Thursday, January 15, 2015

Read then Write: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

I often feel like I'm racing to keep up with all of the new book releases, to keep up with the conversation around those "most anticipated" titles and those released by people I'm now connected to in one way or another. As a result, I often neglect to go back to gems I might have missed. But this is one (written all the way back in 2012!) I made a point of placing in my reading queue after I read its companion novel, ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, last winter. Every time I saw this cover I got that little heart palpitation. "Soon, dear Peterfreund. I just have to do this one thing first." And finally I did get to it. Please indulge me in reprinting the 2am Twitter explosion upon finishing FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, for I feel it more properly captures my emotions than I can do now in the caffeinated light of day.

And what's lovely about Peterfreund's "Stars" duo is that we go into it already knowing the endings. They are (in my opinion) perfectly executed science fiction re-imaginings of beloved classic stories. ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, when I first fell in love with Peterfreund, is sci-fi Scarlet Pimpernel. FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is PERSUASION, a Jane Austen-style sci-fi novel of manners.

I've spent a lot of time studying refreshes or re-imaginings of classic stories (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), and there does seem to be an unwritten set of rules for the most satisfying ones. For example, I've spent enough time studying various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel to possibly draft a bad PhD dissertation. As a fan, I know that certain touchstones are expected, or else don't bother pretending something is a Scarlet Pimpernel inspired story. There must be a masked hero. There must be some element of espionage and rescuing of imprisoned people, etc.

Peterfreund's version of PERSUASION hits all the proper Jane Austen touchstones. I never realized how much I'd underrated Jane Austen's world building until I saw it transplanted into a new setting. It's futuristic sci-fi without being spaceshipy. They're on an indebted estate. There's a technologically induced class system that must be adhered to. There's careful politicking and relationship rumors. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the addition of a Grandfather character; his last name is Boatwright and he's throughout referred to as "The Boatwright" and that struck me as so perfectly English literature-y. The Boatwright was forced to move in to his son-in-law's guest rooms. The Boatwright was not pleased with the quality of his dinner. Love it.

The basic plot of PERSUASION: Rich young girl falls in love with poor boy, professes love, then breaks it off. Boy strikes out on his own, makes mega-cash, then comes back (at least a little bitter) with his old attachment kept semi-secret. Sexual tension ensues.

FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS hits so many lovely touchstones, and Peterfreund treats them lovingly. You know she reveres the story she's paying tribute to and treasures those key elements. We get to see a series of letters between "Anne" and "Wentworth" (who has been cleverly renamed "Wentforth") watching the evolution of their relationship prior to the breakup and him striking out on his own, up to and including THE letter at the end (which Peterfreund calls out as critical to her Austen fandom in her lovely acknowledgements). Peterfreund makes you feel the desperate financial and physical circumstances of the estate, and you feel the lenghts that "Anne" goes to, trying to keep everything together. "Wentforth" still joins the fleet, but he's an explorer, not a soldier. There is still a young lady who takes a tragic fall and is injured, though I'd argue that Peterfreund's explanation for WHY she falls might actually make more sense?

As for the sci-fi elements: it's not dystopian, but it is set in a distant future, in which a large population of humans have had their abilities "reduced" after years of scientific enhancements corrupting their DNA. Only those who refused the enhancements for generations (the "Luddites") are still mentally and physically intact, and as such have risen to the level of aristocracy, charged with caring for the "reduced" who live and work on their estates. So what we have here is a futuristic society that congratulates themselves for not advancing technologically. Peterfreund actually apologizes (tongue in cheek) in her acknowledgements for not including much tech in her sci-fi; ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA, the second book, is more techy.

While reading these two books, I often felt like they were written specifically for me. Both touched on so many things I love. Really satisfying, to the point that I'd happily take the time to reread both of them, and dig into the companion prequel novellas. As far as I can tell, Peterfreund isn't working on any other classic re-imaginings, but I really, really wish she would. With two homeruns, she's now among my very favorite and most trusted writers, and I hope she gets a lot of attention for her work.