Beauty and Cruelty weaves modernity into fairy tales
Cruelty and Beauty is, on the surface, yet another fractured fairy tale. It concerns itself with Sleeping Beauty and the Evil Fairy and a fantasy world. But the book doesn’t waste any time for it to announce itself as a meditation on the nature of belief. Indeed, its philosophy seems to ape Ioan Culiano’s: science is just another method of belief, no more or less reasonable than superstition.
This core belief is wrapped in layers of compulsively readable prose; it’s not the most beautiful or the most delicate — in fact, it’s inelegant and exacting, a voice charmingly familiar from the “Harry Potter” series. This isn’t prose that you muse over, or prose that you tear your hair out over — but it’s serviceable.
Luckily, the book isn’t long enough for its simplistic stylings to grow wearing — it clocks in at around one hundred pages. The shortened space allows Meredith Katz to show off her undeniable strong point: plot. In Cruelty and Beauty, Katz spins a ripping yarn out of the fairy tales she grew up with. This abbreviation doesn’t come without its own side effects, however. The characters of the book are oftentimes flat and lacking development and dimension; important plot points are sometimes glossed over; though the worldbuilding is generally comprehensive, some major facets of the world are inadequately explained.
The flaws of Cruelty and Beauty can be explained by its fairy tale origins; in some ways, it’s harder to develop a full character from what was originally a pamphlet length tale than to create one from scratch. Fairy tales carry a myriad of connotations that your imagination doesn’t.
Katz is fully aware of these connotations, and attempts to subvert them in her novella: she spins her fairy tales for the now-marginalised. (Of course, fairy tales were always for the marginalised — it’s just changed between then and now from the peasantry to minorities; Katz is simply updating them for the modern day.) She writes of a black gay man’s isolation from the narrative and his push for the fairy tale characters to modernise. In fact, this push makes up the majority plotline. (This isn’t of their own free will, however, but vital for their survival — which lessens the punch somewhat.)
Even still, Cruelty and Beauty succeeds in its goals. Perhaps not on its merits — perhaps it is somewhat bolstered by wearing its influences on its sleeve, but certainly, it succeeds. It’s a lovely, sentimental piece of fiction that doesn’t wear thin or outstay its welcome.