The Plot: Elliot North, 18, has spent the last four years trying to keep her family’s estate running. It means not just making sure there is enough for herself, her father, Baron North, and her sister; but also enough to feed and shelter their many servants. The main reason this year there will be enough food is the family is renting out some property to a bunch of successful explorers.
Four years ago, Elliot had a chance to escape her disapproving, controlling father, and to join her best friend and sweetheart, Kai, in running away. Elliot chose duty. Kai, a servant, left, and she hasn’t heard from him since.
Elliot meets the explorers – including Captain Malakai Wentforth. Kai. No longer a teenage servant; now a very successful man. One who doesn’t forget, or forgive, that four years ago Elliot chose her class and her family over him.
The man, Malakai, is different from the teen Elliot knew; still, Elliot sees the boy she once loved, and wonders if they have a second chance.
The world in For Darkness Shows the Stars is post-apocalyptic; generations ago, genetic re-engineering and other scientific experiences “went too far.” The result was wars and a general destruction of society. The primary survivors were the Luddites, the people who had traditionally rejected the scientific and technological experimentation they saw around them. They are now a ruling class of Barons and Baronesses, owning estates and controlling the land. The other survivors were “the Reduced,” people intellectually damaged by the genetic treatments and biological experimentation around them. The Luddites both took care of the Reduced because the Reduced could not care for themselves, but they also used the Reduced as a free work force. They are basically serfs, tied to the land.
Where, then, does Kai fit in? As years and years passed, children began being born to the Reduced who, well, were not reduced — smart, inquisitive children like Kai. The Luddites call them “COR”s, or Children of the Reduced; they prefer the label “Posts”, as in Post-Reductionists. A significant part of the class struggle shown in For Darkness Shows The Stars involves how the Luddites treat the Posts no differently from the Reduced. Posts like Kai illegally run away from their estates to make their way in the world. It’s not easy; Kai’s success is remarkable. While some Luddites are like Baron North in their view towards Posts, others (like Elliot and other numbers) view Posts and Luddites as equals. Because the Luddites avoid anything new or any type of progress or change, Posts such as Kai bring new thoughts, ideas, and even fashion into the Luddite world.
As for Kai’s name, most Posts rename themselves, abandoning their servant identity. Thus, Kai becomes Malakai. One of the many clever touches in the world-building? All the Reduced are given simple, one syllable names because, well, it’s believed that is all they can handle. So the Posts are not just rejecting their past, they are also asserting themselves as full members of society by taking on newer, multi-syllable names.
I go so much into Peterfreund’s world-building because Persuasion’s plot hinges on significant class issues; so, at least for me, where a retelling succeeds (or fails) is in believably creating a world with equal class issues. In many ways, Elliot’s world seems more pre-Industrial (i.e., Jane Austen’s world) than post-apocalyptic. What ups the ante, what makes Elliot’s decisions and thoughts that much more heartbreaking, are the reasons for the class distinctions: the fear of science and progress, the fear of things that are new or different. At various times, Elliot cannot help but revert to the basic Luddite philosophy that any change is wrong. She is not, however, a total Luddite; she sees the stagnation around her.
I said that Elliot stayed to “take care of” the servants on her father’s estate. That is not entirely accurate. Yes, some are the Reduced, but even those who are so impacted are shown to have talents and depth and to be more than child-like or helpless. As Kai has shown, the Posts can take care of themselves and the Posts on the North estate end up working with, rather than for, Elliot. Posts can and do leave their estates. However, that is neither simple nor easy, even though Kai returns triumphant. The stories of other Posts tells the risks faced by those who run away.
Excellent world building does not a plot make; For Darkness Shows the Stars is not just the Persuasion story (reunion of separated lovers) but also about Elliot’s own struggles to do what is best for everyone around her. What is best for running the estate? How can she manage her father, who doesn’t care what happens to the servants on his estate as long as his own wants are met? Is it better to stay on the estate or pursue her own dreams? Does she even know what her own dreams are, since four years ago running away was Kai’s dream?
Oh, and as for the Persuasion story line. Loved it. Full of romantic drama: Elliot wanting Kai, Kai thinking Elliot thought she was too good for him, misunderstandings and angst. Lovely!
While For Darkness Shows the Stars is a standalone, as you can tell, I love the complex world created in it and would love to see more stories set in it. At the moment, Peterfreund has a short story companion to the novel, telling more of Kai’s time away from Elliot: Among the Nameless Stars.