Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? The Beholder by Anna Bright is full of fairy tale and legend references and parallels, but it is not a retelling. Instead, The Beholder introduces a complicated new world based on such tales and a protagonist that finds herself swept away by princes and vikings, conspiracies and danger.
As the future leader of Potomac, Selah has been waiting her whole life for a happily ever with the perfect match. But when she’s rejected by her closest childhood friend, Selah is sent across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe by her stepmother where a series of potential suitors await. To return to Potomac, she must choose one of the suitors. But as she walks the halls of an English castle and traipses across the fjords of Norge, Selah learns there is much more stirring than her stepmother’s schemes and the stakes of her voyage may far exceed finding a husband.
The Beholder is a unique take on the “fairy tale retelling” trend. While it doesn’t retell a specific fairy tale, it includes a lot of connections to fairy tales and other legends. There’s a knight competing in a contest a la Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there’s a viking-esque culture reminiscent of Beowulf. Selah, the protagonist, finds herself up against a cruel step-mother like Snow White or Cinderella and is forced onto a sea adventure similar to The Odyssey. There are characters named after famous story-tellers from Homer to Lang to Grimm as well. It isn’t quite what I expected, but I enjoyed the allusions to the tales and thought the story was interesting.
My problems with the book, however, are complicated. Selah isn’t the most daring female protagonist, and while she’s set to lead her people someday, she doesn’t have any leadership qualities. She spends her time reading fairy tales and gardening, which aren’t bad hobbies, but they don’t benefit her future leadership role. She does hold her own over the course of the book, and she doesn’t give into outside pressure simply because it’s what she should do. She chooses what she wants to do.
As for the premise, I’m not keen on books where the main character falls in love in a matter of days in some kind of whirlwind romance. YA especially has too much insta-love or rushed relationships, and while I know that’s part of the plot of this novel, I’m not a fan of Selah falling in love with one guy, having that relationship end for a dumb reason, and then fall in love with the next guy, then having that end for some reason, etc. I need more time to care about her suitors.
Also, the world-building is weird. I love the idea that legend and myth has shaped this altered earth, but some aspects don’t make sense. There are times when Selah is wearing fancy dresses, attending balls, riding in carriages, and fighting with swords, and other times she’s listening to a radio, wearing cardigans, and discussing sports like soccer and rugby. Elements of the world don’t line up, and it’s hard to tell when the story takes place. Most of the countries are renamed as well, and while it was easy to guess what was what, I had a hard time keeping track of everything. (Please, please, include a map in the sequel.)
One of my favorite world-building aspects, though, is that Selah is terrified of the Imperiya Yotne because of the stories surrounding the Baba Yaga. Anna Bright definitely has a fantastic idea with how she alters the fairy tales to build up conflict and move Selah from suitor to suitor.
My biggest issue with the story is that it feels half-finished. Yes, it’s a duology. Yes, there is more to the story, but Selah only visits half of the “required” suitors and the ending chapters leave a lot to be desired. While I like that Anna Bright took her time telling Selah’s story and didn’t rush through everything, I expected the story to move along much more quickly and that she would at least reach the Imperiya Yotne before the book ended. There is also the matter of the “twist” at the end that I thought could have used more build-up during the beginning and middle. It isn’t crazy surprising, so maybe there is enough foreshadowing, but it also feels like it’s tacked on the end to provide a more substantial cliffhanger.
Overall, though, I enjoyed The Beholder. I love fairy tales, so those aspects definitely enchanted me. And while some aspects confused me or left me with questions, the story is compelling and I look forward to the sequel. I recommend The Beholder for fans of fairy tales and other legends who don’t mind ignoring complicated world-building details.
~I purchased a copy of The Beholder by Anna Bright through the Bookish Box June subscription box and chose to write this review of my own free will. All opinions are my own.~