November 21, 2018
(+++) ADDING TO A KNOWN QUANTITY
Heartstone. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Heartstone #2: Dragonshadow. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
There is something about Jane Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice that inspires rapturous devotion on the one hand and unending temptations toward parodies and mashups on the other. Take, for example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), whose author, Seth Grahame-Smith, aptly summed up the reason he found the project irresistible: “You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there.” All he needed was a sprinkling of the undead to create a thoroughly contemporary bit of ridiculousness (which, for better or worse, sold well and was made into a movie).
Elle Katharine White is far more respectful of Austen and of Pride and Prejudice than this, but her basic take on the story – fierce independence + dashing heroism + militia of a sort – is exactly the same. It just happens that these militia members ride dragons (talking ones, no less) and that the threats against the good guys come in the form of gryphons, mysterious strangers and such. The first book in White’s Heartstone sequence actually adheres rather more closely to the Pride and Prejudice model than a straightforward description of its fantasy-world plot might lead one to expect. There are echoes of the British Regency period original in names such as Arle and Merybourne Manor, and there are the inevitable multiple daughters (four, not the five in Austen’s novel) whose mother seeks to elevate the family status by finding a suitable husband for at least one of them, and there are episodes of wit and wordplay that somewhat soften the outright sword-and-sorcery battle scenes – which, however, are part and parcel of the plot. The first Heartstone novel lays out the characters and their basic relationships in Austen-ish style. The Darcy-analogs are the Daireds, and they are the dragon riders who defend the country. The Bennet analogs are the Bentaines, and they are commoners in this highly stratified fantasy world, employed by one of the landowners: the four young women are daughters of Moira Bentaine, wife of the clerk of Merybourne. White has little trouble bringing the primary characters together: Darcy and his riders are hired to destroy troublesome gryphons at Merybourne. The basic relationships here will be thrice-familiar to Pride and Prejudice fans: second daughter Aliza, who has a strong streak of pragmatism, initially cares little for Alastair Daired, although of course he is very handsome and dashing and, as a bonus, his dragon, Akarra, is very friendly. But Aliza’s sister Angelina finds herself quite charmed by Cedric Brysney, Daired’s close friend. The relationships blossom, not without Austen-ish back-and-forth issues, despite the ever-present danger of the gryphons and the arrival at Merybourne of an enemy of Daired – who comes with the requisite mysterious stranger bearing a dire warning. The mixture of relationship-building, misunderstanding, and monster-fighting (this world has not only gryphons but also direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms) is rather surprisingly engaging, even though there are some frustrating omissions in the world-building: how, when and why did people and sentient dragons pair up for monster-fighting? The first Heartstone book can actually be enjoyed even without knowing Pride and Prejudice, but the intended audience is clearly Austen fanciers seeking an offbeat but respectful expansion and reinterpretation of the beloved novel.
The first book concludes with the semi-apocalyptic Battle of North Fields and with Aliza and Alastair united in marriage, to the surprise of absolutely no one who knows Austen or who has followed the characters’ byplay. The sequel, Dragonshadow, could easily have been a rather sappy romance focusing on the newlyweds and on issues raised somewhat obliquely in the first book, such as class distinctions. But White takes Dragonshadow in a different direction, one that moves farther from the Austen model and more toward rather traditional sword and sorcery. The result is that Pride and Prejudice fans will likely prefer the first book, while others will gravitate more to the second, which can be read reasonably successfully without knowing the first. The second book does indeed begin with the newlyweds’ honeymoon, but it is quickly cut short when news comes of a mysterious something that is killing innocent creatures, including humans, in the northern part of Arle. Alastair and Akarra must ride to the rescue, of course – the Riders are essentially anti-monster mercenaries, after all – but Aliza refuses to stay behind, even though she is not a dragon rider. So the three (two humans and dragon) head through the dangerous Wilds (all fantasy worlds have an area with that name, or a mighty close version of it), fighting off various nefarious attacks, and Aliza learns to ride Akarra, and soon the heroic trio reaches a vaguely Scottish landscape with its own cast of magical creatures (selkies, centaurs and the like). Then the mystery of the events affecting the Lake Meera region must be unraveled, and Aliza takes the initiative in doing so as Alastair does his usual derring-do in ridding the area of various bad things (though he is somewhat limited by the fact that he is recovering from an earlier injury, making Aliza’s role all the more central). The contrast between the slowed-down Alastair and the quick-witted Aliza is nicely done, and the interactions among characters are well-handled, without drawing as directly on Pride and Prejudice as the first series entry did. This is either a strength or a weakness, depending on how closely one wishes for parallels between White’s series and Austen’s novel. In Dragonshadow, White moves beyond her original model in significant ways, starting to develop her characters within their own world and with fewer references to the one from which they originally sprang. This makes the book a more straightforward heroic fantasy than its predecessor but may also help it reach out to fantasy readers in general rather than primarily to fantasy enthusiasts who also happen to be devoted fans of Pride and Prejudice.