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A Curse So Dark and Lonely

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
A Curse So Dark and Lonely Book Poster Image
Modern "Beauty" tale has complex characters, gore, humor.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The narrative expects a relatively high reading level, as characters use lots of big words (e.g. "formidable,"  "negotiation," "extravagant") and complex ideas.  Besides being an imaginative variation on the Beauty and the Beast theme, A Curse So Dark and Lonely passes along a lot of information that may be new to many readers: e.g. protagonist Harper is slightly disabled by cerebral palsy but deals with it, and details about the condition emerge as the story develops.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about courage, tenacity, kindness, family, love -- and using both your heart and your head when things get bad.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Snarky, smart, tender-hearted and suspicious-minded, Harper loves her family desperately but also, in her assumed role as "Princess Harper of Disi," discovers unexpected depth and imagination in herself as she tries to make sense of Rhen's situation and help him. Rhen starts the story sunk in despair and caring about little but his own troubles -- but he's also done his best to insulate his kingdom against the curse's ill effects, even if only by ignoring it. And with Harper's arrival, he discovers a new commitment to his people. His faithful retainer Grey is courageous, loyal, everything you'd want in a friend -- and more than a bit mysterious.

Violence

Villain Lilith delights in inflicting pain, and several scenes involve her torturing victims, including Rhen. Rhen's monster side is responsible for untold gore and destruction, including the slaughter of his own family and an unknown (but presumably large) number of others. Meanwhile, other rulers are seizing the moment to raze villages and slaughter their occupants; one early scene has them threatening to kill children and rape their mother. Harper and others kill their would-be killers in combat; swordplay and other hand-to-hand combat play a large role in the story, as do thoughts of murder and suicide as the monster's next appearance nears. Meanwhile, in Harper's world in D.C., her brother is doing enforcement work for the local loan shark to keep him from killing her family, including her terminally ill mother, because of a debt their long-fled father has racked up.

Sex

Rhen's seduction of the magician Lilith (who's working quite hard at making him seduce her) has fateful consequences and unleashes the curse on him and his kingdom. Harper is drawn to him but mindful of the 300+ girls who have been there before her as he uses well-tried charm to make her love him and break the curse. Rhen sees things as he never has before when he starts falling for Harper. Two young men are in a romantic relationship.

Language

The story's world has its own swear words, of which "silver hell!" seems to be the most popular.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some drinking of alcohol (including the attempted kidnapping of a drunken young woman from a bar to Rhen's kingdom) and also healing herbal medicine.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Curse So Dark and Lonely, the first book in a series of the same name by bestselling author Brigid Kemmerer, is an imaginative variation on the "Beauty and the Beast" theme -- in this case, featuring a high-school senior with a bad leg from cerebral palsy and also a raft of family troubles, who finds herself snatched to the kingdom of Emberfall. Where Prince Rhen has been forced to relive the autumn of his 18th birthday 300 times now, which always ends in gore as he turns into a monster. There's a lot of dark stuff here, from the hacking, stabbing, and devouring to a sadistic villainess who makes her victim spit blood just for the fun of it. But in this murky world, young Harper's snarky ways, kind heart, and considerable courage open up new possibilities and unexpected hope.

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What's the story?

A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY has fallen on handsome, charming Prince Rhen of Emberfall in the wake of an ill-advised seduction, and now he's compelled to relive the autumn of his 18th birthday until he can find a girl to love him -- despite the fact that he always turns into a hideous, murderous monster, who, so far, has taken out Rhen's whole family and quite a few others. Strangely, 300 girls now have been snatched away to Emberfall and failed to break the curse. But the unchanging cycle of doom is disrupted by the latest snatchee: Washington, D.C., high school senior Harper, who rushes to save a drunken blonde outside a bar from what looks like a kidnapping and wakes up in a castle. Desperate to get back to her very troubled family (dad left after borrowing from a loan shark, who's now threatening her dying mother and forcing her brother to do enforcement), and dealing with a bad leg and other effects of cerebral palsy, the snarky, smart, and cynical Harper isn't quite clear on the role she's supposed to be playing or whether she wants to play it. But as Rhen, his friend Grey, and the kingdom work their way into her heart, she learns of the dark forces at play and is determined to stand against them.

Is it any good?

Brigid Kemmerer's take on "Beauty and the Beast" brings three intriguing, complex characters and a delicate, mostly successful balance of darkness, gore, magic, humor, snark, and heart. Oh, and horses. There's a lot going on in A Curse So Dark and Lonely, and sometimes the reader's suspension of disbelief gets a bit strained. Like when the heroine, who has a bad leg as the result of cerebral palsy, is able to skillfully ride the fiercest warhorse in the kingdom because she took therapeutic riding before her family fell on hard times. But this is fantasy, right?

And between the hacking, slashing, and sadistic villainy, there's a lot about standing up for your loved ones, being responsible for others, and working together. Also snark, humor, a bit of a love triangle, and characters you want to spend more time with. Good news: There's a sequel in the works.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the ways A Curse So Dark and Lonely is like "Beauty and the Beast" and why that classic remains such a popular theme in storytelling. What aspects of that tale do you find appealing? How do those aspects appear in the various versions you know?

  • In A Curse So Dark and Lonely, a not-so-conventional heroine is the unlikely one called on to save the day -- which itself is a popular theme in storytelling. Do you like stories with quirky characters, or do you like things a bit more predictable?

  • If you were doing your own version of an oft-told tale, would you feel like you had to make things turn out the same way as in the original? Or would you give the characters a different fate? Why?

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