Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by Diana Peterfreund

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth--an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret--one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's "Persuasion," "For Darkness Shows the Stars" is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.
When I told my mom I was reviewing a YA sci-fi/dystopian retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion, she was not impressed. Actually, I'd put her a bit closer to horrified. She couldn't understand why anyone would muddy such a beautiful classic with all that sci-fi/dystopian stuff.

Truth be told, I wasn't sure how well I would like FDStS either. Persuasion, with all of its romantic tension and love deferred, is a classic for a reason. Messing with it via a sci-fi retelling is one thing? But using a dystopian/post-apocalyptic bent? Meh.

But then I met Elliot and Kai.

FTDStS takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. Pre-apocalypse, genetic tampering ran rampant. Nothing - not crops, not animals, not even people - remained untainted. Then it all fell apart. The Luddites (shunners of technology, just like present-day Luddites) hid in the earth and watched as the world disintegrated into chaos. Altered crops poisoned lands. Wars raged. Those changed by genetic tampering gave birth to Reduced children - basically a race of mentally handicapped individuals unable to speak in anything more than monosyllabic words. Out of spite, the few remaining turned their technology to the sky, destroying communication and navigation by screwing with the Earth's magnetic field.

As the only group with unaffected genes, the Luddites rose from the ground and took control. They assumed their positions as the moral gatekeepers and the protectors of the "poor" Reduced. However well-intentioned, the system eventually decayed into a scenario resembling the American Antebellum South. The Luddites rule their farms (plantations!) from their upholstered parlors and control the Reduced with an iron fist. Even the birth of mentally sound Reduced children (called Children of Reduced or Post-Reductionists) does nothing to change the status quo.

Elliot, a Luddite, and Kai, a Post, have been connected to each other from birth. They and another girl, a Reduced named Ro, were all born on the same day. Kai and Ro's mothers died. Elliot's mother lived, thanks to her status as a ruling Luddite. Despite their differences in class, all three children managed to find a way to remain friends and to watch out for each other.

For me, it helped to have read Persuasion first; otherwise, I think I may have had a problem with Elliot. Actually, I did have a problem with both Elliot and Kai at first, because they were introduced to the readers through their childhood letters to each other, and I couldn't tell which was male and which was female! I'm very stubborn about not reading the synopsis again once I've started a book, and, to me, Elliot is a boy name. Curse you, male-to-female naming trend! (Yes, I know, it's a nod to Persuasion's Anne Elliot. I still think it's confusing.)

Once I untangled the identities, however, it was simple enough to keep each character separate. Ms. Peterfreund was very careful with Elliot and Kai's voices, making sure their diction reflected their educated and working-class backgrounds, respectively. They also have distinctive personalities from the get-go. Elliot is tamer, much more eager to please, and understandably naive regarding Kai's way of life. Kai, on the other hand, is eager to learn, far more reckless, and often dangerously brash.

Actually, most people would think calling Elliot "tame" is a bit of an understatement. She comes across as a walking doormat. She's cowed by her father, bullied by her sister, and, when Kai returns as successful Cloud Fleet Captain Wentforth, she lets him run roughshod over her as well! At least, so it appears. Elliot has far more spunk than even she gives herself credit for. She routinely deceives her father for the good of her Reduced in her care, and befriends Reduced and Post alike, despite it being against social conventions. Yes, she's an awful sap for Kai (or Malakai, as he's now called), but she's been in love with the boy for years, and it broke her heart when he left.

Ah, Malakai. Rude little jerk that you are, I still love you. Again, I can enjoy the dynamic between the two characters because it so closely mirrors the one in Persuasion. Kai alternates between lashing out at Elliot, ignoring her, and - on occasion - protecting her. Elliot, for her part, hides her hurt as best she can and tries to put her feelings for Kai aside with a heartsick tenacity that would make Taylor Swift proud. Okay, maybe not. She's more nuanced than the golden-haired one, but if she had a guitar, you'd be safe in betting there'd be teardrops on it. (What? I'm hip! I know pop culture!) It's the same tension that I adored between Anne and Frederick in Persuasion. Okay, yes, I did want to sock Kai in the jaw a few times, and his back-and-forth with Elliot felt more juvenile (they're a decade younger than their Persuasion counterparts, after all), but it was still so lovely.

Really, I loved all the Austen throwbacks that Ms. Peterfreund included. The Cloud Fleet Posts differentiate themselves from the somberly dressed Luddites by parading around in brightly colored clothes, with scarlet coats being their favorite article. (Get it? Redcoats!) Kai chooses the surname Wentforth, Ms. Peterfreund's obvious nod to Captain Wentworth, but also a clever play on words. Kai, after all, was the boy who left the North estate and went forth to make his way in the world. Many of the major plot points from Persuasion are reimagined rather cleverly. I especially like how she orchestrated the fall at Bath. (You Austen-lovers know what I'm talking about.) Also, the childhood letters between Kai and Elliot that are sprinkled throughout the book not only give us a sense of their forming personalities, but also echo the use of various letters in Persuasion, including The Letter. (That is, the letter from the scene that made me fall head-over-heels for Persuasion in college.)

Amid all the Austen love, much of the sci-fi falls by the wayside. Yes, various futuristic things crop up, giving us a sense that this new world is far different from our own. However, I never really got a true sense of Elliot's world. It felt like a simple stage, set with props and moving facades for the characters to act out the Persuasion tale upon. I would have preferred a world with a bit more heft to it.

For me, this was a story more about the reader's emotions than the reader's mind. If you come to this book expecting a fully realized world, intricate supporting characters, or a nuanced ending, you'll be disappointed. However, if you're willing to chuck it all aside and let yourself be swept away by the conflict between Kai and Elliot, I believe you will enjoy yourself immensely. Just try not to punch Kai. He's a good guy, I promise.

Points Added For: Austen-y awesomeness, sweet and wonderful Ro, those lovely paper gliders (really, I think the cover should have featured them instead), the conceit of the Luddite sanctuaries, making me want to watch the 2007 version of Persuasion again.

Points Subtracted For: A fail on the reimagined William Elliot character (really, he was so flat), a mediocre world (despite having an awesome premise), an ending that was just too neat and tidy, that stupid cover that looks NOTHING like Elliot. [Note: I don't know if anyone with experience with mental handicaps would find the depiction of the Reduced offensive or not. Clearly, their treatment by most Luddites is appalling, but I'd like to hear what you all thought of the "correct" worldview espoused in the end.]

Good For Fans Of: Persuasion by Jane Austen, fraught romantic relationships, angsty leading men.

Notes For Parents: Other than general bad attitudes on the part of the Luddites, I don't remember anything.

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