This is another entry in Donna Jo Napoli’s collection of retold fairy tales; I reviewed another (actually a Greek myth) here. Ms. Napoli (most like Dr. Napoli) is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. She has written a good deal of novels for children and young adults; none for adults, abortion but that’s certainly not a problem. Her novels have been translated into languages as diverse as Farsi and Thai; she has won many awards, but none of the biggest ones (yet). She owns a tuxedo cat named Taxi, which definitely improves my opinion of her.
Prince Orasmyn is the son of the Shah of Persia; he is symbolically a religious leader as well. He has chosen to help with a ritual sacrifice, and when, at the last minute, they discover that the animal has a scar, he decides it’s okay. It’s not okay, though; it’s against the rules of Islam, and a spirit (a djinn in Arabic, but a pari in Farsi) rebukes him for harming the poor animal (who had already been harmed) and turns him into a lion. He will not be returned to human form until he can find a human woman who loves him. How will he ever make that happen? He cannot speak — he’s a beast!
This is, quite obviously, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Apparently in Charles Lamb’s version of the story, he gives the Beast a name — Prince Orasmyn — and states that he is from Persia. Those two elements gave Prof. Napoli the basis of her story; the rest of it is a tight third-person view of Orasmyn’s life, and travels, prior to meeting Belle. She doesn’t actually show up until the last 75 pages of the book. In many ways, the book isn’t so much about Beauty as, of course, it is about the Beast. It’s a little bit different; the story as we mostly know it is primarily about Belle, and while this Belle shares many traits with all other Belles (she likes books, she’s practical, she fulfills her role in the story), she’s a degree removed.
An important element of the story is actually religion. It is messing with the strictures of the religion that gets Orasmyn in trouble in the first place, but he is incredibly religious throughout the book. He fasts for the first few scenes in the story; he worries about eating blood in animal form. He actually still does all his required daily prayers, even as a lion. The abasement looks a bit strange in that form, but he still does it (although he cannot actually speak out loud). Belle is French and Catholic, and while this is in contrast to the Beast’s Muslim prayers, they both confirm to the other that there is only one God, although they have slightly different ways of worshipping Him.
I enjoyed this one a great deal more than The Great God Pan. It was slightly longer, and in so many ways seemed less pretentious and more realistic. Orasmyn-the-lion has to kill nearly every day; he eats on stage a lot. He even mates with a lioness, although it is described rather vaguely. The language was slightly poetic, but it wasn’t irksomely so. The best part, I thought, was the last 75 pages with Belle, but before that was a good deal of characterization-building as he learned to live as a lion. There was precious little humor in this book (only a fox kit that was a tragic figure anyway), but it didn’t drag me down by the end. I’d actually recommend reading this one to YAs and adults; there’s enough interest in the story to hold almost everyone, as long as one isn’t too biased against first-person, present tense. 4/5 stars.