I have a weakness for retellings of Austen novels. Why I am not sure, since most of them make me break out in hives and want to stab things. For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund is not one of those. I not only enjoyed it, but found it very hard to put aside when I needed to. I have never been able to say that about an Austen retelling before. And this is a retelling of Persuasion which is my second favorite Austen novel.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
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
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.
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
Elliot is a marvelous reworking of Anne's character and, dare I say it, she is even an improvement. (Gasp! I know. I shock even myself.) Elliot's reasons for not leaving with Kai are sound ones, her decision was the right one for her to make for both of them. And for a whole host of other people for whom she felt responsible. Elliot's struggles through the book are realistic and reflect a mind and heart torn between who she is expected to be and who she wants to be. All of this is tied up with the societal and moral issues facing the time she is living in and the stakes are higher than in the original work. Kai is a bit harder to love. Captain Wentworth had every legitimate reason to be angry at and wary of Anne. Kai really doesn't have that same excuse for his actions and there are times when he is quite a jerk, making him harder to love as a hero. But far more realistic. The letters included between chapters that the two exchanged as children help in painting him in a better light though, one from which the reader is better able to understand him, and come to appreciate and love him as Elliot does.
Much of my enjoyment of the novel came from the themes Peterfreund explores through the world she built. Like Austen, she uses her novel to spark thought on certain social issues. There is a tension here between science and religion which I think is handled well. Questions are explored about genetic manipulation and ethics in bio-engineering. I do have some questions regarding the world-building, places where my credulity is stretched more than it likes to be. For example, I can not figure out why the enhanced people who caused the Reduction set out to destroy the rest of humanity. We're supposed to believe it's because they were angry. This makes little sense to me. (I kept thinking maybe it would be revealed that the story the Luddite's told wasn't the whole story, but that didn't happen. Maybe in the next book?) I also feel that some of Elliot's misgivings are left too unresolved and up in the air. Still the world is an interesting one and works very well for the story that is being told. I like how the structure of the plot follows Persuasion so closely and yet also has added new dimensions.
There will be a companion novel coming out next year called Across a Star-Swept Sea that is going to be a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel. (Another of my all time favorite books.) I am eager to see what Peterfreund will do with both this world she has created and that story.