Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Ambition, longing, love — extreme emotions are capable of making us all a little beastly as we strive for what we want most in our hearts.
As we roll into the dog days of summer, these three YA novels move beyond metaphor as their protagonists physically transform into the creatures that lie within.
I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me
I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me by Jamison Shea is set in the brutal world of the Ballet Academy of Paris. As the end of her last year at the academy draws nigh, Laure is vying with her classmates for place in the Paris Ballet. But no matter how hard she works, it will never be a fair competition — not while the people in charge tell her to her face that she is too "exotic" because she's Black.
Then Joséphine, the rising star of the Paris Ballet, takes Laure under her wing. When Joséphine shows her the catacombs underneath Paris and urges her to make a bargain with a river of blood and the ancient power that dwells within it, Laure doesn't hesitate. Why shouldn't she take any advantage she can get? As Laure uses the power her bargain has bestowed upon her, she realizes that every choice she makes begins to transform her, and she must decide just how monstrous she's willing to become.
The competitive world of classical ballet is harrowing on its own, from the pins and razors hidden in rivals' toe shoes to the punishing regime of practice. The layering in of blood-fueled bargains with supernatural forces feels totally believable when the stakes are already so high. Laure's gruesome ascent into the role of prima ballerina makes her realize just how cruel the game has been from the start. I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me is relentlessly gory and almost euphoric in its embrace of the horrific, and Laure's transformation will speak to girls who have had enough of being dominated and knocked down.
A Warning About Swans
In R.M. Romero's A Warning About Swans, the inner beast also represents a power that must be reclaimed. This novel in verse tells a story about a swan-girl named Hilde who is tasked with helping the souls of the dead to move on to the afterlife. Her duties weigh on her, and when an impoverished Baron asks her to cast aside her swan form and help him with her magic, she jumps at the chance to leave it all behind and learn to be human.
In her quest to fit in at court, Hilde hires an artist to paint her portrait. But instead of making her look like the lady she longs to be, the artist, Franz, paints her with the swan wings she has cast aside. The more time Hilde spends with Franz, the more she realizes that she was not meant to only be human. But the Baron hides away her swan cloak, trapping her in the human world and ensuring that her magic will belong to him alone. In order to break free, Hilde will have to find some way to access the swan that lives within her.
Although A Warning About Swans has a real historical setting — the royal palaces and forests of 1880s Bavaria — it definitely feels more like a fairytale than historical fantasy. The verse is very straightforward and the poetry of it becomes evident in the specificity of the observations it makes about human nature. Dreamy, melancholy, and pensive, A Warning About Swans takes us on a journey of self-realization as Hilde learns to love as a human and thereby embrace her truest self.
Her Radiant Curse
Love is also at the heart of the transformations in Her Radiant Curse by Elizabeth Lim but, in this case, it is the love between two sisters. Most people would say that between sisters Vanna and Channi, one is blessed and the other is cursed. Vanna was born with a golden light that illuminates her from within and makes her irresistible to everyone who meets her. Channi has snake venom running through her blood and a scaly, serpentine face to match. Reviled by the rest of her family and her village, Channi would do anything to protect Vanna from the terrifying witch demon who has sworn to steal her sister's light.
But when Vanna's hand in marriage is auctioned off to the highest bidder, Channi is separated from her sister and thrust into an unlikely partnership with a dragon. Together, they may have a chance at saving Vanna — but only if Channi can find some way to value her own life, despite having learned again and again that Vanna is the only one who can love her.
Lim's work always manages to perfectly straddle the line between fairytale and fantasy, blending elements from different cultures and mythologies to create a vivid and interesting world. Her Radiant Curse feels the most folktale-like of her work to date, taking the standard trope of the "beautiful" sister and the "ugly" sister and twisting it into an exploration of inner strength and compassion. A prequel that explores the backstory behind Lim's Six Crimson Cranes duology, Her Radiant Curse is a tragedy that brings deeper meaning to the larger tale.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.