In mid-sixteenth century France, François Damont and Estienne Badeux committed the unforgivable sin of falling in love. As farmers in a poorer part of France, they could explain away the time they spent together as friendship. And if they frequented the banks of an idyllic river, they were just washing the sweat and dirt off after a long, hard day in their neighboring fields. That much was true, but it also provided them an alibi to lie together and express their joy in being lovers. Until Estienne’s mother, Cecile, uncovered the truth. Not content to let them be judged by God after a public execution, Cecile wanted to mete out her own punishment using magic. And her cruel streak was so wide, she just may have found a way to punish them for the rest of time.
For a little less than half a millennium, François has been magically entombed in a stone gargoyle. Though entirely inert within the stone, François can see, hear, and feel. He can also remember everything he has lost. How his consciousness has remained intact without sliding into insanity is a mixed blessing because, for twenty-eight days every twenty-five years, François is freed from his prison. Four times each century, he has a vanishingly small chance at breaking the curse by finding true love. He’s come close, but no declarations on his part or those of his past lovers have been enough. Now, in 2018, François is once again freed to continue chasing freedom. But this time, he’s not starting from a dead stop. This time, he’s spent the last several years listening to university professor, Daniel Smith, regale what he thinks is an inanimate statue with his life’s story: his romance with a younger man, their marriage, and their somewhat recent divorce. When François and Daniel come face-to-face, the attraction is as instant as it is powerful. But will it be enough to overcome more than four hundred years of ancient magic?
The Beauty Within is a dark fantasy from author H.L. Day. It plays with two themes from Beauty and the Beast: a person cursed with a hideous facade and the only way to break the curse being through true love. Structurally, it opens with several chapters set in François’s original time, France 1571, before jumping ahead to England 2018. The sixteenth century chapters had a narrow focus on François and Estienne and their families. Day sparingly describes life in France at this time. People are born into the roles that they will occupy until they die and being identified as a gay man is an automatic death sentence. Most of the prose highlights how François has mixed feelings about his undeniable attraction to Estienne, given the rampant rumors that Estienne’s mother and sister are witches. But François gives Estienne the benefit of the doubt. I, the reader, was less sure if I should embrace him as a star-crossed lover. Even better, I liked how François gets cursed without any real closure about Estienne’s role in Cecile discovering the two of them together. That really worked for me because François, our narrator, couldn’t have known Estienne’s motives, so why should I as the reader? It also left that thread tantalizingly open to interpretation.
When the “main” story starts in 2018, we start off being introduced to Daniel, who is about to pop the question to his younger boyfriend—extra scandalous since the boyfriend is a just-graduated student at the same university where Daniel teaches. This frames Daniel unfavorably in many people’s eyes. And when Daniel’s marriage fails and François awakens from his curse not too long after that, it creates marvelous tension. François is worried he’s very much a rebound, worried that he doesn’t even have a chance given how broken up François knows Daniel to be—which François knows because he’s been hearing Daniel’s almost daily revelations as the latter talks to the gargoyle. Daniel’s friends, family, and even colleagues are worried he’s rushing into something prematurely and think Daniel ought to steer clear of younger men. But Daniel himself never feels unsure of his attraction, affection, and love for François.
The way Day unravels the story really worked for me. This isn’t really a thriller, but I found myself guessing how the curse might get broken pretty early on. It was very satisfying to see how much I could predict and where things matched up in a way I hadn’t anticipated. There are several little foreshadowing elements woven into the story. Seeing how the story is able to come full circle was very satisfying; not a single character or relationship was superfluous, but neither was anyone obnoxiously interconnected. One of the absolute highlights for me was at the very end when Day takes the time to address how François, who’s only been able to live 28 days once every 25 years for more than 400 years, manages to even try to find a partner with whom to break the curse. And this is again addressed during the happily-ever-after ending.
Overall, I thought The Beauty Within was a delightfully engrossing story. The characters were engaging; they were easy to like even if they weren’t perfect or engaged in a little melodrama. I enjoyed watching the relationship between François and Daniel develop and thought the fact that François knew just about everything about Daniel before they ever met was a great touch (but Day still works in a surprise fact about Daniel that François gets to discover on-page). Anyone who likes modern retellings of fairy tales or Beauty and the Beast, forbidden love, age gaps, and fantasy will surely enjoy this wonderful, dramatic romance.