Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Beauty in the Beast
by Emily-Jane Hills Orford
Tell-Tale Publishing Group
February 2022, Paperback, 210 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1952020209
Beauty in the Beast, by Emily-Jane Hills Orford, is a compelling novel full of surprises. In a way, it retells the ancient tale, “Beauty and the Beast,” but it does more than that. Orford’s story is certainly about a young woman trying to find a place in the world, but it is also about the pitfalls of genetic engineering, the kinship between humans and animals, and the value of appreciating the animal world.
The folk story, “Beauty and the Beast,” is a “Father Knows Best” tale that originated in the days of arranged marriages. In medieval Europe, families advanced economically and socially through the matches fathers made for their daughters. If a young woman found her future husband unattractive, her reluctance to marry him was usually overridden. The folktale persuaded girls that even the ugliest, most repulsive man may have inner beauty and should not be rejected for his looks.
In Orford’s novel, the central character, “Priya”, (“dear” or “beloved,”) finds beauty in the “beasts” whom she encounters in the novel, including the those within herself. Beauty in the Beast opens with Priya trapped in a crashed car, along with her dog, “Bear.” She finds herself calling out to “Amell,” but who exactly is he?
The second chapter, set two weeks earlier, shows her in Victoria, B.C., having a farewell tea with her best friend, Samantha. They are celebrating Priya’s new position as an archivist for an organization called Castle Mutasim, in a secluded location in the Pacific North-West. Before she sets out in her car, Samantha presents Priya with a first edition of Don Quixote as a parting gift.
In Chapter Three, back at the scene of Priya’s car accident, she hears a calming voice promising help, and realizes that she vaguely remembers an “Amell.” She is barely conscious of being lifted from her car and taken to Castle Mutasim. She wakes in the company of a woman, “Kat,” with a heart-shaped face, feline features and very long nails. Kat explains that she was part of a genetic engineering experiment that went wrong. Castle Mutasim is a refuge for other victims of experimentation who are “human-like,” to some degree or other.
“Why am I here?” asks Priya. “I am not different.” So she thinks at this point.
In Beauty in the Beast, genetic engineering has gone far beyond Dolly the cloned sheep, and “Frankenfoods.” Scientists from an alien culture, attempting to produce people with stronger muscles, harder bones and faster brains, have created beings with animal genes, enabling them to communicate telepathically, jump long distances at a single bound, and even fly. Kat’s feline gene enables her to read Priya’s thoughts. (This information will make readers will look at their household pets with new respect.)
Amell , the owner of Castle Mutasim, is Priya’s brother, who has kept track of her from a distance over the years. She hardly remembers him because he left home at sixteen when she was very young. When he was in his teens, their scientist parents observed his lion genes coming to the fore, and, fearing that he would become a danger to them, decided to return him to the lab that had produced him. He escaped from home, and, while on the run, met another mutant who helped him remove his implanted tracking devices. He invested some stolen money, laundered more money, and accumulated enough wealth to buy a property “off the grid” where he could be himself and offer a haven for other mutants.
At his castle, Priya learns uncomfortable truths about her past: her origins in a petri dish, her genetic heritage, the implanted tracking devices in her body. Eventually she sees that she poses a danger to Castle Mutasim, yet provides hope as well. She realizes that her parents, who wanted to create the perfect living creature – brilliant, strong, with a long lifespan – probably didn’t die “accidentally” as she has believed. Her beloved dog, “Bear,” turns out to be more than he appeared to be when she got him from the pound, and her friend, Samantha, is really a spy who hid a bug in the copy of Don Quixote.
In writing science fiction, aspiring authors are advised to ground their stories in proven scientific fact to make them convincing. In Beauty in the Beast, Ms. Orford starts with a foundation not only in science, but also in other scholarly fields. She refers to the inhumane experiments performed on human beings during the Nazi period by Josef Mengele. She cites the innate tendency of human psychology toward anthropomorphism: the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. A character tells Priya that anthropomorphism is a reality, as evidenced by the Chinese lunar years named for various animals, like “The Year of the Rat,” for example He reminds Priya that indigenous people have a rapport with the animal world and believe that people can shift into the form of their totem animals.
On a visit to indigenous territory, Priya meets a sasquatch, with whom she feels a kinship. Because of the chemicals in her system, the sasquatch, once known as “Susan”, was able to change from human to “bigfoot” but couldn’t change back. She tried living in the castle but something about her nature requires no demands, a forest habitat and isolation. Her fur doesn’t wash well and grows back in mere days if she shaves it. Susan and the other sasquatches prove to be formidable allies of Priya. Also, in both the traditional tale and Ms. Orford’s novel, birds – or birdlike beings – come to the aid of the heroine.
Priya gradually learns that the genetic modification of beings is a worldwide evil perpetrated by the Mengelians, who have labs all over the world, including four in Canada. Liberating the victims of experimentation is the logical form of resistance, and in such an attempt, Priya’s animal genes come in handy.
In the original folktale, when the young woman learns to love the beast, she is surprised by his transformation. In Orford’s novel, Priya is manipulated by a male being for whom she felt an attraction, so her happy ending is not the conventional one. Instead, it arises naturally from Orford’s novel and is suitable for the 21st century. Beauty in the Beast takes readers on a disturbing, exciting and thought-provoking journey.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s new Canadian historical novel, A Striking Woman, will soon be published.