For the 2020 Retellings Challenge, I finally picked up this Diana Peterfreund book which was on my list last year but I simply didn’t get to it. For some reason (the cover, probably), I thought this would be set in space or on a space ship or something – that was a very false assumption. The science fictional setting, firmly planet-side, was the weakest part of this book but the romance! Boy, did the romance work!
FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS
by Diana Peterfreund
Published: Balzer + Bray, 2012
Ebook: 416 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
Opening line: Dear Kai, My name is Elliot, and I am six years old and live in the big house.
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 most technology.
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.
But 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 forever.
Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.
This was such a charming book, told through Elliot North’s eyes and through letters she and her childhood love Kai wrote each other several years ago. Elliot lives on a Luddite estate with her father and sister. Her father spends money left and right without ever thinking about where more money is going to come from or whether other things should be prioritised – say food over a racing track, for example… Elliot’s sister is also lazy and while she has no problem taking credit for running the estate, she doesn’t actually do any of the work. Then again, Elliot may help out on the farm, but the brunt of the work load is done by the Reduced workers, who are essentially slaves. That was my first shock – I didn’t expect to read about a protagonist who belongs to a slave-owning family, no matter what it is called in this fictional future.
The entire world building was a bit rocky for me. Some time ago, humans had perfected the manipulation of genes and bodies so far that they “wanted to become greater than God”, giving themselves night vision, being able to run really fast, jump supernaturally high, etc. A group of people – the Luddites – refused to have any of these alterations done to themselves, believing it was against the will of God and unnatural. Then the Reduction happened which left the Luddites the way they were (humans without special abilities) but gave the enhanced people only children with limited abilities, creating the Reduced. The Reduced are presented as people with limited brain capabilities. They have trouble speaking, sometimes they cannot speak at all, but they are always shown as real people with feelings. I thought the concept of this was very interesting, but I still felt really iffy about them being held as slaves by the Luddites.
Elliot, as our steadfast heroine, is of course the only one who sees the Reduced as people, who makes friends among them, who cares about their wellbeing, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that she sees herself above them, that she owns them! However, recently the Reduced have had children who are not distinguishable from Luddites at all – they can talk, they can learn, but hey, they’re still slaves. Young Elliot befriends just such a Post-Reductionist boy named Kai. Through letters they wrote each other as children and young teenagers, we get to see their relationship evolve from friendship to budding love. Elliot has to learn how it feels to be forced into a life you didn’t choose by listening to her friend Kai. While she may want good things for her friend and the Reduced on her estate, she is still pretty stuck in her mindframe. The world has “always” been this way – the Reduced work for Luddites because it was God’s punishment for tempering with technology and gene manipulation or whatever – and that’s just the way it is.
As this is also a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, you may know what plot points to expect ahead of time. Kai goes away, asking Elliot to come with him. I did love Elliot’s reasons for refusing him – it’s not because he is a Post-Reductionist and it has nothing to do with the difference in their social status – it’s for a very, very good reason which I won’t spoil for you, even though it’s fairly obvious when you read the book. But four years later, Kai returns and calls himself Captain Malakai Wentforth (I love that choice of name!). He is now a successful young man working with other Post-Reductionist that have made exciting discoveries on their sea voyages.
And this is where the strongest aspect of this book starts to shine. The relationship between Elliot and Kai is set up only through their correspondence but when Kai returns and wants nothing to do with Elliot, I felt her pain! The way he ignores her, the way he spends all his time with the young daughter of the North’s neighbouring Luddite family, the way Elliot has to swallow her feelings every single day – it was excruciating to read. But you know, the good kind of excruciating. I don’t really know how Peterfreund did it, but she made me ship these two so hard and put me through all the emotions – and that’s in a book where I knew the ending because it is a retelling!
While I was initially put off by the world building, it does get better and more interesting over time. There is always a lot of tension and discussion about whether technology is bad in general, whether some technology could and should be used to make life easier for humans, or whether humanity should just embrace all the new inventions and discoveries despite of what happened in the past. As the Reduced are now having more and more post-reductionist babies, they argue that they are now immune to suffering from another Reduction. But the Luddites, stuck in the past and overly religious in a way, want nothing to do with that.
Although this is a Jane Austen retelling and I knew mostly what to expect, Diana Peterfreund has a few twists in store. This is where the world she has created really got to shine. She incorporates this devastated future vision into the Austen romance so well that it felt completely natural. I loved the twists and the impact they had on the story. I also particularly enjoyed the ending – not just because of the way the romance goes, but because of all the other elements which I can’t mention here for spoiler reasons. But again, the world that I had struggled to find my way into worked beautifully in combination with Kai and Elliot’s romance.
So with my false expectations for the setting of this book and with me turning from skeptical to fangirl within a matter of a few chapters, this ended up to be an altogether surprising read. The set up and world building – especially the story of how things ended up the way they are at the beginning of this book – could have used a bit more depth, but the characters were fantastic, the story moved at a perfect pace, and the romance is just swoon-worthy. I highly recommend this for fans of Jane Austen, especially those who couldn’t get enough of Captain Wentworth’s letter.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Damn good!