During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.
Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.
At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?
I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead. But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!
This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:
There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.
Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.
Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home. As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed. His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens. Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home. The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!” from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.
The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.
The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original. The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:
“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”
Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.
And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:
“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.
At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.
Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.
The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony – and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn. The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.
The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.
My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out. The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing. But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming. In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.