published: 8th October 2019
spoilers? maybe unintentionally but I’ve done my best to limit them
In 1872, New Orleans is a city ruled by the dead. But to seventeen-year-old Celine Rousseau, New Orleans provides her a refuge after she’s forced to flee her life as a dressmaker in Paris. Taken in by the sisters of the Ursuline convent along with six other girls, Celine quickly becomes enamored with the vibrant city from the music to the food to the soirées and—especially—to the danger. She soon becomes embroiled in the city’s glitzy underworld, known as La Cour des Lions, after catching the eye of the group’s leader, the enigmatic Sébastien Saint Germain. When the body of one of the girls from the convent is found in the lair of La Cour des Lions, Celine battles her attraction to him and suspicions about Sébastien’s guilt along with the shame of her own horrible secret.
When more bodies are discovered, each crime more gruesome than the last, Celine and New Orleans become gripped by the terror of a serial killer on the loose—one Celine is sure has set her in his sights . . . and who may even be the young man who has stolen her heart. As the murders continue to go unsolved, Celine takes matters into her own hands and soon uncovers something even more shocking: an age-old feud from the darkest creatures of the underworld reveals a truth about Celine she always suspected simmered just beneath the surface.
At once a sultry romance and a thrilling murder mystery, master storyteller Renée Ahdieh embarks on her most potent fantasy series yet: The Beautiful.
Galley provided by publisher
CWs: past attempted rape, gore
I knew me and this book were not going to get along when the love interest was introduced. Sorry, when the first love interest was introduced. Because it’s a typical “incredibly handsome young man (who we are contractually obliged to mention is incredibly handsome every time he’s brought up) treats the female mc like shit and yet she falls for him”. But don’t worry! He has a tragic backstory to excuse it all!
I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Beautiful is about Celine, who flees Paris having murdered her attempted rapist and gets on a boat to New Orleans, to join a convent. Once in New Orleans, she meets Odette, who asks her to make her a dress (because Celine is a seamstress). On the way to a meeting with Odette to take measurements, Celine interrupts a man’s savage beating in an alleyway, only to find out that the perpetrator (Sebastien) is a friend of a sort of Odette’s. Sebastien being the aforementioned “incredibly handsome young man”. Meanwhile, there are a spate of killings in New Orleans, ones which seem to target Celine.
Let me start with what I liked about this book (mostly because it won’t take a whole lot of time). As ever, Ahdieh’s worldbuilding and writing is wonderfully evocative and creates a beautiful dark world. Ordinarily, I would love it. And Celine! I adored her as a main character (except when we’re talking her and Bastien or her and Michael. Talk to me about her and Odette though…). This book also has that easy kind of diversity that never feels like it’s shoehorned in. So basically, the worldbuilding and the majority of the characters is what I liked about this book.
But, obviously, that’s not enough to keep a book going.
Like I said at the start, my major gripe about this book was Sebastien. Maybe I’ve got past the point where I can accept the trope he exemplifies, it irritates me too much. I don’t think he’s a particularly awful example of it, in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t make him any less an irritating example. If you think about it, love interests who are absolute wankers to the main character but then show some vulnerability or some tragic backstory to suggest they are redeemable or whatever, and that the main character can love them, are just a natural extension of women being expected to “fix” men or somehow make them better people. And I’m so so tired of reading that. I can’t cope with it any more, so any book that invokes this trope, unless it pulls it apart (think Empire of Sand, where the love interest has a tragic backstory but is still gentle and loving, or The Silvered Serpents, where awful behaviour isn’t excused like that), is automatically rated down from me.
So maybe the remainder of my dislikes about this book wouldn’t have annoyed me so much if I hadn’t already had to put up with this. I’ll cop to that. It’s a reasonable assumption.
Firstly, I had questions about this plot. It’s called a murder mystery, but there’s no actual investigating, besides by Michael, completely off the page. It’s more like, Celine realises she’s the one the murderer is interested in and sets herself up as bait, and woops! There’s the mystery solved! It’s actually more like a romance but with a side storyline of a murder mystery. Which would be fine, if it was marketed like that. But I just feel cheated of my murder mystery (favourite genre and all). Plus there are plotholes because of that. Namely, why does the murderer pick on Celine. Granted I may have missed something because I was skimming the murderer’s POV chapters (pet peeve of mine is being able to see into the murderer’s thoughts while the mystery is going on because all too often it spoils who the murderer is for you). But it seems a pretty large question to leave unanswered.
My final complaints are mostly about the romance. Okay, so we get a lesbian side character, but all that really leads me to conclude is that Odette/Celine is the god-tier ship in this whole mess. Not Michael/Celine, not Bastien/Celine. Those are both boring. Give me lesbians or nothing. Instead there’s a really awkward scene where Odette says she’s a lesbian and Celine does that straight girl thing of assuming that means Odette is coming onto her. God I wish she had been, given the options for the other romances. Might have avoided a love triangle in it and all.
By the time all the big reveals at the end came around, I was just too bored to be excited by them. I very very briefly felt like I might want to read the second book, but that was snuffed out when I read the blurb of book two (“their love could tear them apart” give me strength). And when you find out the actual reason Michael and Bastien hate each other (besides “because of course they do”)? Well. Enjoy.
So, in the end, I felt less like I had read an homage to Anne Rice, and more like I’d just reread Twilight but transplanted into 1872 New Orleans.