This review is based on a uncorrected proof won through a contest on the author’s blog.
The Premise: (from the back blurb) “It’s been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong–the Reduction–decimated humanity, giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed technology.
Eighteen-year old Luddite Elliot North has always known her place in the world. Four years ago she refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, instead choosing duty to her family’s estate. Since then the wold has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists threatens Luddite control; Elliot’s estate is floundering; and she’s forced to rent land to the Cloud Fleet, a group of explorers that includes a renowned Captain Malakai Wentforth–an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot what she gave up when she abandoned him.
But Elliot soon discovers Kai carries a secret–one that could change the society in which they live…or bring it to its knees. And 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.”
My Thoughts: The premise of For Darkness Shows the Stars was pretty much guaranteed to make me read it. It’s a retelling of Persuasion, my favorite Jane Austen book, and a futuristic romance? Um, yeah, sold.
In the futuristic world of For Darkness Shows the Stars, the social classes have been cleverly structured to mirror that of Regency England. The Luddite lords own all the land, and lives lives of noble leisure. Almost everyone else is Reduced. They are servants, trained by the Luddites to do simple tasks, and unable to take care of themselves. Many years ago, technology was abused, leading to to generations born with developmental difficulties (the Reduced) and world war. The Luddites were spared by their own caution, and now reap the benefits. But now there is also a new class – the Posts, rare children born from the Reduced that are just like the Luddites, but without their social position. As can be expected, their appearance has begun to shake up the social structure. Some Posts have run away from their estates and made their own fortunes in exploration and enterprise, forming a new class that is wealthy, if not noble.
Within the current social structure, the Norths are high ranking nobility. Elliot’s position allows her to manage the household since her sister, Tatiana, and her father, Baron Zachariah North, have no interest, but as the younger daughter of an estate to which she’s not an heir, Elliot has little power against her father. In the years since her mother’s death, Elliot has deflected the worst of his selfishness, but as far as Baron North is concerned, he is lord and master. He reinforces his supremacy over Elliot subtly, with punishments designed to hit Elliot where it hurts the most. His latest act is to cut down a field of wheat that Elliot had secretly modified to end the food shortage on the North lands. Beneath his casual callousness, Elliot fears that her father choose her wheat field on purpose.
The loss of the genetically modified wheat leads Elliot to convince her family to rent out her grandfather’s shipyard to the Cloud Fleet, even though the Fleet is staffed entirely by free Posts. Admiral Innovation of the Cloud Fleet brings with him an interesting assortment of wealthy and adventuring Posts, among them his wife Felicia, Captains Andromeda and Donovan Phoenix, and finally, Captain Malakai Wentforth. But when Elliot lays her eyes on Captain Wentforth, she gets a shock. He’s Kai, the young Post boy she fell in love with but failed to run away with four years ago.
The set up of the book has quite a few nods at the original Persuasion, with Elliot in reduced circumstances, her frivolous family spending money while she worries about bills, and a newly wealthy lower class as a means for the Norths to survive. But For Darkness Shows the Stars really takes at most the skeleton of the original as a guide, choosing to make social commentaries in it’s own, very different way. Instead of drama playing out under the surface in drawing rooms, this story is more out in the open. Elliot has a close relationship with Posts and Reduced on her estate, relying on her Post foreman Dee and others for advice, and often visiting Ro, a pretty Reduced girl her age, for company. While Elliot works with the Posts and Reduced, others in her social class treat them no more than indentured servants or slaves. There are several examples showing the huge divide between the Luddites and others. For instance, the birthing and healing houses for the Reduced and Posts. These places are ill-staffed, and inadequate. Many Posts, in no need to be treated like the Reduced are, leave their estates but fall prey poverty and new forms of abuse.
Kai/Malakai keenly feels the unfairness of the class system and questions it — why should he be servant and answerable to the Luddites when he has skills and a mind just as sharp if not sharper than theirs? Letters between Kai and Elliot through the years break up the story and are evidence of their attachment, but also show the two questioning the Luddite beliefs. The dynamics between classes plays a more obvious role when Kai left the North Estate, and Elliot stayed, and later, Kai more openly holds a grudge over Elliot’s rejection than in the original. When Malakai shows up again with other successful Posts, what he’s done to achieve that success also becomes a plot point.
I liked these differences from the original story. I’ve read a lot of retellings, and I always end up liking the stories that take the bones of the original but infuse it with its own flavor over those stories that rigidly follow the script. Baron North is more scary than he is vain. Several characters no longer exist or are in very different forms, and of course, names have been changed, but characters are still recognizable, if different. I liked the concept of a future where events have produced a class system similar to the Regency period, and that use of technology was linked to religion. I liked that this was cleverly incorporated into the conflict between characters. More cleverness: the clues about where the story was set (not in the U.K). I enjoyed that the settings for many of the scenes were unique to this retelling.
And how did I feel about the romance? Kai and Elliot’s correspondence peppering the book showed their early friendship as children, with only a few hints of their romance later. Where the romance really resonated for me was in Elliot’s internal anguish over Kai. Her emotions now, which she takes great pains to keep hidden, tell me more than anything else. Kai is harder to read — the third person narration focuses more on Elliot — and he was surprisingly bitter at the start of the story. Later on, I felt like he showed a different emotion but you had to read between the lines to guess how he felt, until the expected letter. Like the original, Kai’s inscrutability makes Elliot’s feelings more palpable, and it was on Elliot’s behalf that I rooted for the couple. This wasn’t a story that was about a new love, it was about already being in love and sick with it. I wanted them to be reunited. I liked the way that happened, and how some of the class issues (at least at the North estate) were resolved. Some readers may have wanted more social issues settled, but I didn’t think the scope of the story would have made that realistic. This ending was a beginning, and I was happy with that.
For Darkness Shows the Stars is out June 10th, 2012.
Overall: This is one of my favorite retellings. Readers should not go into this expecting a story that follows the Persuasion formula to the letter, but since For Darkness Shows the Stars is set in a post-apocalyptic society where new advancements are frowned upon, things are bound to go off script. And they do, in the best way. I liked this for being an homage but also for being incredibly original at the same time.
Book Harbinger – “While overall this didn’t work for me”, recommends with reservations.
Angieville – “Everything about this book soars, from its supernal setting to the dreams its characters hold in their hearts.”