakishly strange--her skin is silvery and her hair is white, making her name, which is thrown at her for lack of anything better, seem at first ironic. In a country building up to paranoid hatred for magic and magical persons, being not entirely human looking is a huge strike against her.
When the magic-haters take over her home city, Beauty is taken up into the hills by the family's horseman (the one person who truly cares for her) and still not yet adult, starts a new life with him there in the village he came from. But the villagers in the hills also think she is strange, and her protector's own biological daughter who he left behind as a baby is (naturally) jealous as heck that her father loves the odd orphan girl more than her. Then the violence that drove Beauty from her first home catches up to her in the hills, and the Beast story enters the picture, and so to save her foster father after he took a rose from the magical castle in the forest, she goes to live with the beast.
Fans of Robin McKinley's Beauty will enjoy the next part, because Roses is essentially the same, down to the world of the garden reflecting the weakening of the spell, the magical library, the horse that is Beauty's best friend. I loved this part, and wish it had started before page 179. There are some diffence, enough to make it interesting, but it felt very familiar in general.
The problem with beginning a book when the main character is a baby is that it is tedious to watch her grow up. I feel I had gotten the point of Beauty's unhappy childhood in the big house in the city long before that part of the story was over, and I felt like I was slogging a bit. Bits of interest about the world and its magic/non-magic tensions hinted at a larger story to come, but it had never fully materialized even by the end of the book. Getting up in the hill country, where Beauty starts taming wild horses, was good, and getting to the castle was better. But I kept feeling that the author repeatedly was making points that I'd already grasped, or hinting at, but not fully grappling with, the larger story, which made me feel somewhat frustrated
The larger social issues of violence against magical beings swings into the story's ending, rather abruptly and with no particular emotional resonance because of feeling rushed. There's definitly lots of room for more story to happen, as Beauty learns who her parents are and becomes more aware of her own powers of magic and figures out how to use them.
Roses did have something that's rather rare in fantasy--religion is a cherished part of the lives of several main characters, praying brings comfort, and the village priest up in the mountains is wise and compassionate, though we don't hear much about the dogma of the religion. Religion as part o daily life, that brings comfort (as opposed to angry gods and cults of savage priests) is something so seldom mentioned in YA fantasy that it was a refreshing change.
Final thought--didn't quite work for me mostly for reasons of personal preference but also because of a feeling that the larger Magic vs the World plot and Absent Magical Parents plot was unevenly woven into the story. And also because the Castle part felt rather too familiar.
That being said, give this one to a horse loving young teen who likes fairy tales, and I bet they will enjoy it lots!
The second book in this trilogy, Feathers, has just been released--though it seems more companion than sequel, I'm invested enough in this world and it's problems that it's now on my reading list, and hopefully will be read in a more timely fashion than was the case with Roses!