Sunday 5 November 2023

CBR15 Book 65: "A Curse So Dark and Lonely" by Brigid Kemmerer

Page count: 504 pages
Rating: 4 stars

A very long time ago, Prince Rhen, the crown prince of Emberfall, made a very foolish mistake and slept with the wrong woman. He's been paying for said mistake for centuries. Forced to relive the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he has to get a woman to fall in love with him in a few months, or he turns into a murderous beast and slaughters anyone he can find. If the curse remains unbroken, the season resets and Rhen is back on the day of his eighteenth birthday, starting the "game" once more.

The only one who survives his beastly rampages is Grey, the captain of his royal guard, who has to go into the mortal world for an hour at the start of every season to find a new woman to bring back to Emberfall, in the hopes of breaking the curse. 

Harper's mother is dying of cancer, and her father gambled away most of their money and abandoned his family, so now Harper's brother has to work as an enforcer for the people their dad owed money to. She's acting as a lookout for him while he's reluctantly threatening someone on behalf of his "employers" when she sees what appears to be a guy trying to kidnap a woman in an alley. Acting before she can think clearly, Harper jumps the guy to stop him and ends up in a magical land, trapped with Rhen and Grey. Apart from the two taciturn young men, the castle is completely empty. There are musical instruments that magically play, any food that is eaten magically reappears the next morning. Parker does her best to try to escape and discovers that the people who are living in the rest of Emberfall are suffering, believing that the royal family has abandoned them and trying their best to survive in the face of foreign invaders or the constant threat of the monster hanging over them.

The wicked sorceress who cursed Rhen in the first place has decided that this is his final chance at breaking the curse. If he doesn't find true love by the end of the season, he will remain a vicious monster and she will take over what is left of Emberfall. From Harper's clear dislike of him, Rhen is pretty sure that he's doomed, and tells Harper the truth (up to a point, he can't really bring himself to confess to being the monster that murdered the entire royal family and most of the surrounding villagers), figuring they might as well be honest with one another in the few months he has left.

Harper is not going to let the people around the castle starve or go defenseless. She demands that Rhen and Grey help her distribute some of the frankly staggering amounts of food around the castle, that just keeps magically replenishing every morning. She also makes Rhen understand that while he's rightfully depressed about the whole curse thing, he can't let Emberfall be invaded by a foreign power either. While scheming to try to trick the neighbouring ruler from giving up their invasion attempts, Rhen and Harper spend a whole lot of time together, but will it make Harper fall in love with Rhen before he turns into a monster one final time and all is lost?

This is the first of a trilogy, and the story is pretty much Beauty and the Beast meets Groundhog Day, except instead of Bill Murray learning to play the piano or carve ice sculptures, our hero is a mass murderer who has to live with the knowledge that as a monster he murdered not just the king and queen and his sisters, but all the people in the palace and a terrifying number of people in the areas surrounding the castle. In the many years since the curse began, Rhen and Grey have come up with plans to get the monster away from populated areas until the season resets, but while the prince and his loyal guard wake up healed and physically not a day older than they were when the curse set in, no one else who died can be brought back. That's going to mess anyone up, really.

Harper has cerebral palsy, and has had to go through a number of painful operations to fix her legs. She still walks with a limp, but refuses to let her illness define her. When the sorceress offers to magically heal her leg, Harper angrily responds that she's not broken. She hates that she's unable to do more to help her brother and mother, and it's her courage and sense of justice that makes her attack Grey when she sees him trying to bring another woman back to Emberfall, resulting in herself ending up trapped there instead. She's clearly nothing like any of the other women who have been brought there before and makes several escape attempts before realising that she might be better off working with Grey and Rhen, rather than against them. Once she sees how much the vengeful sorceress keeps torturing the prince and Grey, she reluctantly decides to make the best of a bad situation.

This is a very violent fairy tale retelling and I liked that it didn't pull its punches. The people outside of the palace do not have the seasons resetting, and while Rhen and Grey seem to have lived for centuries, only about five years or so have passed outside of the castle grounds. The common people of Emberfall have pretty much lost all hope, believing the royal family has fled and left them to manage on their own, against the raging monster and now an invading force from another country. Rhen isn't really sure how in the world he's going to be able to help his subjects, considering the rest of the royal family didn't flee, they were brutally murdered by the monster, as were all the other inhabitants of the castle, including the royal guard. There isn't really anyone to fight the enemy soldiers, but thanks to a rather farfetched scheme concocted by Harper, Rhen, and Grey, they're going to try anyway.

I'll be very interested in seeing where this series goes, considering the end of this one. There are some interesting new challenges set up and even if I didn't already own the whole trilogy, I would probably keep reading, just because Kemmerer did something a bit different with her story. 

Judging a book by its cover: On my paperback edition of this book, the title is in a shimmery silver (as is the back cover of the book) and I like the dark and slightly spooky look of the thorns and the woods. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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