Four years ago, Elliot North’s world turned upside down when her best friend Kai left to find his fortunes elsewhere. Left behind to care for her family’s crumbling estates, Elliot’s life is a daily battle against her cruel, feckless father and self-indulgent older sister as she struggles to grow enough food to keep them solvent and feed all their tenants. The Luddite lords, scornful of the genetic experiments and technology that led to much of the human race being broken to the mental level of six-year-olds, care for the Reduced, but a new generation is breaking free of those restraints into a society that doesn’t know how to define them. When Kai suddenly returns as the rich, successful Captain Malakai Wentforth, the Cloud Fleet is a way for Elliot to save her tenants and her lands- if he doesn’t finish shattering her heart first.
I adore Jane Austen in a way that I never expected to when I was younger. In middle school and most of high school, I thought she was synonymous with everything that could possibly be wrong with required reading, something that had to be deathly dull and uninteresting and of absolutely no relevance to anything. Senior year, we had to read Pride and Prejudice over winter break, and I fell in love. (Colin Firth in tight pants didn’t hurt) That started my Jane Austen kick, and when I got to Persuasion, I fell hard for this slow, poignant unfolding of a love gone horribly wrong and the painful, stuttering chance for redemption.
When I found out about a YA retelling, I was both giddy and terrified.
After reading, I can say the verdict came down fully on the side of giddy.
It’s rich and atmospheric, with a beautifully claustrophobic setting that brings the pain and desperation of this shattered relationship into sharp relief. Within any story the setting would be amazing. The history of the Reduction and the gradual evolution away from that wholesale devestation creates a three-part society filled with conflict and responsibility. The delicate compromises made by the Luddites in order to keep their farms and lands functioning serve as stark contrast to the Posts’ willingness to adapt or invent technologies, but also show how finite their resources are, which makes extravagance painful to see. The nature of a society in such a severe rate of change is gorgeous.
Elliot is an amazing character, strong and resourceful, someone who genuinely cares about so much more than herself. I’m not sure if she’s more indicative or symptomatic of the changing times and sensibilities, but she’s caught between the Luddite Protocols by which she’s been raised- the same Protocols that instruct her to care for those who whose bloodlines have been devestated by the Reduction- and the drive to try new things in order to better care for those same people. She’s hard-working, willing (and able) to put the needs of others ahead of her own desires, and having made the decision to do just that four years ago, she faces the painful consequences every single day. Part of what makes her so fascinating- and so eminently likable- is how strong those conflicts are within her. She tries to take the high road- doesn’t always succeed- and tries desperately to reconcile the constant pain of Kai’s departure and his return as the very different Malakai with the knowledge of just how much she’s needed on the North estates. She made the right decision but that doesn’t make it easier to live with the consequences. She’s placed in the not-so-unique position faced by every teen when the tough choices come due. Elliot is a hero for a generation.
Kai is a little more problematic. His bitterness upon his return is completely understandable. His rage, his hurt, they make sense, but the way he constantly insults Elliot, the way he consistently and purposefully stomps on her when she’s down, it makes it hard to even like him, much less swoon for him. Except- oh, except- the chapters are interspersed with years of letters between Kai and Elliot as children, full of beautiful innocence and friendship that gradually evolves not only into a true friendship, but also shows how quickly and completely children can lose than innocence in a society so patently unequal. Kai becomes likable- even lovable- through the letters, and in the quieter moments when he’s startled or his guard is down, the moments where he genuinely sees Elliot, rather than the monster he’s created through four years of bitterness and hurt feelings. In those moments, he’s amazing. (and changing his name from Wentworth to Wentforth makes me geekily happy more than it probably should)
Most of the side characters are beautifully realized, given life and breath outside of the originals. In a retelling, there’s a difference between faithful and slavish, and this definitely comes out to the better of that line. Elliot’s older sister Tatiana is a wonderful amalgam of the oldest and youngest Elliot sisters from the original, with the additional virtue of having a few moments of genuine sympathy. She’s not a likable character- nor is she ever truly meant to be- but that we feel for her at any point is a superb bit of writing. The Posts are as richly varied as the Luddites, and with varying degrees of innovation (no pun intended) and daring. Most of them aren’t the first generation of Posts, but that gives many of them a sense of recklessness that goes hand in hand with the daring experiments carried out by their ancestors. Andromeda is cautious and prickly and protective- in some ways a more extreme version of Elliot’s own protectiveness- while her brother is gloomy and sorrow-burdened at times, at other times almost manic. The Innovations are a wonderful blend of Austen’s Crofts and, in the case of Mrs. Innovation, something new and terrifying and reassuring. Ro, a Reduced girl born the same day as Kai and Elliot, is sweet and sincere, with remarkable leaps of understanding that mark her as special without making her less than (or more than) Reduced. It gives her grace without taking away the reality of what she is. Dee, a Post woman who serves as the North’s foreman, is practical and compassionate, a wonderful mother figure for the motherless Elliot without ever feeling like she’s trying to replace anyone. She’s willing to give Elliot the hard truths, to puncture comforting illusions or beliefs in the name of helping Elliot become a stronger and better person. The neighbors are lively and intelligent, a good example of moderation in both Post and Luddite thinking. The wholly original character of the Boatwright, Elliot’s maternal grandfather, was gorgeous and moving.
The only side character I truly found problematic was Elliot’s father, Baron North. He’s cruel and menacing, but given that we never actually see him carry through any of his horrible threats- nor are even told of times previous to that, other than the burning, that he did so- the menace becomes almost comical in nature, like a punch clown who just snaps back up into place without a true reaction.
Within this shifting society, the setting poses more questions than it answers, but that’s actually okay- most of those questions are things we haven’t figured out for ourselves yet, so it seems like cheating to create a falsely simple solution and feed it through the characters. They’re not simple questions, and they’re ones that have been plaguing us for a long time. I really like that those questions- some practical, some ethical, some a little more esoteric- are explored without being sacrificed in the name of tidiness.
On its own or as a retelling, this is an amazing book with all the wonder, pain, and fragile hope of the original while taking a brave new world and a distinctly YA cast that makes this, in a word, unforgettable.
For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund, absolutely not to be missed.
Until next time~