A lyrical, original, queer take on Beauty and the Beast, perfect for those who love historical retellings and thought-provoking emotional journeys.
Book: The Language of Roses by Heather Rose Jones
Publication date: 14th April 2022
Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by Queen of Swords Press. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Parental abuse, sibling abuse and various other emotional abuse, much of it (not all of it) from men towards women.
A Beauty. A Beast. A Curse. This is not the story you know.
Join author Heather Rose Jones on a new and magical journey into the heart of a familiar fairytale. Meet Alys, eldest daughter of a merchant, a merchant who foolishly plucks a rose from a briar as he flees from the home of a terrifying fay Beast and his seemingly icy sister. Now Alys must pay the price to save his life and allow the Beast, the once handsome Philippe, to pay court to her.
But Alys has never fallen in love with anyone; how can she love a Beast? The fairy Peronelle, waiting in the woods to see the culmination of her curse, is sure that she will fail. Yet, if she does, Philippe’s sister Grace and her beloved Eglantine, trapped in an enchanted briar in the garden, will pay a terrible price. Unless Alys can find another way…
I first heard about this story at WorldCon 2019, where I heard Heather Rose Jones read a segment from it while it was a work in progress. What she read was beautifully lyrical, and the finished book is just the same; it has a very classic French fairy tale feel to it, with a slightly ethereal feel that makes it feel much older than it is. At times, it can feel like it’s playing with archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood characters; we all know how the pieces fit together in Beauty and the Beast, and The Language of Roses asks what would happen if they just didn’t fit together. So we have an aromantic Beauty, a Beast who makes no attempt to learn his lesson, a fairy godmother more concerned with things going to plan than with actually helping – the structure of the story is there, but the archetypes are flipped on their heads.
The book rotates between a number of viewpoints and styles – sometimes it’s in first person, sometimes second, and sometimes third. This seems like it should be disjointed, but it somehow lends itself to that timeless fairy tale feel; with one of the viewpoints, it’s not immediately apparent who’s speaking and how they’re connected to the story, so it is a little confusing, but it does add an interesting layer, and all does eventually become clear. I enjoyed all the different insights each viewpoint gave – for a short book, this packs a lot in. Being able to see relationships from multiple angles, and to draw parallels between the different characters’ experiences, meant that the themes of control and independence were very strong. I did find that the end of the book felt a little bit preachy to me; all fairy tales should have a happy ending, of course, but I’m not sure the ‘controlling people is bad, actually’ theme needed to be stated so explicitly when the rest of the book was relatively subtle.
Like everything this author writes, The Language of Roses is centred on women and features a central sapphic relationship; it was a really interesting choice to have this be between two characters who don’t feature in the original fairy tale, rather than the more obvious choice of a sapphic Beauty/Beast pairing. I think this gave this a lot more room to explore how the Beast represents patriarchal entitlement, since he didn’t need to be redeemed and attractive; however it did make me feel as though Alys, the Beauty character, was ultimately a little narratively redundant. She’s almost a tool, rather than an active heroine; she acts as a wake-up call for some characters and a mouthpiece for another. Although I loved the scenes of her learning to interpret the roses (the title is more literal than you think!), I think you have to detach from the idea that this is her story, as most Beauty and the Beast retellings are. Instead, she’s a side character in a story that’s been going on a long time. I say this not as a criticism, just as an example of how much this book up-ends the traditional plot!
I’m really not sure if I’ve done a good job of explaining this book, because it’s an unusual, prickly, poetic thing. I wouldn’t say it’s the most satsifying retelling of Beauty and the Beast I’ve ever read, but I don’t think it’s trying to be; it’s telling a story in the shadows of that fairy tale, about those shoved to the margins. It’s beautiful to read, and it has a powerful (if sometimes too obvious) message about toxic familial relationships and control. It’s well worth a read – I enjoyed it a lot! – but don’t go in expecting a straightforward fairy tale. Four out of five cats.