My favorite scene from a Disney movie is at the end of Beauty and the Beast when the curse is lifted and the beast is transformed back to his true self. Belle takes one look at the handsome prince, doesn’t recognize him and she starts to turn away. But then their gazes meet and Belle knows she is indeed looking into the eyes of her one true love.
Honestly, I’ve always been amazed that such a romantic scene takes place in a film that also stars a singing teapot and dancing candlestick.
Although it is only a cartoon, Beauty and the Beast captures one of the most enduring of all human needs — to be loved for your inner beauty rather than outward appearance. It can be difficult enough to try to recognize the person you are suppose to be with, adding a disfigurement on top of that just makes finding true love that much more challenging.
So what got me thinking about Disney's Beauty and the Beast? It was an upcoming Harlequin Nocturne book Lord of the Abyss by one of my all time favorite authors, Nalini Singh. In the final book in the Royal House of Shadows series, Nalini’s characters must vanquish the Blood Sorcerer who has destroyed the magical land of Elden. If the plot reminds you of a fairytale, then that's good because the author’s new story was inspired by Beauty and the Beast. But you should expect some seriously dark undertones because we are not talking Disney's version here. Instead, Nalini puts her own spin on the often-used plot and her heroine becomes the tale’s “beast”. Not a Plain Jane, not a wallflower. No, Liliana is actually disfigured. Here is her description:
“She was … mismatched … [H]er eyes were tiny dots a peculiar sort of nowhere color and her mouth much too big, her hooked nose overwhelming every other feature … Her breasts were so small as to be non-existent, while her ribs stuck out from beneath her skin. Her behind, by comparison, was rather large, and one of her legs was shorter than the other.”
Luckily for Liliana, she has landed in Black Castle where all of the inhabitants are odd in their own ways from the hulking Bard who doesn’t speak to a curious kitchen Brownie. The lord of the castle, the Guardian of the Abyss, is the only one in the entire realm who is physically handsome. In fact, the first time that Liliana meets the Guardian she thinks, “He was the most beautiful monster she had ever seen.“ Not that the Guardian’s looks mean anything to her. Liliana has forced her way into the castle in order to right the wrongs her father committed against the Guardian, who used to be known as Prince Micah of Elden. Liliana is there to help Micah remember his past and return to his homeland, not to moon over a golden haired used-to-be prince.
Likewise, Micah does not put any store in Liliana’s looks because to him, she is so much more that her appearance. Instead of concentrating on her face or disfigured body, he is immediately intrigued because she is not afraid of him. Liliana’s ability to help him forget his difficult duties and make him smile means more to him than her hooked nose does. As the Guardian of the Abyss, our hero is used to hunting down and capturing the most evil, horrific souls to ever exist. So he knows what true ugliness looks like and it has nothing to do with small eyes or tangled hair. After just a few minutes with Liliana, he knows she is filled with caring and goodness.
The willingness of the hero to not focus on the heroine’s appearance, as disturbing as it may be, is what makes Lord of the Abyss a true beauty and the beast story. This also got me thinking about some of the other romances that might fall into this theme. I thought of my favorite go-to “beastly” story — Amanda Quick’s Ravished. I realized that Quick's book doesn’t quite fit the definition that I had created in my head. While Gideon is labeled a beast, the Beast of Blackthorne Hall to be exact, he is not really, truly beastly. Sure, he has a scar on his cheek and he is large and can be menacing, but he doesn’t really fit the bill as someone who is deformed.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most romance novels containing a beauty and the beast theme rely heavily on an injured or scarred character. With the character’s injury they become bitter, reclusive and viola, instant beast. We see it over and over again in books including Beast by Judith Ivory, Bride of the Beast by Sue-Ellen Welfonder, To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt and When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James. And while these are excellent books — all of them are RT Top Picks or award winners — the truth is that what makes these characters beastly is not their appearance, but their attitude. These heroes have become cruel because of an injury and decided to stay mad at the world. This is in stark contrast to the way that Nalini plays with the classic storyline in her new novel.
In Lord of the Abyss, Liliana has come to terms with her looks. She knows she is deformed, but that doesn’t stop her from finding friends and laughing. Sure, her heart hurts when people are cruel about her unfortunate physical appearance, but she also knows that that is not who she is, it is merely what she looks like. And this is what makes Lord of the Abyss my new favorite beauty and the beast story.
Do you have a favorite beauty and the beast romance? Let me know in the comments and while you are there let me know what you think makes a character “beastly”.