I feel like I need to explain myself here. So many people I know love this book, and I just didn't. I'm not even sure it was an "It's not you; it's me" situation. The book simply could have been better—namely, it could have been longer, and not YA, and less confusing.
"Longer and not YA" are not typically suggestions I have for books. I am pretty much open to labeling anything as YA, because I love YA without shame, and I'm not sure I've ever complained that a book was too short before. But the simple truth is that Cruel Beauty would have been so much better as an adult book. An extra 10-20k words would have helped enormously with my biggest issue: there was too much going on in too little time. It got overwhelming. I couldn't keep track of which goal Nyx was trying to accomplish at which points—is she trying to save Arcadia or Ignifex? Is she trying to come up with his name or find the four Houses? Why does it keep mentioning this box? If this is a high fantasy, not set in our world, why does it use gods and heroes from our mythology? (That last one threw me off a lot.) Not to mention Nyx's wishy-washy feelings about everything: she hates her sister, she loves her sister; she despises her family, she owes her family; she wants to kill her husband, but wait she loves her husband; she doesn't trust Shade, she defends Shade. Whiplash, thy name is Triskelion.
After putting this book down for a few days short of a year and picking it back up where I left off, it became pretty clear why I couldn't do it all at once: Nyx's narration. It grated on me more than any first-person narration ever has, and I can't really put a finger on why. I think at certain times it felt more like she was listing events and feelings and legends more than telling her own story. "This happened, and I felt this way, and I thought about it for at least two paragraphs, and then I got over it and this happened," etc. etc. It was extremely monotonous.
The fantasy itself was very unique and creative, but once again I feel like it would have been easier to understand (and also more believable) in an adult novel. Adult novels have more room to go into the history and mythology of their fantasy worlds, while this one felt like it was all cramped in because the author only had so many words to work with—though even as a YA book, it could have been longer. The length of Throne of Glass would have been perfect, I think, but instead this one was shorter than a Stephanie Perkins novel. What? Why?
Now, for the one thing I did like: the romance. Was it insta-love-ish? Yes, but I could kind of understand why these two characters (I'm not giving that love triangle the time of day) would fall for each other fairly quickly: they're kind of the same. Nyx made it abundantly clear that she was kind of terrible, and we knew from the beginning that Ignifex would be kind of terrible. I loved their banter with each other, and how they kept each other on their toes. Ignifex was a fascinating character—he reminded me of the Darkling, if the Darkling had redeeming qualities. Ignifex was no hero, but he clearly cared about Nyx and was not trying to use her, which I think is key in a Beauty & the Beast retelling. The Beast cannot have ulterior motives for taking care of the "Beauty," and even though Ignifex started being nice toward Nyx before he really cared about her, it wasn't because there was something wicked going on. It was because there was more to him than she thought. Which, hi, is the actual premise of [the Disney version of] the fairy tale.
Was it achingly romantic? At parts. Was it beautiful? Sometimes. But you had to wade through the muck of Nyx's monotone and the confusing infodumps to get there. This is one of those books that are almost more satisfying to read when you ignore everything but the relationships. I could have loved the world Hodge created, but that's difficult when it feels less "created" than "described."