Elle Katherine White – Heartstone

Despite utterly disliking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I found silly, unfunny, and unoriginal, I had high hopes for this new take on the Jane Austen classic, featuring mythical creatures and a dragon rider Darcy. As a retelling, it wasn’t great, but at the end, the author’s original ideas took center stage and turned this into a quite pleasant reading experience.

heartstoneHEARTSTONE
by Elle Katherine White

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms

They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.

Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.

Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.

It’s a war Aliza is ill-prepared to wage, on a battlefield she’s never known before: one spanning kingdoms, class lines, and the curious nature of her own heart.

Elle Katharine White infuses elements of Austen’s beloved novel with her own brand of magic, crafting a modern epic fantasy that conjures a familiar yet wondrously unique new world.

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Aliza and her three sisters live at Merybourne Manor and are looking forward to finally be rid of the gryphons that roam the area and are responsible for their sister’s death. When the hired Riders (of dragons, wyverns and other mythical creatures) arrive, Aliza soon has more to worry about than dangerous creatures. Because her sister is soon very much in love with Cedric Brysney, and Aliza herself has to deal with the arrogant Alistair Daired…

Although the names are altered, it’s easy to recognise all the key players of Pride and Prejudice. But like so many retellings or modernisations of Jane Austen’s works, while all the scenes are there and most of the important conversations between Aliza and Daired are reproduced in a way that fits the new setting, Heartstone lacks the charm and wit of the original. My biggest peeve was the changed language and social norms. P&P depends so much on the fact that its female characters have no chance at independence and security other than to marry a rich man. In Heartstone, there are opportunities for women to have a career – as a freaking dragon rider!!! Who cares about rich husbands when you could team up with a mythical beast?

This rather big twist has an impact on many other area of social life. Women wear trousers (because you can’t ride a dragon in a frilly dress, that’s just impractical) and show their scars to random strangers. I was completely floored when Charis (this version’s Katherine Bingley) lifts up her shirt to show a scar from a previous battle. Sure, in a contemporary setting, nobody would bat an eye, but it just doesn’t fit with 19th century fake-Britain.

One thing I love so much about Jane Austen is the language. Her characters may be super snooty and bitchy to each other, but they wrap their comments in lovely language that – on the surface – makes it sound like polite conversation. It’s that biting humor underneath that makes re-reading Austen’s books such a pleasure. Elle Katherine White opted for a very modern language in her book. In fact, there is very little indication that this book is set in the past, other than people riding in carriages. Aliza’s use of “aye” instead of “yes” also put me off, simply because it felt out of place, and the characters’ casual talk in general made this feel utterly non-P&P-ish.

The same goes for the characters, most of whom just felt wrong. When Katherine de Burgh – Lady Catriona here – is a compassionate, reasonable woman, something must be wrong. When Leyda, although impulsive and immature, behaves like a normal teenager and not an officer-crazed flirt, the Bentaine family feels off. When Charis isn’t a beastly, arrogant bitch (although she isn’t Aliza’s BFF either), it takes away a large part of the conflict. On the contrary, Wickham’s evil is turned up to eleven, maybe to make up for two other hateful characters being kind of okay. I’m all for changing things up a bit to make a retelling more interesting, but maybe I’m just super strict when it comes to Pride and Prejudice because that story, to me, is perfect the way it is, and changing aspects that alter the relationships between the characters feels like blasphemy. On the other hand, it was quite nice to see Charis as a more rounded person, not simply the proud woman whispering in Daired’s ear about how much dirt is on Aliza’s dress.

As for the story, all the elements are there. Plus dragons. You can really tick off the boxes of each milestone that happenes in the original Pride and Prejudice. And because I know the original so well, I was hoping for a little something extra to keep me hooked. For the most part, this novel just sort of meanders along the plotline of its inspiration, without doing anything new or interesting. However, the last quarter or so of the book really picks up the pace and uses its dragons as something other than background eye candy.

The idea of retelling an Austen novel with dragons is a cool one, but the world building was more than a little shaky. It does seem like social standing depends very much on whether and what kind of mythical creature a Rider calls their companion, but it’s also still about money? The creatures themselves are sorted into three categories – those friendly to humans, those indifferent, and those who basically want to kill us. But that’s pretty much the extent of world building and it’s not enough to keep an avid fantasy reader engaged. However, the dragons are characters in their own right and I ended up being quite fond of Daired’s dragon Akarra.

Much as in the original, once Lizzie has read Darcy’s infamous letter (which was quite cleverly done in Heartstone), the story improves and makes it hard to put the book down. Not only is the romance between Aliza and Daired enjoyable to read, sometimes especially when it departs from its source material, but the mythological creatures come into play much more and let the author’s original ideas shine through. The ending actually offered some pretty great action scenes and even managed to incorporate Lady de Burgh’s outbreak (remember, she’s actually nice in this version, so that scene couldn’t possibly happen in Heartstone the way it did in P&P).

So although most of the book didn’t rouse my emotions and I was all set to give it a “meh” rating, the ending actually hooked me and made me close the book with a feeling of satisfaction. I doubt I’ll read any more retellings by Elle Katherine White (if she chooses to write any) but I can easily see myself try a piece of original fiction by this author.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay

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