This is McKinley’s second rewrite of the fairy tale of the Beauty and the Beast. It feels more magical than the previous Beauty. The world has sorcerers, greenwitches, and magicians but none of them are described in any detail; they’re just a part of the background.
The essential gradients of the story are the same and the difference and the meat of the story is in the details. The story focuses entirely on Beauty and her development.
Beauty is the youngest of three daughters; her eldest sister is called Lionheart because of her bravery and her other sister is called Jeweltongue because of her sharp tongue. Ever since Beauty was a small child she has had a nightmare about walking down a long hallway and there’s a beast waiting for her at the end of the hall…
The sisters live in grand style in the city as daughters of a wealthy merchant. Unfortunately, the merchant’s fortunes turn and he is left destitute. Everyone abandons the family and their father suffers a mental breakdown. Beauty goes through her father’s papers and notices the only thing that they still own: a little cottage near the town of Longchance. They gather their little belongings and leave.
They join a merchant caravan and while traveling with them, the sisters find out their special abilities: Lionheart is an excellent cook who can make a big meal out of small ingredients and Jeweltounge is just as good with mending and making clothes. They reach the Rose Cottage and settle there. Beauty finds out that she’s an excellent gardener when she nurses the plants around the cottage back to life. The cottage itself is surrounded by big bushes and she doesn’t at first recognize what plant they are because she’s never seen anything like them. But the next spring they bloom full of roses.
The villages are kind to the newcomers. Lionheart also finds out that she has a knack with horses and so she dresses up as a man and becomes a stable boy at the local squire’s stables. One day one of the villagers talks about a curse around the Rose Cottage when three sisters live there. Beauty is the only one to hear about it but she’s afraid to ask more and she doesn’t mention it to the others.
A couple of years go by and the sisters manage to make a living; Jeweltounge making clothing for the people in the town, Lionheart taking care of horses, and Beauty growing vegetables and making wreaths out of her roses. Even their father has recovered. Then they get a word that one of his ships has come to the harbor full of goods. The father goes back to the city and to the ship, hoping that he can get enough money from the goods that he can settle some of their debts. On his way back, he is lost in a snowstorm and finds a vast, empty, perhaps a magical palace where he spends the night. When he’s leaving, he takes the rose which is in a vase at the table where he has eaten to take it back to Beauty. Instantly, the Beast is upon him. The Beast demands that the merchant’s daughter comes back to pay for the theft of the rose. The merchant flees in horror.
Despite the pleading of her father and sisters, Beauty goes to the Beast’s palace. She doesn’t know what to expect.
McKinley tells the classic fairy tale in very much a magical manner. The theme of love is, of course, strongest but also the theme of transition to another life or another part of life. Change can be frightening at first but is only a part of life. The sisters grow also very close together after they lose the wealth they had and can only rely on each other.
While in the book “Beauty”, the magical library was very much in the center of the story, here the roses and gardening are at center stage.