Review: Bitterburn – Ann Aguirre
by Ann Aguirre
Series: Gothic Fairytales #1
Publication Date: October 31, 2020
I received an advance review copy of this book from Publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Amarrah Brewer is desperate and grief-stricken.For ages, the town of Bitterburn has sent tribute to the Keep at the End of the World, but a harsh winter leaves them unable to pay the toll that keeps the Beast at bay. Amarrah volunteers to brave what no one has before—to end the threat or die trying.
The Beast of Bitterburn has lost all hope.One way or another, Njål has been a prisoner for his entire life. Monstrous evil has left him trapped and lonely, and he believes that will never change. There is only darkness in his endless exile, never light. Never warmth. Until she arrives.
It's a tale as old as time... where Beauty goes to confront the Beast and falls in love instead.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »grief (over death of fiancé), suicidal ideation, animal pregnancy and stillbirth, torture (described), child abuse, child is seriously ill (but recovers) « Hide Spoiler
Hello, my name is Lauren and I am a complete softie for monster boyfriends. I’m going to blame the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast which came out during a pivotal point of my childhood, and I’ve devoured as many BATB retellings as I can find ever since. I adored this one – lushly gothic and the perfect mix of monster and cinnamon roll softie. It’s an absolute treasure trove of some of my favorite tropes.
“You’ve remarkable brass to scold the monster lurking in the dark.”
“If you’re a monster, I’m a dragon,” I mutter.
Amarrah’s grieving the loss of the only man who ever loved her. Her stepmother doesn’t consider her part of the family, really – she’s just an extra mouth to feed. So when her village is unable to provide its usual tithe to the castle of Bitterburn and its monster, she’s alright with sacrificing herself as she doesn’t have anything else to live for. But the castle and its beast are not what the villagers think they are, and soon Amarrah begins to feel like she finally has a place of her own. But mysterious things keep happening around the castle, and Amarrah suspects that not everything there means her well. Can she uncover the secrets of Bitterburn and free its beast, or is she doomed to become just another sacrifice?
“Amarrah?” Njål calls me from the kitchen, greeting me instead of lurking in the shadows and waiting for me to notice his arrival. His voice is a roaring fire in the heart of winter, rich and deep, rasping and rough, and I would give a small fortune for him to say my name again.
Trying to make that happen, I pretend I haven’t heard. Perhaps he’ll come close enough that I can smell his lye and pine scent, feel his breath on the nape of my neck. No, that’s pure fantasy. Njål rarely comes within six alns, let alone close enough to touch.
For a few seconds, I imagine it nonetheless.
Amarrah starts the book about as frozen emotionally as Bitterburn is physically. She’s emotionally battered and weary, but as she begins to carve out a place for herself in the castle and gets to know Njål, she slowly becomes willing to risk her heart again. The way the consent is handled is perfection. In this version, Njål is not her captor – she’s there freely and could leave at any time if she wished. But they still need to build trust between them before a relationship can happen. Njål, while drawn to Amarrah and her cooking, has his own awful reasons for being slow to trust. He’s not the spoiled prince of so many BATB retellings – he’s more the victim than Amarrah is, and he’s a very soft sort of monster. He initially doesn’t want her to see him, and she respects that, even though she’s desperate to sneak a peek of the monster. It’s a sort of quiet bravery that’s required from both of them, and it’s lovely.
“Because now, even if I had someplace else to be, someone to take me in, I reckon I wouldn’t leave Njål. Before, this was my last resort, and now it’s my refuge.”
I will freely admit that I compare every BATB version I read to the animated version, and this one has my favorite bit from that: the library. It also scratched my Little House on the Prairie itch. When Amarrah arrives, the castle is in ruins. As she slowly clears out the kitchen and surrounding areas, she puts her touch on the place and starts to finally feel like she has a place in the world. It’s a very comforting sort of domesticity, that as she’s cooking and cleaning and gardening she’s bringing life back to the castle, and it’s incredibly soothing. Plus, I’m a sucker for kitchen herb witchery.
“Goats are pure chaos—not even a witch can manage that.”
Since, you know, this is set in an abandoned gothic castle, you wouldn’t expect there to be any supporting characters. And you’re right, but – there’s the goats. I loved them and they added a bit of hilarity to the plot. There’s lots of angst, but it’s overall low on the drama. Most of the tension is from the mystery of what happened to Njål and Bitterburn and Amarrah’s attempts to uncover its secrets. It’s well-placed and the worldbuilding was very enjoyable, Norse-influenced and fresh.
Overall, I absolutely loved this book and cannot wait for the next story in the series!