Monstrous Beauty: review

July 31, 2012 2012, 5 star books, elizabeth fama, ghosts, mature themes, mermaids, victorian, Wendy 102

Monstrous Beauty
by Elizabeth Fama

It was a woman–as pale and luminescent as a ghost, with swirling white hair. Ezra startled, dropping his pencil into the water. Her face snapped toward him. Her eyes were too large, clear green, and had horizontal, slit-shaped pupils, reminiscent of an octopus.

Did your pulse quicken when you read that paragraph? Mine did! I had a feeling I was going to love this book, because it blends several different things that I love: mermaids, the nineteenth century, and ghosts. What I wasn’t prepared for was an unconventionally striking story that will definitely not appeal to someone looking for a typical YA paranormal book. I found this dark fairy tale to be wildly exciting and utterly gorgeous, however, and I think it will find its audience in readers who enjoy literary fiction or more mature YA.

In the late 1800s, a mermaid named Syrenka makes a terrible mistake in judgment as she seeks companionship. More than a hundred years later, 16-year-old Hester searches for the mystery behind a tragic curse that has haunted her family for generations. The book alternates between past and present in a small fishing town in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the shifts in time and multiple POVs are handled with skillful aplomb. Deep secrets are slowly revealed in both young women’s pasts, and a fine thread of tension running through the book eventually escalates into scenes of shocking madness and violence.

There are despairing stolen souls. Creepy churchyards. A woman drowned in a sarcophagus. Rape. Underwater doll graveyards. A boy who gives his heart for the one he loves. A truly repulsive mermaid queen . Through it all, the seductive beauty of the language irresistibly lures the reader into the book’s unique mythology, so that by the end of the story the lonely, painful fates of the characters seem as gut-wrenchingly immediate as your own.

Even in rage, she was eerily beautiful.

Syrenka is such a splendidly doomed creature, however, that Hester unfortunately pales just a bit in comparison in the beginning. Because readers see the perspectives of both past and present, they’ll likely guess certain truths well before Hester does, which provides a few moments of frustration. Later in the story, however, Hester’s story takes on more shape and her choices are both brave and heartbreaking in their necessity. The plot has many twists and turns, and while I did guess quite a few of the surprises, this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this beautifully crafted story at all.

Mermaid lovers should note the sea creatures in this story are incomparable to anything that has come before them; the disturbing nature of their animal instincts and deadly muscularity is boldly unapologetic, and the story is all the better for it.

Readers who appreciate literary young adult fiction will love this book. Monstrous Beauty‘s dark moodiness is incredibly evocative, and the startling originality of its story–as well as the lush vividness of its imagery–will not soon be forgotten.

Strongly recommended: for fans of Angela Carter, Cat Hellison, Margo Lanagan, and possibly Laini Taylor; for adults who don’t normally read young adult fiction and for mature YA readers; and finally, for anyone who has been searching tirelessly for a mermaid book that truly transcends its genre.

Heed the siren call: this mermaid story is unlike any other you’ve read.

Rated 5 out of 5 stars

Release Date: September 4, 2012

This review also appears on GoodReads; K’s review is also posted on GoodReads here. An advance copy was provided by the publisher.


divider vine croppedRead about the beautiful world of Monstrous Beauty in Elizabeth Fama’s guest post!

Wendy signature teal


102 Responses to “Monstrous Beauty: review”

  1. bookstakeyouplaces

    I am SO happy to hear this!! I have had this ARC from Netgalley for months and honestly have been wary because every single mermaid book has been mediocre at best. I have been so disappointed. I can’t wait to pick this up!!

  2. vintagevixen

    This sounds really good, though I may be a bit biased as I adore mermaid books. Adding this to my ‘to get’ list. :)

  3. Dani Marie

    This sounds like a really interesting read. I haven’t read any mermaid fiction yet and this sounds like a lot of interesting elements all woven in together. I will be putting this on my bookshelf to read soon.

  4. Alyssa

    Cripes I posted and it didn’t take!! Anywho…THIS REVIEW IS AMAZING. I have read quite a few mediocre mermaid books lately and I NEED an epic one. I LOVE DARK LITERARY FICTION SOO MUCH!! I have had this one on NG for a while and have not jumped on it..well let me tell you I might have to break my ban (I have vowed to finish ALL THE LIBRARY BOOKS before reading NG or BEA books) because I need this one NOW. Great review, thanks for making up my mind! :]

  5. Alyssa

    You hooked me!! I want, no..I NEED a “mermaid” book that is amazing. I have yet to read one and it is utterly disappointing. I LOVE DARK LITERARY FICTION SO MUCH!! I have had this on my NG page for ages and I have been all “meh” about it..well let me tell you I might have to break my ban (I have vowed to read ALL THE LIBRARY BOOKS first) because I NEED THIS IN MY HEAD.

  6. Heidi

    OMG Wendy, I just want to grab your shoulders and shake you because you have made me so freaking excited for this book! I haven’t been able to get through a mermaid book yet, but THIS ONE could be THE ONE. I’m seriously so creeped out by the idea of drowning in a sarcophagus, or underwater doll graveyards, and I love dark literary fiction. This actually sounds fairly Gothic, which is not what I was expecting at all. Yay! Thank you for making me look forward to a mermaid book, I’ll be reading it later this month.

    • Wendy Darling

      HEIDI. You must read this! I have a feeling it will be a good match for you. The book IS very gothic in feel and tone, I don’t know why I didn’t put that in my review since that’s part of what attracted me!

      I will be stalk stalk stalking you later this month, it seems. :)

  7. rabbitsfortea

    This sounds really amazing, adding it to my TBR list right now!
    I don’t usually read mermaid books, no idea why, but this seems like a good book to get started with.

  8. Sarah

    Wendy- I’m so glad you’re back! I missed your reviews and general awesomeness ;) Great review!

    • Wendy Darling

      Aww, thank you, Sarah! I’ve missed talking about books with you. Thanks for dropping by and for the sweet comment. :)

  9. Christy D

    Okay, honestly, I’m not usually drawn to mermaid books. In fact, I’ve read one, and that was just recently. This one sounds really good though! I am all for the creep factor.

  10. Shadowrose96

    I really want to read this now, I was curious about it before but now it’s definitely going on my list. I’ve only read two mermaid books so I have an even spread of fantastic and disappointing and I loved to get in some more good ones.

    • Wendy Darling

      Awesome, I’m glad you’re going to try this out, Shadowrose. I’ve always loved the idea of a great YA mermaid novel, and this is the first one I thought was absolutely spectacular.

  11. Desiree

    I have this pre-orderedon my kindle and I almost canceled the order because I have been so disapointed in all of the mermaid books I have read. Your review changed my mind!

    • Wendy Darling

      Ohhh, please give this one a try, Desiree. It’s nothing like any other mermaid book I’ve ever read. I hope you like it!

  12. Preeti Joan

    I want to read this so, so bad but netgalley still won’t reply to my request. I’m losing hope. Maybe I’ll just wait for September to come :)) Anyhow, your review is amazing! :D

    • Wendy Darling

      I want you to read it, Preeti! Not too much longer to wait, and we actually will also be giving away a copy of the book in September as well. :)

      Thanks for your kind comment!

  13. FireStarBooks

    I can’t wait to read this book! <333 AHHH! I am so in love with the whole mermaid, siren, sea creature trend right now :D

    AMAZING review!

  14. Lili

    I am so excited that you loved this book because all books you love seem to make their way onto my TBR pile. I’ve had this one there for a while and was a little worried about it because of some of the things the author has said, but I found out my friend is sending me an ARC and then I saw this review and I am now DYING to read it. I love that this sounds like a darker book, too because I seem to be getting into those a lot lately.

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m glad you’re going to have a chance to read this soon, Lili! I think it’s an amazing read for the right audience. This one is dark in a REAL way, too, not just a book trying desperately to be creepy.

      I heard about what happened with the ARC thing, and I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t discount the inadvisability of doing such a post, especially in this atmosphere, but I do think tone and intent are sometimes hard to interpret. And perhaps it came from a different place than it initially appeared. I hope so, anyway.

  15. A Canadian Girl

    Ooo, a 5 out of 5 for a mermaid book? I haven’t been really lucky with mermaid books, Wendy, so hopefully Monstrous Beauty will change that. I love the darker sound of this one and am happy that you mentioned the alternations in time are handled skillfully. Sometimes, going back and forth in time can get confusing if not done well.

  16. A Canadian Girl

    Ooo, a 5 out of 5 for a mermaid book? I haven’t been really lucky with mermaid books, Wendy, so hopefully Monstrous Beauty will change that. I love the darker sound of this one and am happy that you mentioned the alternations in time are handled skillfully. Sometimes, going back and forth in time can get confusing if not done well.

    • Wendy Darling

      Right? Who’d have thought! I hope you end up liking this too, Z. The shifts in time are very well done here, I don’t think anyone will have any trouble with that part at all.

  17. Kayla Beck

    I was on the fence about whether or not I would make time to read this one, but it’s definitely back on my radar now. Thanks for sharing your review. :-)

    • Wendy Darling

      It’s a very dark fairy tale, Carrie–I have a few friends who didn’t care for it (and some who had mixed feelings), but if you’re a mermaid lover and open to more envelope-pushing stuff, it’s at least worth checking out.

  18. Kaethe

    I wasn’t actually looking for a mermaid book, but the darkness of this one really appeals.

  19. Savannah Valdez

    LOL! I just wrote my review for this book. I really enjoyed the back history to it. When an author can show me something from the past and make it flow to the present, is awesome. Plus, the rules regarding the mermaids, is out of the box. Awesome review!

    • Wendy Darling

      Ooo, I will come check out your review, Savannah! I was really impressed by the transitions between past and present, too, that doesn’t always work. I’m so glad you liked this, too!

  20. Sandra

    Awesome review, Wendy. It sounds like such a gorgeous book, I can’t wait to read this one, especially now that you’ve mentioned the historical fiction aspect and… ghosts?? This sounds great!

    • Wendy Darling

      III know, isn’t that a crazy good combination? I was determined to get a copy of this when I heard about it, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity. I hope you love it just as much as I did, Sandra. :)

  21. Vivien

    I haven’t found one mermaid novel that has blown me away. I’ve been desperate for one. Mermaids are one thing that I craved as a child so the idea is really nostalgic. This sounds so promising after your review. I’ll be sure to read this one!

    • Wendy Darling

      Ohhh, do pick this one up sometime, if only from the library, Vivien. I haven’t ever really been blown away by any mermaid novels either, and can actually only think of one other YA book I even halfway enjoyed.

  22. Karen

    I’ve been really disappointed in most of the mermaid mythology books out there. They do tend to head into the typical YA direction.
    I have this one on my TBR pile so now I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    • Wendy Darling

      Excellent, I’m glad you’ll be picking it up soon, Karen. I think people who read adult books in addition to YA will have an appreciation for it, though it certainly won’t be something everyone loves.

  23. Amy

    I have this one coming up on my reading list soon and I am really excited for it now. I really wanted to read it to begin with, but your review has convinced me to get to it sooner!

    • Wendy Darling

      Thanks Jaskirat! I’m really excited for more people to read this one. It’s a difficult book to recommend, but I think some readers will absolutely love it. Thanks for stopping by!

  24. starryeyedjen

    Wow, Wendy, 5 out of 5 stars?!? I have this for review, as well, but it looks like I need to move it on up the pile. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. After some mediocre mermaid books, it sounds like this one hits the jackpot! :0) Heed the siren call, indeed!

    • Wendy Darling

      You’ve noticed how stingy I am with the 5 star ratings, huh? ;) I will cross my fingers that this one magically floats to the top of your TBR pile soon.

  25. Christina

    Sounds like this one is about mermaids more as they are portrayed in legend, which is cool. After you and Kara both liked this, I am very hopeful!

  26. Melliane

    Ohh when I think I didn’t even know this book, it sounds amazing. Plus I only read a book about mermaids for I’m very curious to know more about this one. thank you!

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m not sure the rights have sold overseas yet, but I would think this one would do well in Europe, Melliane. I hope that happens soon for you guys–but if not, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!

  27. Jasprit

    I’m glad you had fun reading this Wendy, with all these mermaid books cropping up I never know where to start, but I think your review may have pushed me closer to picking this one up, I love it when a book provides so much more than you expected! Lovely review Wendy! :)

    • Wendy Darling

      I love it when a book blows you away, too. Crossing my fingers that you will find this one alluring, Jasprit! And thank you. :)

  28. Betsy

    Ew! I’m so excited for this. I’ve always wanted to read a mermaid story, but they seem to never get great reviews. This one sounds wonderful.

    • Wendy Darling

      I think some readers might have trouble with this one, Betsy, but I tried to give a good sense of what the book is like in my review. So hopefully if you’re attracted despite all my warnings, you’ll end up enjoying it. :)

  29. elena

    I have yet to read a mermaid book that impresses me so I hope this one will be it! I love the idea that these mermaids are truly evil & this sounds so different. Can’t wait to read it!

  30. Bookworm1858

    Eh, I don’t know. I’m not really a fan of mermaid books even if this one is quite different. The switching between past and present though catches my eye as I tend to like that in books. I’ll give this a try if it pops up at my library, which I will take as a sign that the universe wants me to read it.

  31. Sarah (saz101)

    Oh goodness… Wendy, I have CHILLS reading this. I mean, you sold me here: “An unconventionally striking story that will definitely not appeal to someone looking for a typical YA… wildly exciting and utterly gorgeous, however, and I think it will find its audience in readers who enjoy literary fiction or more mature YA.”

    Oh goodness… wow wow wow. And the way you talk about the language and the words. I know there’s been some discussion about Elizabeth asking people to ‘kill’ her ARCs, but I can *get* that. You mentioned Laini Taylor (who I’m utterly enamoured with), and one of the things that made DoSaB so utterly magnificent was her prose. It was like reading poetry on a glorious, grand scale, and if this feels anything at ALL like that… just… my oh my.

    And then this: “Mermaid lovers should note the sea creatures in this story are incomparable to anything that has come before them; the disturbing nature of their animal instincts and deadly muscularity is boldly unapologetic, and the story is all the better for it.” OH WHAT YOU DO TO ME TO ROBOT-WENDY! As much as I adored Disney’s The Little Mermaid as a kid, it was the strange, dark and disturbing Andersen fairytale that always sticks with me and gets me with its magic. And the creepy merpeople from Harry Potter… and I LONG for that from them. That… strangeness, otherworldliness. I guess with Vampires and Werewolves, they’re based, or have their origins in a perversion of humanity. But merpeople aren’t human, and I love the idea of the truly strange and alien…

    Umm… have I convinced you how I excited I am about your review? Maybe? Just a little? :D

    AMAZING &Hearts;

    • Wendy Darling

      SARAH. If I could print out every comment you leave for me and post it all around my walls, my head would never fit through the door.

      I really, really hope you enjoy this when you get a chance to read it. It’s so different from anything else out there, and I really appreciate that publishers are taking chances on books like these!

      I enjoy the Disney version of mermaids, but my real love is for those tragic Andersen tales, too. Sisters in spirit, Sazbah. ;)


    • Sarah (saz101)

      Ahahaha! If you make me grin any more my face will crack XD

      As long as you keep writing such ridiculously amazing reviews, I’ll keep inflatin your ego :D

  32. Midnight Bloom

    I’m pretty relieved/happy to hear that you enjoyed Monstrous Beauty, Wendy! I’ve read a couple books featuring mermaid books now and I might have liked them, but they still haven’t really blown me away. It’s great to hear that you really enjoyed this one so much! Thanks for the review! :)

    Liz @ Midnight Bloom Reads

    • Wendy Darling

      This one blew me away, Liz, so I hope it does the same for you. :) It’s so shocking, but so gorgeous, too. Thanks for stopping by!

  33. Book Sake

    Oooh 5/5. I love that this one is darker and will work well for adults that don’t normally read YA also. While I do read a lot of YA, I like adult books as well – so when a YA book hits both marks it makes me extra happy!

    – Jessica @ Book Sake

    • Wendy Darling

      I think it’s my fifth 5 star rating for the year, Jessica. I originally rated it 4.5 stars, but as I was skimming through the book again to write my review, the few nitpicks I had were far outweighed by my excitement over the book! I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

  34. Shirley

    Oh wow….this sounds dark and intense! I haven’t read many mermaid stories….(I think Of Poseidon was the only one I’ve read recently) but I’m REALLY looking forward to this now! Thank you for the brilliant review Wendy!

    • Wendy Darling

      So dark and so intense, Shirley. OF POSEIDON is totally different in tone from this one, hah, although I never finished reading it. I’m so glad you’re going to give this one a chance!

  35. Candace

    I really haven’t paid this book much attention but your review definitely has me thinking I need to give it a shot! Thanks for putting it on my radar!

  36. Rachel @ Unforgettable Books

    Utterly amazing review Wendy!!!! I never heard of this story too. That must be hard to wait for Hester to catch up her knowledge with Syrenka. i really like your last sentence!
    Rachel :0

    • Wendy Darling

      Thank you, Rachel! Yeah, you kind of want Hester to get with the program, hah, but it’s not really her fault that we know things before she does.

  37. Sam

    I finished this recently and completely agree with your points. I really enjoyed the fact that this wasn’t a typical paranormal YA book. The dark and sinister mood really sat well with me. I did think Hester was a little dull at times, but like you said, Syrenka was such a great character that the comparison isn’t really in Hester’s favour. Anyway, fantastic review, Wendy! :)

    • Wendy Darling

      I am so happy you loved this, Sam! It’s such a tricky book to recommend to people, isn’t it? I look forward to reading your review. :)

  38. Keertana

    Yay! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, Wenday! :) I’ve been searching for a good mermaid book for awhile now, so I’ll definitely be checking this one out when it releases! Fantastic review, as usual! :D

    Ivy Book Bindings

    • Wendy Darling

      I searched for a good mermaid book FOREVER, Keertana! Turns out this was the one I was waiting for. :) Hope you end up enjoying it, too.

  39. Vegan YA Nerds

    Wow, this does sound good and very chilling, beautiful review, Wendy.

    I haven’t ruled out all mermaid books yet so I will definitely give this a chance ;)

    • Wendy Darling

      Yay! I’m glad you’re going to give it a chance, Julie. It’s very dark and very adult, so I do think most people will either love it or hate it.

  40. roro

    wendy you review queen
    you don\t know how i\m aching
    really achkin to read this book
    great review