Hunted by Meagan Spooner

Hunted is a YA adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale mixed with Russian folklore and featuring an archer heroine.

I just heard a bunch of people one-click buy, didn’t I?

Hunted is delightful. It’s the BatB adaptation that I didn’t know that I wanted or needed, but that kept me up reading all night. Unlike in many of versions of the fairytale, Beauty (in this case Yeva) isn’t the kindest, gentlest, “good”-est daughter of a wealthy merchant. In Hunted, she’s the strongest, the most feral. Yeva’s father was a renown hunter before becoming a successful merchant, and he took Yeva with him to the forest and taught her survival skills and archery. It’s in the woods that Yeva feels most at home.

As a young woman Yeva lives in town with her father and two sisters, and she acts as a lady in waiting to the Baronessa–a role that stifles her. She expects a local boy, the Baron’s heir, will propose to her as she is a great beauty, but she has no desire for marriage.

When her father bets everything on a single shipment that’s stolen by vandals, Yeva is the member of her family best suited to survive their ruin. Her father is forced to sell their house and move everyone to a cottage in the forest where he and Yeva hunt for their survival. Her father goes deeper into the forest after big game and returns half-mad, raving about a beast. When he goes back into the forest again to search for the beast and never returns, Yeva sets out to find him. To her horror she stumbles across her father’s body, and the beast she believes was a fantasy.

Yeva has all of the female rage I needed, and she immediately tries to kill the Beast she believes killed her father. She shoots him with an arrow, wounding him:

Yeva could wait for it to die, for the air and the blood to run out. But she could not bear to wait, and that was too gentle a death–a gradual slowing of the body that ended in sleep. That death was too kind for this monster. The lust was rising in her, the wild hiss of revenge bubbling up to replace the hunter’s cold reason.

She wanted to feel the crunch of its skull through the handle of the ax, to see its life spill onto the snow in a steaming torrent. She wanted to see the face of the Beast that killed her father in the moment that it understood it had lost. She wanted to watch it die.

DAMN GIRL.

The Beast isn’t wounded, however, he’s faking so he can capture Yeva. Of course.

The Beast keeps Yeva in a crumbling castle in a magical valley where it is always winter. He trains Yeva, honing her hunting skills, needing her to someday go deeper into the enchanted forest and retrieve something he cannot.

This isn’t a fairytale with a gentle love story. Yeva and the Beast do not fall for each other over snowball fights or soup tureens. The castle is a mildewing, decaying mess–there’s no grand ballroom here.  Yeva sleeps half-outside, reading the few books that survived for her own amusement.

Though Yeva complies with the Beast’s wishes, she’s playing the long-game, still planning to kill him for murdering her father and escape back to her family.

But in her lengthy confinement they are forced closer together. She tells him the folktales her father told her as a child, stories like Ivan and the Firebird. It’s her knowledge of these fairytales that helps her make sense of her world.

“Your skill at hunting in the wood is sufficient,” the Beast announced. “Now you will begin hunting in mine.”

Yeva’s brow furrowed. “Yours? I don’t understand.”

The Beast hesitated, his gaze sliding toward the forest beyond the overgrown road leading to the castle. “It is difficult to explain without–” He stopped short, as if someone had stolen his breath.

Yeva’s pulse quickened, curiousity tingling its way up her spine, “Without violating the terms of the spell?”

The Beast’s jaw fell open, and if it weren’t for the number of sharp, menacing teeth his mouth held, Yeva might have laughed at the shock written across his animal features. He went absolutely still, even the tip of his tail was usually so expressive. For an instant he was so like one of the crumbling gargoyles on the battlements of the castle that Yeva thought maybe just speaking of his secrets had turned him to stone.

But then he heaved a breath and dropped lower to the snow, crouching like a wounded animal, forelegs bent and breath stirring the top flakes with each puff. “You are clever,” he mumbled.

“I know stories,” Yeva corrected. “The bespelled can never speak of what afflicts them–that is always part of the curse.”

The Beast’s eyes flicked up. “You believe I am cursed?”

It was Yeva’s turn to hesitate. Her mind still could not decide whether he was a man who had murdered her father or a beast who’d given in to animal instinct and torn him to pieces. And it still couldn’t decide which would be worse. Either way he would have to answer for what he’d done.

“I know you aren’t natural,” she said finally. “And you can clearly hunt far better than any human hunter could, so your need for me must mean you have a  task you cannot complete on your own.”

The Beast said nothing, didn’t confirm her guesses. But neither did he deny them.

“And this existence is clearly…” Yeva paused, swallowing. “It’s clearly miserable.”

The Beast stayed silent.

“So, yes.” Yeva took a deep breath. “Yes, I believe you are cursed.”

The Beauty and the Beast myth deals with a lot of tropes, one of them being the duality of human nature. We get this very clearly from the Beast, who speaks before every chapter. He speaks as a bifurcated creature–both man and animal:

We remember a time of such clarity, We were Beast, we ran with wolves and hunted prey, we lived on the wind and breathed the forest. We wanted nothing but to be, to run, to endure. Want didn’t exist.

And we remember another time, too, a time of longing and desire, where we existed as nothing but want… always the next unattainable thing. There was no joy in what we had, only in what might come.

And now these two selves, these two minds cursed to exist as one, every day grow more at odds. We return to our den to pace and end up railing against the darkness and the dirt–we lie before the fire in our room and itch at the confines of stone and mortar.

Only she frees both of us. She moves like beauty, she whispers to us of wind and forest–and she tells us stories, such stories that we wake in the night, dreaming dreams of a life long past. She reminds us of what we used to be.

She whispers of what we could be.

I expected the duality of the Beast to be explored—that’s a central theme of the fairytale. What was more satisfying was the exploration of Yeva’s dual nature as well. She has ties to civilization, specifically to her sisters, but she’s miserable there. She’s a creature of the forest who might make appearances in town occasionally. That’s not a role that women were allowed to occupy. She feels free in the forest with the Beast, even as she plots to kill him, even as she questions that choice. In some respects, Beauty is wilder than the Beast in this story.

Just as much as the Beast, Yeva is filled with longing for something else (another BatB trope). She has never been happy, always restless, until she finds herself in the Beast’s enchanted valley. Even then she longs to solved the mystery of his existence, to walk further into the enchanted forest and see the magic there.

In Spooner’s fairytale it isn’t Yeva’s physical beauty that saves the Beast or even her inherent kindness (as she spends most of the book plotting to murder him). It’s her strength, her ability to accept who she is (a child of the forest, not of men) and her willingness to believe the truth in old stories. It’s the feminist Beauty and the Beast I didn’t know I wanted, but desperately did.

The end to Hunted is also immensely satisfying, steeped in magic, but also tied to Yeva’s old life with the Baronessa and her family. It’s a happy balance and a happily ever after I truly believed.

Normally I donate most of the books I finish, but I kept Hunted because I loved it so much, and because I’m sure I’ll read it again.

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