Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Elliot North, 18, has spent the last four years trying to keep her family’s estate running. It means not just making sure there is enough for herself, her father, Baron North, and her sister; but also enough to feed and shelter their many servants. The main reason this year there will be enough food is the family is renting out some property to a bunch of successful explorers.

Four years ago, Elliot had a chance to escape her disapproving, controlling father, and to join her best friend and sweetheart, Kai, in running away. Elliot chose duty. Kai, a servant, left, and she hasn’t heard from him since.

Elliot meets the explorers – including Captain Malakai Wentforth. Kai. No longer a teenage servant; now a very successful man. One who doesn’t forget, or forgive, that four years ago Elliot chose her class and her family over him.

The man, Malakai, is different from the teen Elliot knew; still, Elliot sees the boy she once  loved, and wonders if they have a second chance.

The Good: Sound familiar? Yes, this is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I’ll be honest; I haven’t read the book, but I adored the film with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The world in For Darkness Shows the Stars is post-apocalyptic; generations ago, genetic re-engineering and other scientific experiences “went too far.” The result was wars and a general destruction of society. The primary survivors were the Luddites, the people who had traditionally rejected the scientific and technological experimentation they saw around them. They are now a ruling class of Barons and Baronesses, owning estates and controlling the land. The other survivors were “the Reduced,” people intellectually damaged by the genetic treatments and biological experimentation around them. The Luddites both took care of the Reduced because the Reduced could not care for themselves, but they also used the Reduced as a free work force. They are basically serfs, tied to the land.

Where, then, does Kai fit in? As years and years passed, children began being born to the Reduced who, well, were not reduced — smart, inquisitive children like Kai. The Luddites call them “COR”s, or Children of the Reduced; they prefer the label “Posts”, as in Post-Reductionists. A significant part of the class struggle shown in For Darkness Shows The Stars involves how the Luddites treat the Posts no differently from the Reduced. Posts like Kai illegally run away from their estates to make their way in the world. It’s not easy; Kai’s success is remarkable. While some Luddites are like Baron North in their view towards Posts, others (like Elliot and other numbers) view Posts and Luddites as equals. Because the Luddites avoid anything new or any type of progress or change, Posts such as Kai bring new thoughts, ideas, and even fashion into the Luddite world.

As for Kai’s name, most Posts rename themselves, abandoning their servant identity. Thus, Kai becomes Malakai. One of the many clever touches in the world-building? All the Reduced are given simple, one syllable names because, well, it’s believed that is all they can handle. So the Posts are not just rejecting their past, they are also asserting themselves as full members of society by taking on newer, multi-syllable names.

I go so much into Peterfreund’s world-building because Persuasion’s plot hinges on significant class issues; so, at least for me, where a retelling succeeds (or fails) is in believably creating a world with equal class issues. In many ways, Elliot’s world seems more pre-Industrial (i.e., Jane Austen’s world) than post-apocalyptic. What ups the ante, what makes Elliot’s decisions and thoughts that much more heartbreaking, are the reasons for the class distinctions: the fear of science and progress, the fear of things that are new or different. At various times, Elliot cannot help but revert to the basic Luddite philosophy that any change is wrong. She is not, however, a total Luddite; she sees the stagnation around her.

I said that Elliot stayed to “take care of” the servants on her father’s estate. That is not entirely accurate. Yes, some are the Reduced, but even those who are so impacted are shown to have talents and depth and to be more than child-like or helpless. As Kai has shown, the Posts can take care of themselves and the Posts on the North estate end up working with, rather than for, Elliot. Posts can and do leave their estates. However, that is neither simple nor easy, even though Kai returns triumphant. The stories of other Posts tells the risks faced by those who run away.

Excellent world building does not a plot make; For Darkness Shows the Stars is not just the Persuasion story (reunion of separated lovers) but also about Elliot’s own struggles to do what is best for everyone around her. What is best for running the estate? How can she manage her father, who doesn’t care what happens to the servants on his estate as long as his own wants are met? Is it better to stay on the estate or pursue her own dreams? Does she even know what her own dreams are, since four years ago running away was Kai’s dream?

Oh, and as for the Persuasion story line. Loved it. Full of romantic drama: Elliot wanting Kai, Kai thinking Elliot thought she was too good for him, misunderstandings and angst. Lovely!

While For Darkness Shows the Stars is a standalone, as you can tell, I love the complex world created in it and would love to see more stories set in it. At the moment, Peterfreund has a short story companion to the novel, telling more of Kai’s time away from Elliot: Among the Nameless Stars.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog; Stacked; YA Librarian Tales.

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Review: Ascendant

Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund. Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2010. Review ARC provided by publisher.

The Plot: When last we left our intrepid unicorn hunter Astrid Llewelyn, she discovered she was a unicorn hunter when her then-boyfriend was attacked by one, got shipped to unicorn hunter school in Rome where she battled many a unicorn and was injured, defeated an evil medical empire, and was dating a totally hot, smart guy who not only loved her strength but also was cool with the whole “I have to stay a virgin to fight unicorns” thing.

Sounds great? Not really. Astrid’s connection to the unicorns means she is realizing that they are more than monsters. Her cousin Phillippa, now in charge of the unicorn hunters, agrees and wants to create some type of unicorn preserve. Problem is, the unicorn menace is now publicly known. Back in the US, Astrid’s mom is giving interviews right and left to the press. The danger is so well known that no one wants their daughter to join the unicorn hunters. Injury and sickness means the existing unicorn hunters are spread very thin. To make it worse? Giovanni, the world’s best boyfriend, is going back to college, in New York City!

 The Good: Any sequel that is worth reading gives the reader both what they want (more of the same things the reader loved!) and what they need (different things so the story remains fresh!).

Ascendant gives the reader some of the “same”: Astrid, unicorns, battles, the continuing struggle between duty and want. Ascendant then throws in some new challenges: make the boyfriend long-distance, remove Astrid from the support of her family and fellow hunters, and give her a new ethical struggle.  Astrid tries to have it all (a “normal” life of school, while still fulfilling her destiny) by leaving Rome to help researchers in France who are trying to find the Remedy. The Remedy, you may recall, is a cure-all and is somehow made with unicorns but no one knows the exact formula. If you’ve read anything of animal testing, you can imagine what happens to the unicorns. Astrid rationalizes that she is using her talent for destruction for good; plus, the unicorns being used by the researchers are kept in ap reserve, and isn’t that what her cousin Phil wants?

Astrid cares for unicorns yet is helping those who see them as an ingredient in medicine. She connects with unicorns on a deep level yet also has to battle them. Astrid’s new position serves to isolate her even further than before — at least in Rome, there was her cousin Phil and the other hunters! Being the only unicorn hunter amongst several unicorns allows Astrid to work on her ability to connect with unicorns and to realize that “unicorn magic” can mean more than destruction. Life isn’t as simple as killing unicorns; unicorns may be capable of monstrous acts, but are they monsters? Abraham Maslow said, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail.” Have the hunters been treating their gifts as a hammer? 

Do you need to read Rampant before Ascendant? I strongly recommend it; not only do you get the full picture of Astrid’s world, but you also get to appreciate Astrid’s growth as a character. Rampant is about becoming a unicorn hunter; Ascendant is about what happens once you are one.

What else? In Rampant and Ascendant, Peterfreund provides a diverse cast of characters. She also knows to not tell everything to the reader all at once; some things aren’t revealed until they have to be. I’ll take my cue from Peterfreund and keep mum about some of the surprises in Ascendant. Questions that were raised in Rampant are answered in Ascendant, and, of course, new questions are raised in Ascendant. And if there isn’t a third book, I swear I will go all killer unicorn on you!

Finally, confession. I hate Astrid’s mother. Oh, I understand where she is coming from and why she does what she does. She’s a minor character, but Peterfreund has fleshed her out so she is as fully developed as the major characters. Astrid’s relationship with her mother affects her relationships with others, so I always understood Astrid’s choices even though I disagreed with them. I wouldn’t change one line about Astrid’s mother. Still? I cannot stand her. I just wanted to reach into the pages of the book, sit her down, and say “what the hell are you thinking”?

Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund. HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Astrid Llewelyn, sixteen, is minding her own business, making out with her cute boyfriend, when they are attacked by killer unicorns. Turns out, all the “you are descended from mighty unicorn hunters” and “unicorns aren’t friendly they are monsters and killers” stories her mom told her growing up? Were totally true. So now Astrid’s on her way to Rome to train to be a unicorn hunter, instead of being where she wants to be: at home, going to school, studying to be a doctor, and having a boyfriend like a normal person.

The Good: Why did I not read this last year? The only good thing about reading it now is that I then immediately read the sequel, Ascendant (September 2010).

I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon; so I can think of no higher complement than to say that Rampant is Buffyeseque in the best possible way. Talk about girl power!  Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters (all female) are fast and strong when they are hunting and fighting unicorns. When a girl isn’t hunting a unicorn? No super powers. So unless there is a unicorn waiting at the end of the track, a unicorn hunter is not also going to be super human at sports.

Not just anyone can be a unicorn hunter; one is born to it, like Astrid and her cousin, Philippa. Only women can be hunters. In addition to the super-skills, a hunter can sense a unicorn and a unicorn can sense a hunter. That explains why Astrid and her boyfriend were attacked: the unicorn sensed her.

Rampant raises questions of destiny and duty versus choice.  To decide not to be a unicorn hunter is simple. Only virgins can be hunters. Yet if Astrid takes that step, decides to become “normal,” who does it help except Astrid? There are still unicorns, killing people. It just means there is one less person to do so, and in all honesty, there aren’t that many unicorn hunters around. First is the virgin requirement; but second is that the only girls who are unicorn hunters are all descended from a handful of families (who, according to myth, are all descended from Alexander the Great). Given that is, oh, several thousands of years and tons of generations and people moving hither and yon and last names changing and all sorts of things like that, most of the families are lost. A girl from such a lost bloodline would only know she is a unicorn hunter when she is confronted with an actual unicorn. Which (see above, Astrid and her boyfriend being attacked) is not a pleasant experience for anyone.

Actual unicorns, until recently, had been a bit hard to come by because (if you believe Astrid’s mother) about 150 years ago Clothilde Llewelyn killed the last unicorn. Except, given the attack on Astrid and others around the world, it’s soon clear that the unicorns didn’t become extinct, they just disappeared from view, and now they’re back. Back to a world that doesn’t believe in them, to a world where no girl has trained to hunt them for over 150 years.

Somehow, though, a small group of girls are assembled to start training. To reference  Buffy one more time – Rampant is what Buffy Season Seven should have been. Different girls of widely different backgrounds, interests, living together, training together, trying to figure out their roles when there are very little rules. I loved it! Forget vampires, the CW should sign this up as the next teen series.

What else? Peterfreund has created an entire mythology and manages to convey it all the reader without any info-dumps. It’s all woven into the story, helped by the fact that Astrid and her friends are also all discovering this anew. There are lots of real world concerns, like funding the whole boarding-school-for-unicorn-hunters, as well as people trying  to figure out, hm, if unicorns are real, what else is real? Turns out there is also a mysterious “Remedy,” somehow made from unicorns, that can cure anything. The story in Rampant is so new, so fresh, so fun, so scary, I just want to keep sharing with you all the awesomeness “and there are five types of unicorns! And the einhorn! And…and…and.”

And the battles! If part of you is thinking of My Pretty Unicorns and giggling at the thought of those pretty princess rainbow unicorns doing any damage, think again. There is blood and gore and death, and exhaustion and scars and recovery.

Oh! And there is Giovanni. Remember Astrid’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book? That’s not Giovanni. Giovanni is the hot guy Astrid meets in Rome. She likes him, they have a good time – and if she needs an out, he’s there…

So in one book: intricate mythology without any distracting dumps of information; scary adventure; family, friendship, love; and killer unicorns. What’s not to love?