Jane Austen’s books are so timeless and classic, it’s easy to forget that many of her characters’ problems and the stories’ plots are based on the social mores of a specific time and place in history. It’s only when reading Diana Peterfreund’s Persuasion-inspired For Darkness Shows the Stars that I came to realize how critical it is to get those aspects right, because when that doesn’t happen, what you end up is something very un-Austen like.
Elliot North lives in an alternate world where people are divided into three distinct classes. There are the Reduced, people whose ancestors’ quest to perfect the human body led to future generations of offspring with severely damaged mental capabilities. The Children of the Reduced, commonly known as Posts (short for Post-Reduction) are those who aren’t saddled with the mental limitations of their Reduced parents but don’t enjoy any economic or political advantages. And then there are the Luddites, who believe that artificial attempts to improve upon anything ultimately lead to destruction and have established strict protocols to limit all human advancements. The Luddites care for the Reduced and Posts, who in turn serve their Luddite masters on vast estates and farms.
Luddite Elliot formed a childhood friendship with Post child Kai, and as they grew, their feelings developed as well. However, a relationship between a Luddite and a Post was unimaginable. When a fourteen-year-old Kai determined to leave the North Estate to seek his own way in the world, he asked Elliot to run away with him. But Elliott’s sense of responsibility for the Reduced and Posts working on her volatile father’s estate over-powered the desire she had to be with Kai. Heartbroken, she remained behind, always wondering what became of her childhood love.
Four years later, Kai is now Malakai Wentforth, pilot in the famous Cloud Fleet. His commander, Captain Innovation, has rented Elliot’s grandfather’s boatyard in order for the Fleet to build great ships, and Kai has returned wealthy and successful and extremely bitter towards what he viewed as Elliot’s betrayal. Elliot’s initial hopes that they might rekindle their friendship are quickly dashed when Kai makes it clear he wants nothing to do with her. The relationship that develops between Kai and Elliot’s neighbor, Olivia Grove, adds salt to her wounded heart.
As Elliot spends time with Captain Innovation and his wife, Felicia, and Kai’s fellow free Post Fleet pilots, she begins to suspect that something is going on that flies in the face of every protocol the Luddites have laid down as law. She’s torn between her Luddite disgust at the idea of what these people may have done and a desire for them to use their skills to help her make life better for the people she cares about.
As a unique depiction of a dystopian, nightmare world, For Darkness Shows the Stars works far better than any form of Persuasion parallel. This is due primarily in how unsuccessful I felt the world building was in creating a Persuasion-like atmosphere, where I could believe that a young woman could be pressured to sacrifice the man she loved all for the sake of what was socially expected of her.
Rather than evoke the sense of gentility versus servant class so pervasive in Austen’s Regency-era literature, Peterfreund’s world brings to mind more the abhorrent master-slave culture of the pre-Civil War American south. In theory, Luddites are the caretakers or the Reduced, but given that these hapless souls have absolutely no choice but to suffer often deplorable living and working conditions, they are for all intents and purposes slaves. Add to this the fact that the Reduced are mentally challenged and virtually helpless and the sense of exploitation is exceptionally distasteful. There are actually references to how the Luddites frowned upon masters who forced themselves on Reduced women, reminding me of the sad history of slave masters begetting illegitimate children on their slaves. Yuck.
The Posts are supposedly “free”, but they, too, have absolutely no power to defy the dictates of their Luddite masters short of leaving behind family and friends, often to end up in free Post enclaves where they encounter even worse horrors. And although Posts can achieve worldly success, they are treated with prejudice and racism by the Luddites who view them as inferior, an ironic position given that a lack of skilled Posts on one’s estate causes severe hardship for everyone living on it.
For the first three-quarters of the book, not much happens except the constant reiteration of the three levels of society and attempts at explaining how this world came to be that never quite gelled for me. Something about genetic experiments gone wrong, an ensuing war, generations of Luddites living underground and the impending sense that the Posts are preparing to break free of the oppressive lives they are forced to lead.
We are told via letters written throughout their childhood that Elliott and Kai were dear friends and probably more. Elliott’s misery when Kai is openly hostile to her upon his return felt true and lent depth to her feelings for him. However, during the course of the story, the two characters never once had what felt like a truly positive encounter, the result that I never felt in the least bit moved by their romance. Kai began the story as a complete jerk, and he never really improved all that much. I constantly wanted Elliot to tell him off, so when she didn’t, she became a doormat. Honestly, I just didn’t care if they ever got their second chance at love.
Perhaps part of my apathy comes from the fact that I never understood why Elliot felt so much responsibility for the people under the care of Baron North. We readers are told that Baron North is a harsh master and that Elliot lives in constant fear of his upset, but it’s not until the last handful of chapters that we see any evidence of this fearsome wrath. It wasn’t that Elliot was an unfeeling girl who didn’t care about her friends and workers or want to shield them from her father’s cruelty, but rather that I never saw any example of how she was the only one capable of doing so, or that he was that much of a threat to their well-being.
Indeed, it was only in the last quarter of the book that Baron North showed his true colors, that another villain was revealed, and that any true conflict at all happened. But while all of this excitement was a refreshing change from the prior world building repetition, everything was wrapped up in very short order.
Despite Peterfreund’s skilled writing, I just wasn’t able to buy into the world of For Darkness Shows the Stars as a stand-in for Austen’s Regency England. Everything felt too forced, too structured in an effort to create some form of class difference meant to give us the reason for Elliot and Kai’s doomed romance. Perhaps that’s the way to enjoy this book – forget all about its kinship with Persuasion.
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