I'd mentioned already being leery of Book Reboots, and how I wasn't sure if I could read another version of Jane Eyre. Well, never fear, it's time now for another Austen reboot!
Wait, wait - don't go. There are no zombies. NONE! Instead, this novel treads perilously close to sacred ground - my favorite book of all time of the Jane Austen panoply is PERSUASION, and this is a reboot of that very treasured story.
To be clear, Jane Austen set the gold standard in Romantic era fiction for me. NOTHING will ever be as good as the original PERSUASION. However, this novel is gold in its own postmodern way.
Reader Gut Reaction: This is not a retelling - it's an Austen tribute. If you keep that in mind, the novel works much, much better.
This is straightforward science fiction, a futurist world in which, as a result of The Reduction, a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong, there is an automatic servant-class, and everyone who survived otherwise are Luddites. There is a rigid compliance with what is assumed as "God's will," and natural law to keep them safe from more massive die-offs and retardation - no technology. No new discoveries. Even something as simple as cross-breeding plants for a stronger yield is anathema. Luddites ... and servants. An entire class of people are lifetime servants, as a result of The Reduction; they seem to suffer from mental challenges. Some of their children, however, do not. Post-Reductionists want to live and breathe and be real citizens, not second-class people. But, they can't do it on Eliot's father's land...
Concerning Character: Eliot North could be thought of as a girl who has everything - except she's not. She's the girl who does everything, to keep the servants on her father's land fed and cared for. He - and Eliot's spoiled older sister - wants to live large on the money the estate makes, but has zero interest in doing the work and good stewardship that it takes to make it. Eliot steps in time and again to save things - and her father resents her in a childish fashion. He hurts her through hurting the servants, and tries to control her - when he isn't ignoring her entirely. (In an otherwise nuanced and subtle novel, their relationship is the one false note for me - I found myself asking for more "whys" behind his behavior.)
Malakai Wentforth - a clever, self-educated boy is a Post-Reductionist, a second generation non-Luddite who was Eliot's childhood friend and love. He went away to seek his fortune, for there's nothing left on the North's estate for him. When he asks Eliot to go with him, she refuses. It breaks her heart to stay away from him, to choose to keep cleaning up her father's messes, but to Eliot's mind, to whom much is given, much is required. Her genetics are pure. Her mental acuity is sharp. Her responsibilities, therefore, are much greater. She refuses to live her life solely for herself, as do her father and sister - which is a positive and strong-minded, mature choice. After nearly five years, Eliot is terrified that Kai's dead. She actually mourns him as if he IS dead. But, now, he's back. Brilliant and accomplished and different - and utterly hateful toward Eliot, Malakai's return is the worst and the best day of Eliot's life.
Peterfreund adds a touch of Brontë to this novel's hero that I don't think Austen ever did. Kai is a right butthead at times, prickly and quick to temper, moreso than Frederick Wentworth ever was - and I'm not sure his behavior should have been accepted without a confrontation. Eliot is just as passive as her predecessor, Anne, but for very different reasons, but she makes abrupt decisions, especially at the conclusion of the novel, which came across as impetuous, which some readers object to, but which was, I think, deliberate. There is immense care taken with the narrative, and with the story, showing Peterfreund's love of the original story as well. She subtly twists the new tale into a tribute which doesn't cleave too closely to the original, yet has much of its charm.
Recommended for Fans Of...: Novels of the romantic era, such as Jane Austen's PERSUASION, Star-crossed romances like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and novels wherein the lowly hero scores the high-class heroine.
Themes & Thoughts: Because Eliot doesn't fit in with the wealthy Luddites in her society, she finds her home among the servant-class. One of her friends is a Reduced girl who is simple and sweet, and Eliot adores her. The adoration is difficult - though the girl sometimes tells what she shouldn't and sees and mimics what she should not, Eliot kind of has to love her. They were born the same day. She's the last link to her childhood, and Kai. The emotions and drawbacks and rewards of loving a differently-abled person is one of the things I wish the novel had taken more time to explore. We don't often run across a lot of teen differently-abled characters in YA now, especially not in SFF, where everyone in the brave new world is brilliant.
Speaking of brilliant, there are a few ethical questions in this Luddite society I wish could have been covered more thoroughly. I know the point of the novel was romance, but the worldbuilding really intrigued, and I'd love to see another novel in the same universe that digs in deeper to the world, caste systems, class, and the fabulous genetic advances that had been made - and which ruined the world....
This book has so, so much good going on with it, that it's easy to be forgiving of the moments which were not delved into as deeply as I might have liked! It's only one book - I think if I wrote it my way, it would be three...! Which leads to the question, is this a single volume, like PERSUASION? It appears that the answer is yes, which is killing a lot of people, but be of good cheer: there's a bonus novel prequel on Diana Peterfreund's website, at least.
Cover Chatter: At first I wondered if I had imagined that Kai was described as quite fair with specifically arresting eyes, and Eliot was plain and dark, but no -- I reread. Eliot has long dark hair, and brownish tan - or, in the winter - sallow skin. She's kind of a farm girl, and does the farmer tan. What I didn't know is that apparently some people consider this cover to be white-washed. I don't read it that way. I love the stars and galaxies which appear through the character's dress, and I think the cover is gorgeous. I don't recall Eliot really ever wearing that awesome of a dress, but even farm girls have a yen to dress up every once in awhile.
FTC: Review copy courtesy of the publisher, unsolicited review.
A novel both exasperating and endearing, you can find FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by Diana Peterfreund at an independent bookstore near you!