For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
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Dystopian/Retelling, 402 pages
Published June 12th 2012 by Balzer + Bray
I am bound to judge any story that uses Persuasion pretty harshly. I can't help myself; I'm a huge Persuasion fan, and there haven't been enough adaptations of it to dull my senses to the inconsistencies yet. So it's a risk - as much as I look forward to stories that make use of it, there's a good chance that I just won't be able to let things go. I think I probably was harder on this that I would have been if it didn't use Persuasion and instead was just another dystopian YA. But it was inevitable that I would judge it harshly - though even then, I couldn't help but love it.
It was unputdownable. It had that indefinable something working for it, and the heart of it, the way it mirrored Persuasion but adapted to fit a wholly different environment, was really compelling to me. There were always parts of me saying, Anne wouldn't say what Elliot just said, Anne wouldn't do what Elliot just did - but then I'd catch myself thinking, but she would feel it... And that was why it worked. No, Elliot is not a carbon copy of Anne. She has Anne's basic traits (she's loyal, she's smart, reliable, and compassionate, and everyone pushes her around), but she is also a product of her environment, and the two work together to create a character that strongly resembles Anne (is very Anne-like), but is also her own creation. I really have to applaud Peterfreund for being able to balance the two so well. The story is at once a clear retelling of Persuasion, and its own very different story entirely. It's not just a regurgitation of Persuasion in an exciting dystopic setting. It's its own creation, and though there are these changes in the core of who the characters are, I think for the most part, they're suited to the story Peterfreund created. It feels more "inspired by" than a straight retelling. I think you can really tell how much Peterfreund likes Persuasion and Austen, and respects her source material, and that's part of what really makes it work as a whole.
That isn't to say there weren't things that bothered me, or that didn't work from a retelling standpoint. Because this is written for YA, the timing doesn't have the same impact. In Persuasion, Anne and Wentworth fall in love and are separated when Anne is 19, and then meet again nearly a decade later. Moving up the timetable to suit a YA audience means that Elliot and Kai are separated at 14 and come together again at 18, and I have never been enough of a romantic that I would consider separated 14 year olds to be tragic lovers, and a reunion at 18 to be a triumphant return... It lessens it somehow; lessens the tragedy and the sadness of pining and being alone for almost 10 years, takes away the pain of feeling like the character will always be alone, like she's lost her only chance... It makes it all a little lighter, which is sad because there's really nothing that Peterfreund could do differently and still have it suit the audience. The way, too, that they are separated - with Elliot first of all in mourning, and second, legitimately making the right decision for everyone around her - means that it becomes a lot harder to like Kai. I did like him, don't get me wrong, but I think that was maybe only because I knew who he was supposed to be, and how he was going to turn out. Otherwise, I think I would have found him really callous and almost cruel, both in the manner and timing of their separation, and in his treatment of Elliot on his return.
Other things that niggled at me: It feels like the beginning to a series. I don't think it will be, but that's just because I know it is a retelling. If I picked this up just as a sci-fi read, I'd be sure it was going to be a trilogy. There's so much that feels like it could still be explored, and for all of the doom and gloom of the situation, and Elliot's internal debates over what's right and what the future should hold, things are far too easily wrapped up once she's (re)secured Kai's affections; in fact, the entire book ends too abruptly for me, with it feeling like Elliot is being rash, and a number of characters being ushered quickly off the stage... Also, I didn't like the letters that begin and punctuate the book. I got used to them, and I like what Elliot did with them, and the knothole, etc., but the letters themselves felt forced on the story to me, and they didn't work as a way to draw me into the story.
See? See how nitpicky this all turned out, when I really do want to push this book into everyone's hands? Ugh, okay: Despite my obsessive attention to this as a Persuasion retelling, and my too-harsh judgement as a result (because I have to, I can't not, it's one of my all-time faves), Peterfreund crafted a really compelling story that:
a) is one of the most unique Austen adaptations I've ever read. And I mean unique in a good way - P&P&Z was "unique" too, but my god, was it ever terrible. This is both unique and functioning as a story, compelling and interesting, very very different from other adaptations, but showcasing the same love of the original as the best adaptations do.
b) works both as a retelling and as a complete original, which I don't know I have ever said - or even thought - about any other adaptation. It can be read by fans of YA, fans of Austen, and fans of both, and each group will get something different out of it while also enjoying it for what they came to it for, adaptation or YA sci-fi (And they won't feel like they're missing anything by not being familiar with Austen and/or YA).
c) presents a really interesting, engaging world with characters and conflicts that intrigued me.
So yes, as much as I notice all these little things, and feel compelled to say "But wait - but what about - but then - " I really did thoroughly enjoy this and think Peterfreund did a fantastic job of making it work so very far out of the box.
So get it. Read it. And enjoy it immensely with me even while we pick it apart...