The Beast is an Animal
Author: Peternelle van Arsdale
Publisher: Mary K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
Published: February 28, 2017
Rating: 5 / 5 Stars
For Those Who Enjoyed: The Sineater’s Daughter, Stardust, Blair Witch Project, Dracula, The Raven Cycle, Carmilla, RoseBlood, A Darker Shade of Magic, This Savage Song, The Grisha, Six of Crows, “Goblin Market”, “Pied Piper of Hamlin”
This book felt the way my soul feels. The irony if this is delicious, considering the plot follows a pair of spooky soul-eating sisters of Welsh lore. The first 50 pages of Beast is an Animal took my breath and raised goosebumps on my arms in ways a YA novel hasn’t done since Libba Bray’s The Diviners. Real, intense suspense is a rare feat in YA and for a debut author, I’m impressed by how solidly van Arsdale nailed it. It’s dark, it’s haunting, it’s gothic, it draws you in, chews you up, and spits you out, and it’s just so so good.
Those first 50 pages could almost be a completely separate novel from the rest of the story. If anything, if you’re interested in picking up this book, but don’t want to commit, at least read those first 50 pages, because it’s literary magic. The remainder of the narrative follows Alys, whose village was brutally ravaged by the soul-eaters, leaving every adult dead. What follows is a slow-moving coming of age plot as she comes to grips with the darkness within her that has allowed her to survive the sisters’ wrath. It’s one of those stories that really needs to be savoured until the very end before outright dismissal. The middle segment drags and it doesn’t become clear where van Arsdale’s going with it until you’ve hit the final act.
Although the middle lulls compared to the rest of the novel, it offers hints of Neil Gaiman level storytelling. It’s quiet, yet ominous. Alys and the remaining children get sent to a neighbouring town, which is extremely Puritanical and suspicious of them all. Fearing the threat of the soul eaters, they build a wall around the town, where Alys and her kin are forced to guard it every night while the townsfolk sleep well in their self-righteous, religious beliefs. There’s something akin to Stardust here (which I love), injected with surprisingly accurate witch-hunt context. Taking the Puritan witch hunt angle is hardly a new one, yet it still speaks to modern society more than ever. The religious, pearl clutching fear mongering does not rely on facts, but rather savage gossip against the unknown in order to justify actions. The town is, as one might expect, all white, in fear of the other. All races not like their own are labelled children of the Beast, also wrongfully assumed to be evil incarnate.
Alys’ own character arc is here to showcase how evil isn’t just evil and good isn’t just good, there is no black and white. She slips into the grey areas pretty seamlessly, giving her moments of solitude with the Beast and moments of melancholy in her power struggle against the sisters. She learns the true evil is with those who believe themselves to be morally superior above all else, despite their hypocrisy. It says a great deal about modern so-called Christians, who preach only what conveniently applies to their outlook, without any concept of empathy toward people who differ from them. Van Arsdale’s social commentary on how these people can justify racism and damnation of the Other is weaved into her narrative with such ease, there’s not an ounce of preachiness to it. It’s just raw, honest discussion of humanity and what makes us beastly.
Had I only read the first two thirds of this book, it would’ve only earned 4 stars, but stepping back, and seeing the plot as a whole, van Arsdale has three very clearly laid out acts. I love a well-thought out narrative, and I have a lot of respect for her for it. I know exactly where she split her plot in even thirds. From the extended prologue of the sisters’ attack on Gwineth, to the watchers of the wall, to the climax in the tranquil Lakes. I got it. It’s organised, not overly complicated in any way, and it makes for beautiful storytelling.
Another thing I appreciate in Beast, is that the romance takes a backseat to Alys’ confronting her fears. In fact, her love interest doesn’t show up into more than halfway through. I have to say, I approve of fantasy authors doing this more often, because it gives so much room for the protagonist to develop beforehand. Alys has a clear objective (even though she doesn’t fully confront it until years after it’s set for her; the only pitfall of the novel) and not even falling for a boy will stop her. Her relationship with Cian instead feels like an added bonus to an already fantastic plot. The romance doesn’t feel forced or intrusive or tacked on. He’s just there for her in the background, willing to wait for her while she does her thing. That’s how I write my fantasy romances…
I should also note that the Welsh folklore of the soul-eaters is the exact same myth that A.G. Howard struggled to recreate in RoseBlood. It wasn’t until near the end of Beast that I made this connection, and understood why Howard would make that leap from soul-eaters to vampires. Van Arsdale’s soul-eaters are undoubtedly vampires in that same hair-raising way that Dracula is undoubtedly a vampire. The only difference is, van Arsdale doesn’t bother bashing you over head with this parallel like Howard does (repeatedly. With a nail-spiked iron bat). She’s subtle and just lets them be what they are, and it pays off.
I loved everything about this novel. I loved that it was quiet, and atmospheric. That it made me feel like I could take my time, like an unencumbered walk in the woods. That she used the witch and vampire tropes without being cheesy about it. That her villains were flawed supernatural women giving some creepy Lucy Westenra Bloofer Lady realness. That van Arsdale wasn’t afraid to murder her entire cast. This novel made me want to get back to my literary roots. Reread all my Victorian gothic faves.
Go read this book. And then go read Dracula. Both are fab depictions of spooky creatures of the night.