The Subtle Brilliance of “Mansfield Park”

Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention).

The strict expectations and ethical shortcomings of her rich benefactors loom over Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention). The setup of this quiet, subdued drama is the marital choices of three sisters, the new Mrs. Price into relative poverty, the new Mrs. Norris into circumstances slightly better, and the new Lady Bertram into a vast estate and a title (!).

Years later, when Mrs. Price’s oldest daughter, Fanny, is ten, the Bertrams, with Mrs. Norris’ urgings, take on Fanny for somewhat selfish reasons, and bring her to Mansfield Park. There, she is perpetually behind the Betrams’ daughters in care and attention, and faces constant criticism from her older relatives, and manages to take it all in stride, with carefully-cultivated humility and an unfailingly sweet temperament. If you’ve ever wondered what Jane Eyre would’ve been like if she’d never protested the cruelty of her aunt and cousins, Mansfield Park is it. If you like it when characters stand up for themselves, it may test your patience.

But to Fanny, more than most, there’s more than meets the eye. Her eternally bowed head and boundless shock absorption belie the true substance of one of Austen’s most perceptive characters. Mansfield Park can’t beat the likes of Pride and Prejudice when it comes to a powerful struggle of wills, but its keen observations about how selfishness governs the actions of Fanny’s wealthy not-quite peers rival Pride and Prejudice‘s cleverest social satires, and the conflict in Mansfield Park is incredibly promising––much more interior, and deeply concerned with how best to preserve the dignity and feelings of others (in a subtler, interpersonal sense) when one is far from in power, both personally and socially. With this approach, and these ideas in mind, Mansfield Park levies more pungent and lingering criticism than much of Austen’s better-loved and better-known work.

It can be dispiriting, actively frustrating, even, to watch Fanny be picked apart by her extended family and their wealthy crowd: our dramatic instincts, especially in an era that pursues and uplifts stories about empowered women, have trained us for a fight. In a particularly irksome instance, Mrs. Norris, the cruelest of Fanny’s benefactors, firmly tells her, “Remember, where-ever you are, you must be lowest and last,” and Fanny, after being subjected to an extended lecture in the same general tone, extends a “Yes, m’am,” and demurely accepts her fate. What it suggests is not, as might be tempting to say, a spineless main character whom things just happen to, but rather, Austen’s careful attention to circumstance. She doesn’t merely play at writing a heroine who is told she is lowest and last wherever she goes; she seriously considers the kind of person this rearing would produce, and appreciates how little reprieve some satisfying, fiery retaliation would bring. The “spine” Fanny seems not to have is actually a luxury that only a happy accident of social currency can buy. Even with a richer family than Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price doesn’t have half the means to defend her honor or raise objection to an indignity. Austen knows the substance of this situation, and never compromises it to satisfy.

One of the great ironies of this book (Austen, in her infinite wit, never allows it to escape her notice) is how well the Bertrams’ hopes to render Fanny contrite and self-denying actually prove to work. She ends up so pliant, so repentant, that all their attempts to truly wound her fail. In fact, she stumbles into becoming one of the very few dependable members of the family, almost despite herself. Even if Mansfield Park makes for a fairly drastic response to Austen’s own criticisms of Pride and Prejudice as “rather too light,” it’s still pretty piercing in its irony. One long, amusing sequence in which Fanny’s rich cousins injudiciously attempt to stage a salacious play at the house while Sir Bertram is abroad, causes nothing but angst for Fanny, but in its absurdity is an absolute joy to read.

This owes mostly to the way Austen uses supporting characters as both a model and critique of the rich. Fanny’s cousins, Julia, Maria, and Tom (besides Edmund, who shares Fanny’s uncompromising principles), all have a basic sense of propriety, enough to operate in high society and be generally seen as acceptably polite, but they, as well as the visiting party, are haunted by the specter of privilege, cursed to make a fuss of even the simplest amusements. (As evidenced by the struggle to find a play to perform: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first rate, and three principal women. All the best plays were run over in vain.”) They are also cursed, crucially, to be completely ignorant of how foolish they look––this is where Austen works her magic.

But that doesn’t mean they lack any complexity. The two new arrivals that set much of the book in motion, vibrant young socialites Henry and Mary Crawford, are fleshed out rather generously, a hypnotizing presence at the heart of the story, with tantalizing promises of betterment. In Mary’s case, it’s a spell Edmund, Fanny’s only morally upright cousin, falls for, one that Austen than uses to examine him and the abundance of credit he often trips into giving his own kind––those born exorbitantly wealthy. Both he and Fanny, though, seek out friendship in the Crawfords, she a little more attuned to the family’s faults. Through their discerning (and also rather passive) eyes, we see into the relationship between conscientiousness and circumstance, one Austen depicts consistently but complexly. Some economic turn in every character’s past allows Austen to explain why they do or do not take the needs of others into account, from the harshness that pushes Fanny’s mother to be callous to the luxury that makes Lady Bertram such an absentee adoptive parent. It’s far from satisfying to those who want to be the masters of their own fate, but it’s much richer than many of the ideas of inherent goodness––held at Austen’s time and beyond––could ever hope to be.

Yes, it takes its leads out of the driver’s seat and makes a habit of turning up its nose. But it’s far from a footnote to Pride and Prejudice‘s fame.

Kiera Cass’ Royal Romance Returns in “The Betrothed”

At first glance, Kiera Cass’ new courtly romance sounds eerily familiar. Hollis Brite, a young woman whose mother is utterly consumed by her marriage prospects, suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the favorite of a member of the royal family.

A Note: This book contains two brief but troubling uses of the word “g*psy,” an ethnic slur used against Romani people. (Some context.) Many Americans remain unaware of its racist connotations, but its use and the surrounding context in this book could and should have been caught and rectified before going to print.

Three leading ladies front Kiera Cass’ lush new romance. Collage by Pippin Hart, with some help by an early 20th century painter. Credits in this post.

At first glance, Kiera Cass’ new courtly romance sounds eerily familiar. Hollis Brite, a young woman whose mother is utterly consumed by her marriage prospects, suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the favorite of a member of the royal family. But––gasp!––her head is turned the other way by an entirely different suitor with far less status, and to come clean is to jeopardize her future and crush the hapless royal’s heart.

Many would quickly dub The Betrothed The Selection reincarnated, only with a dark mirror of the latter’s love triangle where the prideful, old-fashioned Aspen Leger has a fighting chance. Yes, The Betrothed, with its palace antics, dress descriptions, and love story, brushes hems with a few of The Selection‘s ball gowns, but it’s concerned with an entirely different status quo. Where The Selection follows a lower-class protagonist suddenly thrust into the palace and all its oblivion, The Betrothed trains its eye on power’s almost soul-numbing capacities, with a delicate and deeply personal focus, from the point of view of someone raised in the inner circle and poised to go even higher. With an entirely fictitious country, Cass gets to flex some world-building muscles while keeping her consistent charm, and in this long-awaited follow-up, she manages still to criticize the seat of power while assembling generous, full portraits of the people who hold it and the way it clouds their judgement.

There are very few monsters in a Kiera Cass novel, and a satisfying, real-world proxy take-down is nowhere to be seen. She offers instead something far more precious––where it’s the obvious decision in most fairy tales to marry the prince, Cass makes a compelling argument that even with the capacity to make change, even if he’s a generally well-intentioned person, this path, at least for leading lady Hollis, isn’t worth it.

This book, despite its marketing, has far more to offer than romance. In fact, one specific place where it even improves on the work of Cass’ Selection is by way of its friendships. Two vital connections push this book forward, one with Hollis’ lifelong friend at court, Delia Grace, and a visiting royal who proves a tough nut to crack but ultimately yields insight on the position better than Hollis’ own suitor, King Jameson, ever could. Here, without spoiling too much, Cass presents the reality that the arm of a powerful man is, more often than not, an ornamental place, a status that makes it astonishingly easy to be isolated, and hardened to the rest of the world in turn. Cass, through Hollis and Jameson’s courtship––and a vision from years down the line with the visit of another royal family––explores some of the consequences that have nothing to do with the easier targets of corruption and debauchery. Consequences like the pain of being silenced, the indignity of being on display. None of the people ultimately behind these consequences are made to be truly evil in Cass’ work. She allows almost every major character the luxury of a soft side, from King Jameson’s genuine but miscalculated attempts to be a good suitor, to the miserable past and desperate practicality of Delia Grace.

Delia Grace, who’s spent most of her adolescence clinging to Hollis’ side, has suffered the slings and arrows of a scandal-rocked family, and Cass truly puts the calcified result of her situation into perspective. Where Hollis can consider whether the king’s attention will ever make her happy, Delia Grace has to sit to the side quietly, where she would’ve been beyond elated to be granted that same status and stability, no consideration of true love to be made. She’s like the Charlotte Lucas of The Betrothed, with a bit more bite, and like Charlotte Lucas, she takes a magnifying glass to our lead and shows us that romantic love, in a society like hers, is a consideration most cannot afford to make.

Hollis, when paired with these enlightening friendships, emerges as a character who’s multi-faceted, but also very broadly defined by her inexperience. She doesn’t know love until it hits her in the face from the direction she isn’t supposed to turn, she fails to consider Delia Grace fully most of the time, and she generally lacks the concerns anyone from her situation would lack: of the poor, of other countries, of other people. But because The Betrothed throws her through the loop so much, it reveals a kind of beauty to this approach, one that runs through all of Cass’ work. We see it in the rash decisions her main character makes in The Selection‘s sequel, The Elite, and with Hollis’ general deferment to the best interests of a rich young woman in search of a safe and easy hand to wed.

The love stories that take up a sizable amount of the book (but not all) are a fast-paced and tantalizing look at Cass’ character work, positioning Hollis between the safe, known royalty, and the risky, frowned upon, much lower-status match. Besides some very quick development in her relationship with the underdog, Silas, both love interests do precisely what love interests should. They expose the flaws in the manner of thinking she’s been raised with: follow status, climb as high as you can, ignore any feelings otherwise. Some bold choices Cass makes near the end add some welcome complication to the argument, but it rings all the same. Now, the choices of the heart Hollis makes must exist beyond the love interest, entwining more with family, honor, and obligation than the same choice might have in The Selection. A closer look at her past books, however, equips The Betrothed‘s forthcoming sequel with ample material. As always, following one’s heart is the obvious answer in Kiera Cass books. But it’s fixing to get a lot more complicated.

“Rook” Combines Dystopia and History, To Mixed Results

After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.

18th century France (and the according revolution) meet a post-apocalyptic world in Sharon Cameron’s YA homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.

As far as dystopias go, Rook is an interesting case––it’s a far-future work of speculative fiction that desperately wants to be a work of historical fiction, and likewise, the real nature of the setting is easy to forget. The fact that this is post-apocalyptic Earth and not the literal, actual 1700s is something Cameron rarely deigns to remind you of, what, with her novel’s engagement parties and liberal guillotine usage and total lack of technology. Some characters even charmingly trade in relics from the present day, but without breadth, care, or a sense of loss, the “Nintendo” logo engraved in an ancient piece of plastic in a prized collection is less an element of world-building and more a Pixar-style Easter egg. Her characters don’t even have access to firearms, a state of affairs behind the period she’s trying to emulate, by the decree of a post-apocalyptic non-government with no objectives, no structure, and no historical context.

Paris, now “The Sunken City” in Cameron’s novel, has a vaguely-defined upper class, but no royalty to speak of, and a municipal agenda consisting mostly of public executions of enemies of the state. There’s no concrete reason presented in the book for mobs of the citizenry to go about killing merchant families, no economic downturn or ongoing abuse of power by the rich to set this in motion, or, at least, none that sticks. Key details in this book, buried as they are under long, repetitive, over-explanatory narration, are easy to miss.

At the helm of this guillotine-happy government’s busy execution schedule is Albert LeBlanc, an absolute bloodhound of a police chief. Though he’s decidedly not the main character, he does receive an excess of page time, through Cameron’s decision to splice her novel with frequent, movie-like intercutting. This is a surprising investment, but it very nearly pays off. Cameron zooms in on her cold, calculating villain to reveal someone with even less reason and strategy than it seems, a man slavishly devoted to a goddess of fate, with such irrational fervor that it replaces ideology entirely. The thrill of the chase, however, is absent: LeBlanc isn’t competent enough to offer a real threat, and his character doesn’t expose the flaws in Rook‘s young, plucky leads as it’s supposed to. They spend the entire story plotting a daring escapade to snatch prisoners from under his nose, and the affair proves simple, and woefully easy.

The heroes go relatively untested the whole way through, denied a wider context, and thus, a meaningful cause to fight for.

Usually, in YA, when the cocky anti-hero appears, even in works that spare every expense in developing their ensemble, he gets taken down, if only a single peg, if only half a peg, if only because he is forced into humility because of a romantic subplot.

Enter René Hasard, a blunt, smirking mischief-maker, the unwanted fiancé offered to the main character Sophia Bellamy as a last-ditch effort to save her family from financial ruin. The romance that unexpectedly (“unexpectedly”) blooms between them receives the most careful and dedicated attention of any plot in the novel, but it still wavers inexplicably between complete faith and absolute distrust. Whenever things are quiet on the political intrigue front, some doubt regarding his past comes to the fray. Romantic scenes are well-written at times, but on the whole, the romance’s development is badly structured: the more Cameron keeps teasing at some dark secret, the less satisfying it is when it comes time for the happy ending, and the promise of conflict completely falls away.

Sophie also happens to be the victim of an unfortunate love polygon. Her childhood friend, Spear Hammond, is the blunt point of the love triangle. He goes about wooing her with little awareness of her actual wants, and an extremely combative attitude towards René, which puts the novel in a unique position to really interrogate those impulses, poke at them, make fun of them, maybe. The classic childhood-friend-to-lover archetype often does all these things to the female protagonist and gets no flack, from her or from the narrative, but Rook seemed poised to call Spear and his patronizing instincts into question. But his depiction, lacking in complexity and suddenly ending with a bitter smack of self-sacrifice, is probably the book’s greatest wasted opportunity. He’s of an awkward, in-between status, jumping between tolerable and reprehensible in a way that does the novel no favors. Sure, he shows a hint of having layers, but Rook doesn’t know how to handle them.

It doesn’t know how to handle Sophia, either. Like many familiar YA characters, Spear is obnoxious masculinity criticized only very shallowly. Sophia, like a fair share of teen heroines, has limited and largely superficial demonstrations of strength that have mostly to do with weaponry, but evaporate as soon as she’s really in trouble, and requires her bickering love vertices to rescue her.

Rook, even as a work of suspense, or romance, is lacking. Considering its world-building, almost everything is squandered. It isn’t a re-imagination or a re-invention of history. It’s history repeated, to underwhelming and distilled effect.

“The Black Key” Sticks a Shaky But Satisfying Landing

Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

A young woman fights to topple an exploitative regime in the final book of Amy Ewing’s Lone City Trilogy, The Black Key. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits for components used in a long trail of links starting with this post.

After two books of world-building and lead-up, The Black Key carries the corrupt royal leadership of the Lone City to its foregone conclusion: a decisive rebel victory. Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

As it takes the forefront in the third installment, Ewing’s long-awaited rebellion emerges astonishingly simple for all of the hopes resting on it. As it rages on and accomplishes its plans in a single day, the book introduces obstacles that our lead, Violet, and her ample, well-trained ensemble, efficiently push out of the way. In the darkest hours of her fight, no one is ever really cornered; no situation ever truly dire. Ewing gets her characters in trouble plenty, but in all save a few circumstances, it never truly sticks.

There’s reason, though, that the long and arduous process of a massive political shift is condensed in this book. The government Violet and company have to topple is a city with a very small elite and not a massive, war-ready national federation, and Ewing has one tool on her side that most authors in dystopia don’t: her rebels can use magic to literally move the Earth beneath their feet, and a massive united front of discontent for the taking. With a bit more complexity, a bit more flesh, a bit more bite, the rebellion in The Black Key could’ve been as compelling as its setup.

Instead, the finale doesn’t really make an attempt at that. The fighting is a seventy-page interlude at the end, occupying a strange middle ground between an afterthought in a trilogy mostly motivated by unspoken tension and pivotal conversations, and the ultimate focus in a story that is mostly about a coup. These two options don’t go well together, but this combination is what Ewing has to execute in her third act as a consequence of the vague last stand she kept alluding to on the horizon.

The character moments she truly excels at have to interrupt the action as it goes on, and as we endure descriptions of magic and all the havoc it wreaks, the endless violence, the movements of volunteer troops, there’s an ache somewhere for a final fate decided with groundwork, or with politics, or the backstabbing and deception book one does so well.

Tragically, this book approaches it, when Violet steals away into the ruling district, the Jewel, in order to keep an eye on the Duchess of the Lake, her old mistress. The plot never slows, however, to give her a second look, the way it did with the series opener. When a certain plot twist drops, in a character-driven scene during the final incursion, it lands without sufficient shock, exposing the Duchess’ softer side without providing ample justification. She’s woefully underdeveloped here, and makes for an unfortunate villain by virtue of it. With additional attention, maybe. But the Electress, an originally upper-middle-class citizen ascended to the throne by marriage (and, most likely, ruthless ambition to boot), hardly appears, though the loose threads of a plot from the end of The Jewel possibly could’ve facilitated it.

But where plot fumbles, Ewing’s work on the ensemble is in full form, as Violet has to tap into her empathy for other members of the working class, understand and negotiate the complicated world of the royalty with slightly more power this time, and confront the consequences of her rebellion and all it brings in closer, less abstract, more personal ways.

Because Violet is disguised as a servant in the Jewel, we see less of Ash, Raven, Sil, and all the surrogates they recruited in book two (a choice that results in less gratifying stories for the additional surrogates: Olive, due to her absence, gets the particularly short end of the stick). We see more of Lucien, Garnet, and Carnelian, though, and Ewing’s careful consideration of their circumstances is where The Black Key gets most of its insight.

Lucien, the high-ranking servant who’s been masterminding this whole rebellion business since the beginning, is a fuller and freer character than he’s ever been: if the rebellion isn’t all that complicated, its leader is. In this book, his role as an almost father-figure to Violet gets a more substantial chunk of the story’s attention, the toll this has taken on him creeping a bit more into view. Lucien’s actions in this installment are wholly and unquestionably defined by love, a motivation that would be distant, if not unthinkable, to the cynical, closely-guarded character we met in book one.

Garnet, another supporting player with an endearing and impressive character arc, gets really subtle and unique moments to reckon with his royal heritage including possibly the best moment of the book: the Duchess of the Lake’s “You’re with them? Fighting with whores and servants?” to Garnet’s, “Yes, Mother. I am.”

Garnet, having been shuffled into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, finds himself more devoted to the rebel cause than before, but keenly aware of the cost, particularly to the people around him. A few sobering scenes of this are enough to broaden the novel’s perspective: it becomes no longer about the downtrodden and oppressed rising up against their chains––now it’s that and the story of complicity at the top, with an entire class of people quietly suffering.

Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece, whom the Duchess constantly berates for her humble upbringing, also adds a tinge of flavor to this perspective, and becomes the fascinating, morally-grey figure that the Duchess herself once played. When Carnelian’s last moments in the novel come, though, they’re thoroughly earned. It’s enough to make you wish the rest of The Black Key were given that same luxury.

“The White Rose” Blooms in the Shadow of “The Jewel”

At the close of the first installment of Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy, Violet, a surrogate of the upper-class in a violent and corrupt dystopia, has just landed in scalding hot water with her mistress, the cruel and calculating Duchess of the Lake.

Young women prepare to seize control of an isolated dystopian government’s natural resources in Amy Ewing’s sequel to The Jewel, The White Rose. Collage by Pippin Hart. Photo credits for components used in this post.

At the close of the first installment of Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy, Violet, a surrogate of the upper-class in a violent and corrupt dystopia, has just landed in scalding hot water with her mistress, the cruel and calculating Duchess of the Lake.

For reasons that explicitly spoil the first book, The White Rose follow Violet and a downtrodden ensemble of other servants and surrogates as they flee the royal inner circle of the Jewel for a safe house in the vast, quiet farming district, with the burdensome strings of possible revolution attached.

All things considered, this second book follows the expected trajectory of a dystopian series fairly closely. The subtlety of The Jewel is quickly ushered away into the margins in favor of a much more explosive kind of storytelling––the first half of the book, at surface, is a ceaseless rush of running, hiding, and smuggling, with short interludes where the characters screw it up.

But on closer inspection, The White Rose still has richness to offer, even as the mystery and intrigue of the first book falls away.

The concealed-history reveal regarding the Lone City’s origins is what saves this installment’s world-building from falling to the wayside as the revolution plot takes the spotlight: even as Ewing draws conclusions for her novel’s current affairs, her use of history keeps adding to the dimensions of her world. Unearthing records becomes The White Rose‘s chief asset as it concerns plot twists, and Ewing’s choices in the dark past of her dystopian land on a familiar note that echoes the real world, but leaves enough room for the Lone City to become something of its own, without the burden of conforming to allegory.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the thing that sets Ewing’s series apart from other miserable un-futures is her addition of a magical element. In the first book, it’s a set of abilities called the Auguries that allow the surrogates to bear children quickly and with the royalty’s preferences for appearance. Here, though, a much deeper and broader outgrowth of the natural world comes to the fore, more like the Star Wars-style force than the codified skill system that the surrogates have been taught to exhaust and abuse.

The underlying truth behind the Auguries illuminates the failings in a system that treats people like products the way that the Auguries themselves and the pain they cause acted like a proxy for forced childbirth––bringing unspeakable pain to the physical realm, where it can be described, inspected, and reckoned with. In this regard, dark dystopia and fantasy fit together beautifully, with the technical, clinical, cold aesthetic going up against the ancient, natural one. In the plot to overthrow and exploitative royalty, Ewing decides to tap into something much older, lending her work the mystical power of a fantasy, while escaping, like Star Wars does, the call to fully explain the magic and its origins, and keeping a gritty, modern, sci-fi edge.

Violet’s doubts about her ability to tap into this power appear, logically, but this development’s shadows on the supporting cast are much more interesting and well-defined: the minor players and their pasts, hesitations, and ideas about the revolt are possibly the only areas where the second book notably exceeds the first.

Raven, the best friend Violet was parted from when she came into the service of the Duchess of the Lake, gets a comprehensive treatment in this volume, where we finally see the fabric binding them together more closely. As the sharper, fiercer foil to Violet’s more subdued strength, she has to come to terms with her own servitude and how completely it took those things from her, a subplot Ewing handles generously, and further enriches by pouring it into magic.

A few times, Ewing fails to commit to the scuffles the characters encounter as they make their escape from the Jewel––and uses Raven’s abilities to get them out unscathed––but ultimately, The White Rose doesn’t neglect her. The most vital relationship in this novel isn’t a romantic pairing; it’s the love between Violet and her best friend. It’s into this relationship that Ewing pours the heart-felt confessions, the sacrifices, the solemn promises, and as a result, the whole book benefits.

Garnet, the Duchess of the Lake’s ne’er-do-well (depending on who you ask) son, also sees a deep, thought-provoking character arc in The White Rose, Ewing combining his privilege with a desire to make amends that lends him both earnestness and biting self-awareness. Raven and Violet’s bond may be the most important character element in the book, but in a stunning turn of events, this sardonic agent of moderate chaos steps out to become book two’s scene-stealer, what, with his quips and surprising glimpses of heroism and slowly-emerging conviction. He’s like the Effie Trinket of this trilogy, mixed with a few extra drops of vinegar.

The truly wide range of characters in Ewing’s vision is beginning to show as one of her work’s closely-held triumphs. The rebellion on its own isn’t a particularly innovative use of the idea, but the wide array of characters and motivations she uses to propel it forward (and their begrudging cooperation) is very nearly worth it all. In a particularly valuable exchange, Ash, one of the characters on the run with Violet and company, brings up the girl he was hired as an escort for, the Duchess’ niece, Carnelian. He remarks on the fact that for all the heartache she caused them, she, too, has suffered at the hands of the royalty, and then says something that really expands the scope of the revolution, and gives it the means to matter. “We can’t choose who we free from them, Violet,” he tells her, as he comes into his own. “It has to be all or nothing.”

“The Jewel:” A YA Revelry In Horror and Splendor

The elite wield power over young surrogates in the Lone City of Amy Ewing’s The Jewel. Collage by Pippin Hart. Photo credits for components used under this post.

Dystopia and luxury combine in the most astute and inventive of ways in The Jewel, a 2014 YA sci-fi with comparison titles the likes of The Selection and The Handmaid’s Tale.

As incompatible as pretty dresses, court tension, and clinical horror may seem, The Jewel gives us reason to believe that these things go hand-in-hand in a society built on exploitation, where an insular inner circle results in birth defects and fertility problems, and thousands of poor women’s reproductive organs are readily available for leasing.

Amy Ewing’s work on The Jewel, her debut, was frequently derided at release for being unoriginal, but when half of YA’s tastes lie in subdued intrigue and people in fancy clothes concealing their feelings for one another, and the other half has a morbid curiosity for violence, squalor, and the sickening potential of the powerful left unchecked, combining the two, like Lauren DeStefano did in 2011 with Wither (another marvelous book), is actually kind of brilliant.

The Jewel follows Violet, a surrogate-in-training, as she leaves the holding facility she’s been kept in since she was twelve to go into service as a child bearer for a wealthy family––who can’t do it themselves because generations of inbreeding have rendered them sterile––and, to be perfectly honest, enjoy parading surrogates as symbols of their wealth, often literally on a leash.

Most of Violet’s life from this point on has been concealed from her: she doesn’t know how the system that created her operates, she doesn’t know what will happen to her after she’s fulfilled her purpose, and she doesn’t know why she’s been shut out from her family since the moment a doctor diagnosed her capacity to be a surrogate. She’s just been taught to live with this uncertainty. As a gear in a machine that never stops churning, it isn’t her function to know the work of the other ones. She just has to keep moving and hope no one in power singles her out.

Of all the genuine human experiences Ewing connects with in her book (and the reach is far broader than the love story this 2014 YA release is bound to include) the one she captures best is being someone in power’s means to an end. The most complex relationship in this book is the one between Violet and her more-or-less owner, the Duchess of the Lake, as Violet grapples with the position of being at her complete mercy, and struggles to retain a sense of self as her agency is stripped away. Sometimes this happens in obvious ways like the smack of terror that accompanies the first appearance of a human leash, and sometimes in quieter ones, like the way carrying the Duchess’ baby and her body’s slow unbecoming inch closer with every invasive doctor’s visit.

The thing is, the Duchess would insist, cross-her-heart style, that she’s one of the better ones, but Ewing never neglects the crucial component that makes every conversation with a landlord so uncomfortable and every “I’m your boss but also your friend” sentiment so hollow. The Jewel understands, in a modern, disconnected sense, what it means to be someone else’s product.

Not that the Duchess is having such a high time herself: Ewing’s depictions of the people in power can be just as interesting and multifaceted as her portrait of her protagonist in servitude, only enriched (pun intended) by a bitter spike of depravity. In the Duchess, we see a woman who quickly learned how brutal the rest of the ruling class would be if she weren’t brutal in their place. She also secretly has it out for anyone, like Violet, lucky enough to be ignorant of the depths of the ruling class’ malice.

But the most interesting depiction in this stripe is that of the Duchess’ niece, Carnelian, who has to sit and hold her tongue as her aunt publicly languishes over the deep, deep embarrassment of having a relation who hails from slightly less well-endowed circumstances. The way Ewing uses Carnelian (and to a different extent, the Duchess’ own son, Garnet) allows us a unique window into the calcifying process as it happens. Every time Carnelian’s youthful sentimental nature is rebuked, you can see a cruel, spiteful rich woman shaping up in her future. It’s in these characters’ dimensions that we can see how power propagates itself through its heirs: by destroying them.

The most vivid passages in the book, though, are all concerning the auguries, special powers related to manipulating matter that allow the surrogates to produce healthy offspring with the royalty’s DNA that the royalty can’t. The auguries, interestingly, don’t outstrip the clinical elements of the story, or come off as out-of-place. As a system of magic, Ewing’s creation is startlingly brutal and gives us a way to conceptualize the violence of reproductive exploitation when the politics of the book can sometimes obscure it from view.

The Jewel relies on a very specific kind of repulsion to get its point across: very little physical abuse crosses its pages, but these barely post-pubescent girls are being pushed to the limit in some right, and the way Ewing describes the dull ache that spreads with the use of the auguries, as well as what it feels like to have life literally sucked out with every use, brings to visceral detail the horrors of gestation that loom large in the fears of a sizable number of teen girls, but are only rarely, in YA, spoken into view.

The Jewel, in tradition with other books like it, ends with whispers of rebellion, but, with such keen nightmares as Ewing describes––how could it not?

‘The Shadows Between Us’ A Villain Romance That Can’t Quite Commit

The Shadows Between Us reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even toss Alessandra a kiss scene until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial.

Whatever comes after, The Shadows Between Us takes the cake for a phenomenal first line.

“They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart,” the inimitable Alessandra Stathos tells us on page one, unsheathing her gilded dagger of wickedness from the get-go.

Then comes the final nail in the makeshift coffin, the sign that we are about to read the shameless first-person account of a stylish evildoer. Alessandra’s next line: “And they never will.”

After a long YA tradition of rejecting the dark side of the love triangle, to mixed effect, Levenseller does away with the safe option immediately. The Shadows Between Us is entirely free of moralizing Macbeth-style consequences, and the Right Thing in any form, instead preferring to see its main character plot murders, practice tyranny, and ruin reputations in peace.

In a way, it’s liberating.

The Shadows Between Us is fun in a way plenty of YA titles can never be. It doesn’t care a whit what you think about it, and in the meantime engages in girlish delight as Alessandra’s diabolical pieces fall into place. As she goes about seducing the secretive and closely-guarded Shadow King, fully intending to kill him, she doesn’t begin to question her choices because of an epiphany––by all metrics, Levenseller has written a heroine who is epiphany-proof––she simply begins to suspect that the Shadow King likes the way she thinks and is quite possibly unbothered by her body count.

We don’t see much of the kingdom Alessandra’s looking to rule with an iron fist––and indeed, the less the better––but this riotous and raucous 300-page power-play has everything it needs to make for a good time, and squeezes in some levity, light subplots, and fluff besides.

Where this devil-may-care angle gets messy, though, is this villain romp’s attempt to have its own villains. The courtesans (locked tight in a competition with our had over who gets to slay the Shadow King first), feature little enough to be throwaways, and yet, pitifully, aren’t.

The aggressor’s motives are shallow, petty, and profoundly uninteresting, but what really rings false about this mutinous plot is how eagerly Levenseller allows her characters to slip into condemnation. Yes, the Shadow King and Alessandra have discovered a clandestine plot against his life, but, well, you know.

They react indignantly to this admittedly short-lived threat, where Levenseller could have probably made a much sounder character choice if she had given them the bandwidth to coolly acknowledge their rivals’ wants as tandem to their own, before putting out the fire without a second thought.

The Shadows Between Us would have been perfectly structurally sound in the third act without this unnecessary extra pound of intrigue (and soap-operatic last twenty pages) ha the apex just focused on romantic resolution. But Levenseller isn’t quite faithful enough in her pair’s morally grey status to give them a truly selfish, unheroic conclusion. Instead, someone’s life has to be at risk, and the story of these cruel, calculating main characters has to end with a good deed.

To Levenseller’s credit, the truly well-crafted plot doesn’t go neglected as her story stretches to accommodate this one. She somehow manages to make 300 pages crackle like a slow burn, giving these sparring forces reasons to love each other, and every better instinct to turn away.

When the lead-up is this faithful to the characters, it doesn’t matter that it seems like the entire world conspires to get the two of the alone in a room, or that all the court drama Levenseller writes has to quiet for a moment so her leads can bicker. Romance in fast-paced fantasy stories can often feel obligatory, but instead, everything else feels that way, because the substance of The Shadows Between Us isn’t undermined by a kissing interlude.

The romance is the substance. It reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures, and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even throw Alessandra a kiss until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial. The Shadows Between Us as a romance far exceeds it as anything else, and in fact its “YA fantasy” label may even do it a disservice. To some degree, what Barnes and Noble calls “YA fantasy and adventure” is sort of expected to deliver on conflict that isn’t about characters and their feelings on one another, so The Shadows Between Us has to chip in on an assassination/secret identity plot at the very end in order to avoid being minimized. So it goes.

When the book isn’t busy with its love story, or its B-villains, it takes some time to expand the lives of Alessandra’s much-tamer friends, giving them their own romantic exploits and personal scruples to overcome. Levenseller goes all in with these side stories to satisfying effect, giving an element that doesn’t usually have much weight a clear distinction of importance. This is where the real value of her story lies, in things that make you giddy to witness, in the small exploits that make for good fluff.

It isn’t flawless, but there’s undoubtedly merit of some kind in a book that flies by in a day.

‘The Alchemist’ Unconvincingly Preaches The Hustle

“The boy’s name was Santiago,” Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist begins. Once we are introduced to Santiago, his name is never spoken again. Coelho writes in the style of an extended fairy tale, something rustic and ancient and beyond what a modern reader would ask of an entertaining book, as he sends “the boy” off to distant lands to meet other nameless figures, each of whom carries a kernel of wisdom that the story cracks apart, inspects and interprets.

Coelho, in telling this story like it came from a bygone age and saw endless re-tellings, sacrifices a few luxuries as a matter of style. The characters speak exactly their intentions at every turn, with no delineation between them, every scene has a moral, and Coelho’s writing (or, possibly, Clarke’s translation) is sterilized of any passion.

Yes, let’s just get that out of the way––The Alchemist is less wide-eyed fairy tale and more bleary-eyed lecture. Coelho couldn’t have written something heavier-handed if he opted to pound out a self-help book instead.

But, however large a caveat they may have been, the sacrifices he makes to evoke the fable might have been worth it of only there were a better substance at the fable’s core.

There is a very real reason “follow your dreams” is the territory of wall décor, and the most condescending advice any young adult could receive. Far from the sources of friction Coelho offers––that we feel guilty about pursuing our calling, that we are derailed by love, that we are afraid something will stop us––the real reason The Alchemist‘s invocation of a Personal Legend and everyone’s duty to follow it lands with a dull thud has more to do with how boring an idea it is and less to do with the cowering Everyone Else is supposedly doing as the Enlightened conduct their restless pursuit of the stuff of dreams.

All things considered, Santiago lacks a truly compelling Personal Legend, which might have been the one missing piece enough to conceal all the holes “follow your dreams” ignores. Coelho may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when he ditched fully-realized characters for plain, folk-tale ones. If Santiago had something more to fight for than a treasure he was told to pursue by a fortune teller, there would be more value in his trying to pursue it. Coelho can’t fully make the case for Personal Legends if the Personal Legend he decides to tell shuffles a pliant dreamer from place to place, no conviction anywhere in sight.

Coelho doesn’t make much of his other characters, either. They’re not exactly meant to be the powerful forces at odds in a tightly-wrung character drama, but voicing the ends of the story gets old in 12-page transcriptions of fairy tales––here it drags for a hundred pages, as Coelho pushes a leading man with not much will to do anything through a landscape of vast oversimplifications of human beings. He doesn’t even take the opportunity to draw their broad strokes wildly, and make them two-dimensional, but vibrant. They’re just proxies. Effigies. Props.

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation” doesn’t just ignore the very real obligations our main character happens not to have; it also renders the world that exists in The Alchemist a pale and wanting imitation of itself. When things are as simple as listening to your heart and following the signs, where is the richness that exists outside the path you feel you are ordained to have? Where are the complexities of other lives? Where’s the flavor? Where’s the conflict? In this novel, it is made simple: those other things just don’t exist.

There are moments, though, when The Alchemist doesn’t try to stretch this narrow mission over the scope of all human life, and in those moments, Coelho leans in to the parts of his story he seems determined not to focus on, from the details of magic to its more whimsical use as a means for inanimate things to be brought to life.

At one point, Santiago has a very frank conversation with his own heart, and here, it doesn’t read like its sober admissions are the fable’s robotic workings, or that this scene exists to further a moral with no real weight. If Santiago had a reason to seek this treasure; if the mechanics of alchemy had a reason to make an appearance, the gentle, wise things this book sometimes has to say about fear and wonder might ring humbler, and perhaps even true.

Maybe The Alchemist wasn’t meant to be the literary exercise that it is. Maybe a novel with impassioned characters, an eye for magic, and more adventurous leanings is hiding somewhere deep within this tired parable. Maybe, in it, Santiago even chases the same Personal Legend, only his feelings on the matter have a bit more behind them, and no one tells him about the pyramids in order to send him searching for them. All he has is a vague, painful feeling in his chest, which––if the book’s ideas were really close to life, is all most of us have.

The version that we’re stuck with being what it is, however, The Alchemist has a lot to tell us about how dogged individualism can neglect those who adhere to it, simplify the world around us, and outsmart us in the end. All these lessons come from a book that won’t stop telling us to follow our dreams. They come because the more you hear the same tune, the more you notice what it is missing.

Somewhere Beyond The Sea

In Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows, eight sisters sneak out every night to go dancing. Meanwhile, the awe-inspiring power of the ocean looms.

In a cloistered manor on the coast of a cold and severe island, the most recent of four dead sisters has just been put to rest.

In Erin A. Craig’s début, we visit the Thaumas family, who, after losing the fourth daughter, is under the influence of something sinister and unknown: years of almost continuous mourning have also cast them under local suspicion. Annaleigh, now second-in-line, knows all too well that the nearby port town is alight with rumors about her rich and reclusive household. As she dons deep black mourning clothes, she tries not to notice.

Craig’s vision of the archipelago where all of this whispering occurs is House of Salt and Sorrows’ crowning achievement. She manages to capture the bracing, turbulent world of a cold ocean breaking against the cliffs––and doesn’t drop the words “sea” or “salt” too often. The world of the book has talk of other places, peoples, and realms, but it’s also very comfortable and familiar with isolation. Craig’s work is simply so immersive that you forget anything else exists.

It also doesn’t hurt that the book truly basks in details. The first thing we see is a silver locket glinting in candlelight, and afterwards, Craig is never too busy with the action at hand to show us the fit of a dress, the color of a pair of dancing shoes, the looming figure of a family emblem. Yes, House of Salt and Sorrows is, among other things, a fine work of dress porn, but don’t be led to thinking the space spent describing pearls is wasted; Craig defines her characters this way, investing their fineries with significance.

In fact, one of the most keen and sustained examples of this comes when the Thaumas sisters’ father, and his new wife, Morella, decide to cut the newest mourning period startlingly short, and she arrives at breakfast not a day after the funeral in a pale blue dress. Craig dwells on this piece and its upsetting implications for Annaleigh, our lead, for just as long as she needs, spreading white organdy across the page before we can read between the pleats of the fabric and decode the recent death’s effects on everyone around the table, from Annaleigh’s strict adherence to the black dress code to her father’s iffy choice of a light grey coat.

It’s these details that make the appearance of a light pink frock later in the novel so significant––only frequent reminders of Annaleigh’s always dark, always conscientious wardrobe choices can produce such an effect when she casts them off in such extremes. Meanwhile, the dress itself asks questions that her subdued dialogue and increasingly cold relationships with her family can’t pose directly. Is this defiance of her grief disingenuous? Is this vastly different self-expression truer than her norm? Is she moving on, or closing up? And what of her sisters? The dress can’t get its implications out fast enough.

Extensive detail also plays a role in the more magical workings behind the Thaumas sisters’ mysterious deaths: as Annaleigh peers deeper and deeper into the darkness taking hold, House of Salt and Sorrows takes on the is-it-real-or-isn’t-it goodness that makes quieter tales of magic so wondrous and supernatural stories so unnerving. Craig twists the knife of uncertainty with just enough vigor to let ghosts, visions, and gore seep out, and yet allows Annaleigh to temporarily shake off what she sees. She harvests the spooky potential of the ocean, too, what, with its squid and octopi darting in and out of the water’s dark surface, the violence it takes to subdue a fish for cooking, and the doubt that comes when the water freezes over, and the ocean can’t provide.

As with everything in Craig’s pseudo-Victorian upper-class worldbuilding, the horror in House of Salt and Sorrows is a slow burn indeed, appearing always in glimpses, in incidents with plausible deniability, and in murky waters where it could’ve been anything until, in a horrific turn, with undeniable clarity, it really couldn’t have been anything else.

When Erin A. Craig finally plays her card and the source of the “curse” finally steps out from the shadows, bigger forces than unsated Victorian longing are inevitably at work, but they never grow loftier than the characters, particularly because Craig has a character set them in motion, and, essentially, she reveals the mystical culprits early on enough that it doesn’t come across like an easy solution to a complicated problem. The climax also mercifully lacks a heavy-handed vanquishing, instead opting for the violent coming of the inevitable, as fitting an ending this story of spirits and promises can hope to have.

The elements of mythology involved are slow to reveal themselves, but Erin A. Craig did, in fact, hide a whole fictional pantheon in the pages of a story mostly concerned with personal affairs. As pivotal as they are in the inner workings of the supernatural happenings, they don’t overwhelm the story, and Craig is keen on keeping them a presence not overly present. It’s worth nothing that her version of a sea-god, Pontus, is a crucial part of her characters’ society, and his influence is there, but he never appears. The fictional faith in the book carries an air of mysticism, and possibly even terror, but it also exhibits House of Salt and Sorrows’ restraint. Even in this world where Gods and humans sometimes interact, no Earth-shattering events transpire that constitute a permanent change to the pantheon. The strangeness and wonder in House of Salt and Sorrows endures without devolving into an operatic finale with an explosion of unfathomable to-the-point-of-tedious power.

It is plenty in this novel, to exist in a world of mystery, at the mercy of the elements, in a small and quiet human society. That loneliness is terror enough.

Where Wilder Girls Fears To Tread

In Rory Power’s debut, about 40 of a boarding school’s 100-student population remain. The culprit is Power’s complex, ruthless Tox, a mysterious force on the boarding school’s Raxter Island, a sickness accompanied by an unnerving natural flourishing––it makes animals grow bigger, faster, and more dangerous, and the human girls that survive its onset suffer periodical flare-ups––if it doesn’t kill them first.

Wilder Girls’ main trio is composed of the grim and worn-down Hetty, the compulsively dishonest and forlorn Byatt, and the cold and distanced Reese. The bond between them is supposedly the beating heart of Wilder Girls‘ tension––from page one, they tip-toe around each other. By page 100, dying for each other isn’t out of the question, and their lives are meant to hinge upon each other to the end and beyond. The kicker, however, is that the fast approach of grizzly manners of death (literally, in one case) is Power’s only tool to push them together. She doesn’t use their pasts very often, for the deep dread of recalling the untouchable world beyond their quarantined island; she doesn’t allow them to truly enjoy each other, because survival becomes more pressing than happiness; she doesn’t allow them to truly rely upon each other, because, of course, the only way to survive in their ruthless new world is total self-reliance.

The result is that at the heart of Wilder Girls––at the epicenter of its every emotional quaking––is a paradox. The trio care about each other, and they don’t. They have something to live for, and they don’t They’re proof of female resistance and friendship in the face of danger…and they aren’t.

But another paradox that lies there is Wilder Girls‘ view on humanity. The moniker “feminist Lord of the Flies” has been floating about, but Rory Power’s description of young people in crisis doesn’t reveal a hidden inhumanity to them at all. Some of the unravelings near the end suggest that it’s perfectly fine for Hetty and company to only look out for each other, but the text never makes way for it. The girls left from what was the boarding school on Raxter Island develop a solemn, matter-of-fact kinship, one that doesn’t suddenly dissolve or rot from infighting––and yet, when the impulse arises, Hetty crosses them and hardly looks back.

Nameless, faceless legal entities play a similar role. Quarantining, as we learn in the first few chapters, is the Navy’s/CDC’s/Some Monster in a Lab Coat’s solution to the rapidly-spreading Tox. The novel never leans into their anonymity, nor their disregard for human life, nor their pure detachment from nature. In doing so, Wilder Girls settles on having no Big Bad to speak of, but doesn’t take the risk of playing up the antagonist-less possibilities, either. The work could be a vs. nature conflict, or a vs. people conflict, or a vs. authority conflict, but in the end, it sits squarely in a rushed, unmotivated middle.

And, naturally, because Wilder Girls doesn’t settle on an evil, the Tox doesn’t pick a culprit. As a reflection on our treatment of nature, it’s only tangentially related to climate change, and even further from pungent personal guilt. Wilder Girls, as a dystopian narrative, lacks thematic unity––whatever it tries to communicate gets lost in a web of immediate thrills and inessential twists. The unwise choices of the human antagonists are unrelated to the distance and cruelty of the quarantine, which is as far as can be from the human-natural world interplay at hand.

Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls has a slow horror build in the stripe of Wilder Girls, but in the case of Legrand’s novel, everything leads back to the rot at the heart of Sawkill Rock, from the way the characters are treated to the failure of authority figures to address the consequences. Wilder Girls, with a sharper focus, could be the skewer to mistreating nature that Sawkill Girls was to the unkind experience of young girls––but the conceptual work of Wilder Girls is simply spread too thin.

To its merit, Wilder Girls, in the scenes where Rory Power’s vivid sensibility of gore is allowed to shine through, gets to be visceral and morbidly fascinating. Though, for better or worse, the outside world and how it’s coping with the Tox remains shrouded in mystery. By the end, however, we’re intimately familiar with the experience of having the Tox, as well as the experience of wondering if this flare up or the next is the one that ends fatally. When Wilder Girls approaches horror, it does so with detail and no degree of squeamishness. Emotions run high when they aren’t being bogged down; deep and throbbing biological horror takes the spotlight whenever it appears; and glimmers of a shorter, tighter, more secluded novel shine through. Were Wilder Girls a short story, or a hundred pages shorter, or had its eye trained on the interior, it would’ve gripped from start to finish. But the book we have is split between ideas, and self contradicting, and maybe, with patience, the things hiding there are worth it.