Book 17 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Beauty by Robin McKinley.
I've been on a bit of a fairytale kick recently, and this is one of a number of retellings of fairytales I've read.
As you might have guessed from the name, Beauty is a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast. The usual elements are here - Beauty, the Beast, Beauty's dad, servants that talk.
But this retelling is full of so much more. Its basic storyline is not significantly different to any other Beauty and the Beast telling, not even the Disney version (although there's no Gaston), but it does have masses of detail and depth that make you feel like you know the characters really, really well, and it creates a fantasy world that sits alongside the real world depicted with ease.
Beauty lives with her two sisters and her father, a shipping merchant. She enjoys her life and her books, until her father's business collapses, and forces the family to move hundreds of miles away to a small village to make their living there.
One day Beauty's father hears some of his sailors have returned, and he leaves to find out what has happened. On his way back he gets lost, ends up taking shelter in a great home owned by the Beast, and promises his daughter in return for safe passage home.
And so Beauty goes to the Beast. The world she encounters is completely different to her own, and we feel all the trepidation and amazement she feels at hearing strange voices in the house, meeting and getting to know the Beast and learning to live without her family.
McKinley weaves a magic world that leaves us wanting to find out immediately what curse has befallen the Beast and his home. However, she keeps the reader waiting and it's worth it. This is such a well-known fairytale, but McKinley manages to give it a new angle during the big reveal.
In addition, there is so much more going on in the book than just Beauty and the Beast. We empathise with Beauty's sister, Grace, who lives with a broken heart because her fiance was on one of the ships owned by Beauty's father which never returned from its last voyage. Similarly, Beauty's other sister Hope also captures our hearts, as does her steady husband Ger.
Beauty manages to capture the fantasy of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale while grounding the book in reality with detailed prose and well-fleshed out characters.