Whether found on TV shows such as Grimm and Once Upon a Time or in movie theaters, where 2012 will see two new versions of Snow White, fairy tales are showing up everywhere. Regardless of how trendy classic fairy tales may or may not be in a given year in Hollywood, however, they never stray too far from our bookshelves.
In her latest novel, author Melanie Dickerson puts an inspirational spin on the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, creating a medieval tale in which the power of love overcomes the prejudice of outward appearance.
HERE'S THE SITCH:
Once wealthy merchants, the Chapman family lost their fleet in a storm and their patriarch to illness. Now, because of her mother's and brothers' unwillingness to work alongside those they see as inferior, Annabel and her family have become reviled within the village and must stand trial to repay their debts.
Annabel's older brother wants her to marry the town bailiff, a vile, older man who has promised to pay the Chapmans' debt in exchange for her hand. But Annabel has long dreamed of becoming a nun. Serving a life sentence as wife to the lecherous bailiff is too high a price to pay for her family's neglect of their duty. She refuses, which angers both her family and the bailiff, a man prone to violence.
Unable to pay their debt, the Chapmans are sentenced to send one member of their family to serve three years of indentured servitude to Lord Ranulf le Wyse. It is rumored that the new lord is a terrifying beast of a man who wanders the woods at night, howling like the wolf who scarred his face, took his eye and left one of his hands disabled. Everyone fears Lord Ranulf, but faced with the choice between the unknown lord and the evil bailiff, Annabel sees servitude as the lesser sentence.
The more Annabel interacts with Lord Ranulf, however, the more she sees the gentle, wounded man beneath his fierce facade. When her dream of reading a real Bible — the main reason she longs to be a nun — is realized through him, Annabel is torn between her long-cherished plans and the growing feelings she has for Lord Ranulf.
When a violent interaction with the bailiff throws Annabel, a dear friend, and Lord Ranulf under suspicion, her dreams could protect her — or they could be what breaks her heart.
HITS & MISSES:
Annabel is young and vulnerable. Scarred by circumstance, religion and a family who devalues her, Annabel's greatest need is to feel secure and protected. Taught by the village priest that all women are temptresses and that her very feminine existence is responsible for the lustful advances of Bailiff Tom, she believes safety and security can only be found cloistered away from men.
Ranulf is older, but his heart was trampled by his late wife. Although he hides it with heavily bearded scowls, her betrayal left him even more vulnerable than Annabel. Ranulf believes that he can protect himself from hurt only by avoiding beautiful women, and he does his best to guard his heart. After all, a beautiful woman like Annabel could never love a beast like him.
Of course, these two are made for each other.
The romance is restrained on both sides, but the author injects just the right balance of insecurity and desire to keep the reader engaged. Rather than driven by lust, these two are moved toward love by righteous indignation and the desire to protect the other from danger. Theirs is a sweet romance and feels true from its inception.
There were several occasions the author could have given her characters a Scripture-induced "easy out" to a conflict — but she didn't. Avoiding a straight-line plot, Dickerson inserts unexpected twists that keep the story — and the romance within it — both original and compelling.
TO READ, OR NOT TO READ:
Dickerson gives subtle nods to other Beauty and the Beast retellings (including the popular Disney movie) without damaging the originality of this more "historical novel" take on the classic romance. Unlike most other retellings, however, The Merchant's Daughter has no fantasy element or sorcery (and, lest the cover deceive you, there is no magic mirror). The historical detail of the time period's superstitions are portrayed in such a way that they give the tale an otherworldly and truly magical feel without including a spell-caster at the heart of the story.
This novel is being marketed as an inspirational novel for teens and, although there are passages of Scripture included, this is not a "preachy" book that only Christians — or teens — will enjoy. Some readers may, in fact, be bothered that the heretical priest, with his antagonism toward women, does not reap his just reward; but keeping within a more historically accurate retelling, Dickerson does not attempt to change the priest's message — she simply ensures that Annabel's self-image is no longer imprisoned by it.
This book will find a ready audience among the Christian teens at which it is aimed, but it should be expected to comfortably move beyond that limited demographic. Like the classic on which it is based, this romance should appeal to anyone — of any age — who loves a good fairy tale.
(This review originally appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)