THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. PLEASE READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Planeta has had translated As Old as Time. Never heard of it? Well, it's a famous novel by Liz Bradwell that is a rewriting of the great eighteenth-century fairytale, focused on the rhetorical question...:
What if Belle's mum was the fairy who turned the Prince into his inner Beast? What if she left her husband and child because muggle-fairy marriages rarely work, feigning her own death to keep them safe? What if the half-blood Belle herself, as a consequence, has inherited latent powers?
Clever, restless bluestocking Belle is weary of her provincial life, dreaming to explore the wide world. However, everything changes when she becomes the prisoner of the Beast.
Upon touching the hidden red rose, her mind is filled with images of her missing mother, now revealed to be the one who cursed the selfish Prince and all of his courtiers. Will Belle and the Beast, together, unravel the mystery that tied their two families together years ago?I was instantly hooked to the story told in a fleshed-out setting that emphasizes the period piece nature of the classic fairytale film: Belle eagerly reads Voltaire and listens to Mozart, aside from quoting Shakespeare... but this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Belle's Maman/Rosalind: In this AU, SHE'S STILL ALIVE!! And not only that, we get to follow the green-eyed, blonde charmante's love story (magic users are called charmants -male- and charmantes -female- in this story) with her husband Maurice, and we also get to know where Belle got her quick temper and sarcasm from. Introduced as a barmaid who turns a harasser's nose into a pig snout, catching the attention of the equally clever young inventor who witnesses the event, in a scene which quickly causes this tale as old as time to unfurl. Nine months later, we see these two young folks married and the parents of a healthy baby girl, but soon forced by an epidemic and growing unrest following the royal couple's death, not to mention a realmwide persecution of charmants, into exile: Maurice, with an infant Belle in his arms, leaves the capital of the little Ruritanian kingdom for a village on the French border, while Rosalind, ever so plucky, heads for the royal castle to try to reason with the pre-adolescent orphan prince and his courtiers, after which her husband and daughter know, for lustrums, nothing of her whereabouts. And yes, she enchanted the prince and courtiers in this version, but only because he was a spoiled only child bereft of his parents, influenced by his guardian, and oblivious to his people's plight, and who treated his servants and courtiers like inanimate objects. She soon realises the error of her ways, as, for every petal that falls off the rose, the Beast-Prince becomes less humane and more animalistic, wild and brutish and even literally thirsty for blood.
In the end, the family of three finally reunites and decides to make up for lost time, Belle and Rosalind deciding to take up the quest to find charmants living in exile throughout Europe and bring them back to the Château of what once was their native land.
Mr. Potts: In this AU, however, the husband of Beatrice Potts and father of Charles-Alistair "Chip" Potts is dead because he knew too much, and because of a dark secret. We first meet a twentyish Alaric Potts, a very friendly, hefty blond, in the company of Maurice and of Frédérick d'Arque, all three of them becoming friends and as thick as thieves.
M. d'Arque/Frédérick: As a kid, the character of Monsieur d'Arque on the animated screen gave me such willies that mum always had to rewind past the scene in question. If he was ridiculous in the live action version of the film (2017), in this novel he is not only a sinister presence, but even the real antagonist, Gaston being his hired muscle... Frédérick d'Arque is introduced as a clairvoyant young man who had to interrupt his university studies to become the court physician in the kingdom of charmants, and exerting such influence over the royals, especially the parents of the sickly little ailing prince/beast-to-be, that the Rasputin and Struensee parallels cannot be more evident; but these soon give way to Hitler parallels when epidemics and harvest failures decimate the population of the realm, and, though being a charmant himself (much like Hitler was short and dark and unlike Aryans), d'Arque, who had foreseen the crisis thanks to his clairvoyance (which he considers a curse), encourages the realmwide persecution and imprisonment/torture of his fellow charmants, even more so when the royal couple perishes due to the epidemic, and d'Arque is left as regent and guardian to the tweenage orphan prince, which basically gives him full powers to carry out the Final Solution he was hell-bent on.
The Final Solution parallels: There is as much Auschwitz as there is eighteenth-century nuthouse in the Maison des Lunes, whose director M. d'Arque, after the fall of the kingdom of charmants, experiments on the inmates -who live in squalour throughout their lifetime imprisonment- without any regard for their health or their lives. Rosalind and Lefou's aunt (the local madwoman), and many others (including Belle and Maurice when they are taken prisoner as well) all suffer a fate worse than death during their stay at the Maison des Lunes.
Changing the antagonist - Intolerance as the Real Beast: The change of antagonist in this adaptation is the twist that surprised me the most. "We don't like what we don't understand, in fact, it scares us," the villagers say in "Kill the Beast / The Mob Song," and here, in this version, with these Final Solution parallels and all, the Real Beast is not toxic hypermasculinity (as in the original and its fairytale source), but intolerance and the persecution of minorities and/or dissenters. That is a powerful message, and even more for a story set in the Age of Enlightenment (and with the French Revolution violence about to dawn), but also in the light of such persecutions throughout history.
The ending: after Monsieur d'Arque is finally vanquished, the love of Belle only restores the Prince to his human form in heart and soul, making him once more emotional, intelligent, and even wise at last, while Rosalind has only got enough power left to restore either the Prince or the staff of the castle to physical human form. Belle, loving her "man" warts and all and not caring at all for his appearance, but rather for his cleverness and kind heart, decides to keep him warm and horned and furry, and to ensure that all the courtiers and retainers whom Rosalind had turned into various objects become people at last. So the Beast stays a Beast, while all the staff return to their original human forms in one of the most cathartic, heartwarming moments ever in the novel. While Belle and Rosalind bond and plan to recover a lot of lost time together as mother and daughter, travelling around Europe and befriending other charmants who had escaped the persecution. Definitely, I need a lot of tissues for my re-read of this novel.
The playlist for reading this book:
"Dio, mi potevi scagliar," Otello, Verdi
The Final Solution, Sabaton
Alla turca, Mozart
Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Mozart
An die Freude, Beethoven
Kárpátia, Ha látok csillagot
Kárpátia, Hallom az idők szavát
VillaZuk, Il visconte dimezzato