Title: For Darkness Shows the Stars
Author: Diana Peterfreund
Length: 407 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Elliot North spends her days caring for the Reduced and Post workers on her father’s estate and pining for her childhood friend, Kai, with whom she refused to run away after her mother’s death four years ago. Now eighteen, she struggles to provide for everyone and deal with her hotheaded conservative father. Already conflicted about her Luddite identity and heritage, Elliot’s world is turned on its head when Kai–along with a group of wealthy free Posts–comes back into her life as Captain Malakai Wentforth. She is forced to examine her priorities, her beliefs, and her feelings for Kai before he sails away.
For Darkness Shows the Stars is a dystopian retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which I have not read. Knowing that now explains a few things, like the somewhat frustrating centrality of Elliot’s relationship with the rather cruel Kai.
The dystopia itself is pretty interesting idea: at some point, genetic research advanced to a point that adults’ DNA could be manipulated and their most desirable genes turned “on” using a virus called ERV. However, the children of these “enhanced” people all had extremely low IQs and limited communication and survival skills. This event became known as the “Reduction,” and the children, the “Reduced.” A few select groups of people, called Luddites, resisted this new technology on religious grounds and emerged as “guardians of humanity” after the Reduction ended. They established protocols that limited technology and science in hopes of safeguarding what remained of the human race. Eventually, however, Reduced people occasionally began having children who were not Reduced–children who could read, write, speak, and learn like ordinary people. These people were called Post-Reductionists, or Posts.
The main character, Elliot, comes from a Luddite family; Kai is a Post born on the North estate. Like many others, he eventually threw off the chains of his servitude and left to make his fortune as a free man.
I will say that this dystopian world, while it may have its cracks and pitfalls–it isn’t perfect–is one of the most original I’ve read thus far. And while there is some info-dumping here and there, the details of Elliot’s society are wove pretty well throughout the narrative itself.
Side-note: I’ve seen some people speculate that North Island is England, and knowing now that this is a Persuasion retelling, I can sort of understand why (especially because of the name of “Channel City”)…but while I was reading, I pictured it as a Pacific island. Why, if it was England, were they unaware of any remaining human settlements? France (and Ireland) aren’t right there, but they’re awfully close by.
There’s also this description of Elliot:
Her dark brows were thick slashes over the deep-set, almond-shaped eyes she’d inherited from the Boatwright side of the family. The round snub nose came courtesy of her grandfather as well, and the skin that turned brown in the sun, then sallow in the dark winter months. She’d also gotten his full lips, though, and her black hair took on ruddy highlights every summer. (67)
While there’s nothing about any of those features that indicates a certain race (Anne Boleyn, for instance, had dark hair, sallow skin, and dark almond eyes), but it could be argued that Elliot is possibly of Asian descent, which in turn could support my reading. But it’s all a matter of interpretation, really.
The writing is good, too, if a bit needlessly wordy at times. It gave me a clear portrait of the North estate and its surroundings, and it was–blessedly–third-person, which made for a nice change. Perhaps because Peterfreund was retelling an Austen novel, her prose came across as a bit more mature than a lot of YA novels tend to.
As for the characters, some of them are great. Elliot has a personality (that isn’t just Spunky/Sassy), and she puts the needs and well-being of others before those of herself, often to her own detriment. I found that kind of selflessness in a YA heroine was refreshing. She is also, of course, the product of her upbringing and is constantly battling what has been taught to her from an early age (technology is dangerous, Reduced and Posts are inferior, the proper places for Luddites are as caretakers and guardians). I liked one oft-repeated detail in particular: when she tries to control her temper, Elliot balls her hands into fists and hides them in her skirt. It just seems like a genuine mannerism that makes Elliot more real.
Elliot’s friends on the estate are also colorful, and her neighbors the Groves are pleasant, very Austenian characters as well. Her family–her controlling, manipulative-and-borderline-abusive father Baron North and haughty sister Tatiana–fall a little short. They feel flat and unmotivated. The other, free Post characters also feel slightly under-developed, little more than slightly altered stereotypes than actual characters.
The character that bugged me the most, though, was Kai. For the first hundred and fifty or two hundred pages, he is angry with Elliot to the point of insulting her, intentionally trying to make her jealous, and once even manhandling her. He’s constantly sneering and glaring at her and reminding her that she is a Luddite. All I could think was, “God, Kai is a total dick!” When she finally tells him off, I was cheering for her, not feeling sorry for him. Why does he hold this grudge against the well-meaning Elliot? Because a) she’s a Luddite, the master’s daughter, and b) because she wouldn’t run away with him. When they were fourteen. She was still grieving for her mother, and she knew that she was the only one left on the North estate who would look out for the interests of the Reduced and Posts living there. So she chose to stay rather than flee to parts (and dangers) unknown with her sweetheart, following the immortal words of Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Yes, that selfless choice–made by an impressionable, heartbroken, lonely young girl–was enough to turn her supposed best friend against her. He claims her concern for the workers is not genuine and that her kindness is self-serving just because of the class she was born into. Even in the notes they sent each other as children, Kai’s bitterness and prejudice shine through. For those reason, even after Kai begins toning his dickish behavior down in the second half of the story, I never really felt their romance. If I was supposed to side with Kai and see Elliot as the misguided one, I didn’t. I don’t know what the character upon whom Kai was based is like, but even in his worst moments, another stubborn and prideful Austen hero–Darcy–never seemed as irredeemable and unworthy as Kai did.
I enjoyed For Darkness Shows the Stars quite a lot; it’s been a long time since a book kept me hooked enough to fly through it in a single afternoon. The world-building intrigued me, even where it wasn’t totally solid. But that, and even Elliot’s character, was overshadowed by Elliot’s infatuation with Kai. If Kai had been a better character, that might have worked for me. Since he wasn’t, it didn’t spoil the book, but it does drop my rating from a potential 3.5 or 3.75 to a solid 3.
This novel didn’t exactly make me want to read Persuasion, but I do plan on picking up the companion/sequel, Across a Star-Swept Sea, at some point.