‘Sup readers? Welcome to another edition of “On the Shelf,” wherein I try to help you save shelf space by reviewing a book and deciding if it merits a physical copy in your home, or a spot in your e-reader. This time, I’m diving headfirst into a tale as old as time— with a definite sci-fi twist.
Rita Stradling’s Ensnared is a futuristic, new adult retelling of Beauty and the Beast, if Beauty and the Beast was orchestrated by a creepy humanoid robot, and stockholm syndrome was further initiated by an AI mansion that makes the revolutionary abode from 1999’s Smart House look like child’s play.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley. However, all opinions expressed are my own.
Let’s break down the basics: Alainn (Ensnared’s beauty) is the daughter of a brilliant inventor, Connor Murphy, whose obsession with robots is only one-upped by his gambling addiction. Murphy was commissioned by wealthy recluse, Lorccan Garbhan (our resident beast), to make a robot companion for him (okay, a little weird, but I can dig it). Murphy comes up with Rose, a fully-functional, intelligent robot who is Alainn’s physical double, though Rose is concerned with technological advancement, and Alainn is much more comfortable skiing down a mountain than tinkering in a workshop. Rose refuses to be Garbhan’s personal companion, and thanks to the delays and empty promises made by the shady inventor, if Garbhan doesn’t get a robot, Connor Murphy will go to jail. With all the insidiousness of a slow-burn horror movie, Rose pressures Alainn to go instead: temporarily pretend to be a robot, and distract Garbhan while Rose works on another robot that will happily service him. Driven by her love for her father, Alainn agrees and is shipped off to Garbhan’s (AI-based) tower. She expects nothing but misery inside, convinced that Garbhan (who has been precise about never showing off his face) intends to be her jailer. Instead, Alainn discovers they both want something else entirely.
Since Ensnared is the latest in a crop of fairtyale retellings (practically a genre of its own), it travels a well-worn path and hits certain, predictable beats. But the thing that gives Stradling’s version an edge is her take on the future, and robotic technology.
One of my worst nightmares is sentient technology that becomes smarter than its creators and tries to shape the course of humanity (seriously. I’m always extra-nice to Siri, just in case), and Stradling basically fleshed-out and realized the worst of my fears. Rose the robot (to be precise, Rose 76GF) doesn’t only look like a human, she has the ability to reason like one, in accordance with her (skewed) moral code. From the very beginning, Rose manipulates Alainn into essential servitude with a hair-raising sort of logic. She knows Alainn will make a decision based on emotion (regardless of the fact that her father, who consistently chooses the slot machines over his daughter, deserves jail time). But robots don’t have that problem, which will come in handy when taking over the world (probably). When Alainn is delivered to Garbhan’s tower, she discovers it won’t let her leave. She’s stuck in a fancy, technological cage, with a guy she doesn’t know, having to pretend to be a robot, because two different forms of artificial intelligence decided it was better that way. No thank you. But also, in the context of the story: yes, please. The schemes of Rose and Garbhan’s AI tower are this novel’s saving grace; when it comes to the robot-populated future, Stradling’s imagination knows no bounds.
Beauty and the Beast is a love story, and Ensnared follows the blueprint pretty closely. The issue here is the sci-fi stuff is written so compellingly that the romance between Alainn and Lorrcan feels unnecessary, and almost becomes a source of irritation throughout the novel. Rather than creating two distinctive characters who find love in each other, it sometimes reads as if Ensnared is ticking off check-boxes (“Tragic past? Check. Deadbeat dad? Check.”) in order to squish the two leads together. Other times it feels as though Alainn, stir-crazy from not being able to get outside her controlling AI environment, has flung herself at Garbhan because he’s there and clueless, and she’s there and bored. Opposites attract love stories are some of my favourites, but in this case, it felt like the main characters were trying to start a fire by rubbing together two paper sticks.
Ensnared, though marketed as a love story with a dash of sci-fi, is creepy in all the right ways. It’s definitely worth reading, but if I’m being honest, I can’t recommend it for your shelf. However, if fairytale retellings are your thing and this piques your interest, you should definitely check it out. You can grab a copy here.