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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
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Middle grade / fantasy, 208 pages
Published February 3rd 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Sarah has always been on the move. Her mother hates the cold, so every few months her parents pack their bags and drag her off after the sun. She’s grown up lonely and longing for magic. She doesn’t know that it’s magic her parents are running from.

When Sarah’s mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to her grandparents—people she has never met, didn’t even know were still alive.

Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family bloodlines, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah will transform into a beast . . . unless she can figure out a way to break the curse forever.

Occasionally, I come across books that I find difficult to review. Whether it's because I don't like them and wanted to, like them too much and don't know how to express it, or am in some weird limbo where I can't even begin to tell you what I liked or didn't like, and why, there are some reviews that just stump me a little.  And sometimes, as I work through what I felt about the book, these reviews can get a little long, and maybe a smidge circular. I'm not saying that my review of Beastkeeper will be one of those reviews, but... (it's totally one of those reviews.)

I want to start off by saying that I liked it. I did, and I want to make that clear, because I may undermine that statement, and I don't really mean to. It feels original and unique, and not only because of the role reversal of the female lead being the cursed beastly one (which I loved, btw). Though it morphed into something beyond a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the elements that shaped it are clear and present, and this made it have a fresh feel, while also feeling familiar and reminiscent, and that's a style that's really well-suited to me.

I do wonder if this would have been better served as an older YA novel, though, even though I like the middle-grade feel of it (and I like a middle grade book that's willing to go a bit dark). But I feel like, maybe some things would have been more fleshed out, or the darkness and gray area better explored if it were YA -- though I'm torn, because I think there's something about MG styles of storytelling that is perfectly suited to fairy tale retellings! I guess I kinda wanted both, and both would have offered me different things, and I think I've worked my way around to an odd sort of back-handed compliment, because in saying I wanted more, it's kind of a good thing: when I really like a story or concept (or character, or world), I want to keep exploring it. I want to see it from every angle. So the fact that I want means something. That I want X and I want Y, and I want more means that I didn't want to let it go, but wanted to keep digging into what was there, keep discovering its facets.

I also wish it would have been longer, which is a thing I think I also said about Cat's The Sea is Rising Red.  There's a tendency in some authors to have an almost meditative build-up, then a really interesting reversal that gets rushed straight through to the end, It's not an overriding thing, it's not that it feels incredibly rushed, or anything like that. It's more...there's a point where things got especially interesting for me, and I wanted more of it. The last 25% of the book, say, could have been stretched out a bit, and made me a very happy camper. (And this may go back a bit to the idea of being YA and exploring things a little more fully and slowly -- though I think I said the same thing in When the Sea..., which was YA, so who knows.)

I think people will love or hate how things play out in the end, and I'm really not sure where on the spectrum I fall. I love when something doesn't go down predictable paths, or doesn't give easy answers to difficult questions, and for that I appreciate Beastkeeper, and Cat Hellisen's writing in general. But at the same time, sometimes when you lay a groundwork of the familiar, and you reinforce it and bolster it, only to tear it down at the end, it can either make things seem delightfully subverted, or it can make things seem unplanned and unfocused. I had a suspicion that things were not going to follow the predictable HEA route, so I wasn't terribly bothered by this, but it has that comforting, summertime middle grade adventure feel to it* that may make some people, if not irritated by the end, maybe puzzled or uncomfortable about it. It probably won't be what the majority of readers are expecting (and that can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the type of reader you are, and what you want from a story).

In the end, I was left feeling a bit like I did with When the Sea...: I felt so close to falling head over heels for it, but I just couldn't quite get there. With a touch more development, a more slow-simmering plot and a chance to really get to know the characters more intimately, I think this would be something I'd be pushing on people for many years to come. I hate to say that it fell just shy of that, especially because I said the same of When the Sea..., and then found myself constantly thinking about it for years after I'd read it. The characters still pop into my head, unexpectedly and uninvited, to this day; I can't shake them. And when a story worms its way into my head like that, that means something.

So I don't want to leave you with an impression that I didn't like this, because I did. It's hard, in reviews like this, because when a book is so close for me, I end up talking about all the things that would have pushed it over the edge into a fast favorite, and feel like I end up giving the impression that it had a lot of problems, or that I flat-out didn't like it. But if I don't like a book, often there's not much to say; I end up indifferent. It's only when I really like something that I'm so close to loving, that the reviews come out in this tangle of emotions that makes me feel like I have to explain away everything I've said, so that you're left with the impression I want you to take from it, rather than the one I'm afraid I've actually given...
Or maybe I'm just a little neurotic.

*Don't ask me what makes this feel like a "summertime middle grade adventure" because I don't think it could really be described as any of that, on more than a very shallow level. It's more a feel I associate with some books, probably based on some weird synesthetic process, from books I've long since forgotten, and I really couldn't begin to justify or explain...

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  1. I actually felt the same way - that it could have been longer and that I wished parts of it were much more fleshed out. I didn't dislike it but I think I noted I wouldn't be returning to it for a re read at any point.

    1. I actually think I will reread it at some point. I felt the same way about When the Sea is Rising Red, too -- like I'd get more out of it a second time around.

  2. Haha! Some books leave me in the in between world too so I get the issue of trying review them. I do love the role reversal idea, but sad that the overall story was shy on development. Still want to read it, but probably not in the near future. Thanks!


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