//by Diana Peterfreund//published 2013//
So a while back I came across a list of books, and all the books on the list were retellings of other stories. Of course, fairy tales were the main bulk of the list (and I do love a good fairy tale retelling), but, to my surprise, there was also listed a retelling of one of my all-time favorites, The Scarlet Pimpernel!
If you are unfamiliar with The Scarlet Pimpernel, you really should read it, as the book is a delight. Is it old-fashioned and a bit ridiculous? Absolutely, but that doesn’t keep it from being quite a lot of fun.
The original Pimpernel story is set in England during the French Revolution. While most Britishers are sitting about writing their hands and shaking their heads over the blood-bath across the Channel, one man is consistently risking his life to rescue endangered aristocrats and bring them safely to Britain. This man, a master of disguise and intrigue, is known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and no one knows his true identity (except, of course, his band of merry men).
There is much more to the story, but that is the basic premise, and it should be enough to get you going on Across a Star-Swept Sea.
In this version, our setting is far in the future. Civilization as we know it has been destroyed, and all that remains are two neighboring islands, jointly known as New Pacifica, and individually known as the countries of Galatea and Albion.
At the time of our story, Galatea is in the midst of a terrible revolution, and the aristocrats are being sentenced to a fate worse than death – Reduction (more on this later). While Albion dithers as to what they should do, one Albionian is willing to risk life and limb by sneaking into Galatea and rescuing prisoners. Known as the Wild Poppy, everyone assumes that this person must be a young aristocrat from Albion, and they’re right. Except… it’s a girl.
Okay. Good points. Overall, I really, really enjoyed this book. The pacing was excellent, the characters were engaging and likable, the plot was just enough like the original to be familiar and comfortable, but enough different to be intriguing and to keep me reading. I really liked Persis, the Wild Poppy, and her love interest/other protagonist, Justen. The other friends were also good secondary characters, and I also appreciated the strong family bond between Persis and her parents.
Biggest good point? THIRD PERSON PAST TENSE IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL I LOVED IT!!!!
Negatives: the Reduction thing got really confusing; I got super tired of the overt in-my-face quasi-feminist message; with only about a quarter of the book left to go, Peterfreund introduced a gigantic new plot twist that felt unnecessary, and, in the end, made the conclusion feel a lot less satisfying.
Overall, though, this book got a strong 4/5 (super unusual for me for modern YA), and was a super fun twist on an old favorite.
Now, if you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the three big negatives…
I’m going to try to make this as simplified as possible, but it’s super confusing. I found myself flipping back to earlier chapters to try and match up information presented there with what I was learning later in the book. In this story, the world as we know it progressed to a point where people were able to genetically modify their unborn children (a little vague on why/how/into what, but one assumes that they were being modified into pure awesome). Of course, only rich people could afford such a procedure, so in a few generations, rich people = genetically modified, poor people = normal.
Well, then there was this terrible thing where a bunch of the genetically modified people started having this problem called Reduction, wherein they lost a lot of their mental capacity. Then there was this whole vague war (still not clear on that bit) and then the whole world gets blown up except for some mysterious person lost in the eons of history, who created New Pacifica and brought some people to populate it.
However, when this happened, the people who used to be rich became the slaves, because these people were all Reduced, so the previously-poor people were now able to control the previously-rich people. So the old poor people, genetically normal, become the new rich aristocrats, while the previously-rich people, genetically modified/Reduced, become the new poor peasants.
THEN someone comes up with this way to make Reduced people normal, and time passes, and then the peasants, now normal (“regs”) revolt against the genetically normal aristocrats and start feeding them this medicine that turns those people into Reduced.
Do you see why I was confused??? For me, it was especially confusing in terms. Technically, the aristocrats are also “regs,” but instead of meaning “regular genetics”, “regs” is used to describe the peasant/non-aristocrats, which was super confusing to me. There’s this whole bit about needed to study genetically regular people, but everyone acts as though the aristocrats are their own thing?? I don’t know, it was complicated for me. Overall, it didn’t detract from the story too much, but it did, at times, make me having to review the information I’d found so far and try to make better sense of it.
Here’s a thing that annoys me. A thing that annoys me is when people create a completely new, made-up world. In this world that they have created out of their own head, they insert one thing about our real, modern society that really annoys them. Then they proceed to spend the entire book whining about this thing that they, the creator, put into the world.
We already have a society where people spend a lot of time whining about inequality and how horrible oppressed women are. What boggles my mind is why someone would create a whole new world and insert the same situation. It seems to me that what would be fantastic is if someone would create a world where inequality between the sexes wasn’t a problem – give us an example of men and women working together in harmony. Show us what it should look like. That, in my mind, would be actually productive.
I didn’t really mind the gender-swapping of making the Pimpernel a girl, and confused aristo from the other side a guy. However, I found it ironic that Peterfreund fell right into the same trap she claims (repeatedly) to disclaim: she makes Persis act like the fluff-headed fashion guru silly giggly useless one, while Justen gets to be the sciency genius. And sure, Persis isn’t really all of those things, and she’s actually quite intelligent and logical and self-aware, but, in the original, the Pimpernel (a man) is the fluff-headed fashion guru silly giggly useless one, and I actually think that this story would have made a much stronger feminist statement if a guy had been playing the fool while a girl was the clever scientist. Peterfreund seems to think that she is really ahead of the game because the “rescuer” is a girl, but it just doesn’t really impress me as all that daring.
But it appears that Peterfreund, like most YA writers, would rather whine about gender roles than do anything about them, so such is life. And in the meantime, I’m forced to read statements of male recrimination that just make me roll my eyes and gag:
How odd that an array of gorgeous dresses and a few well-placed dumb comments were all it took to disguise her true self. Was it because she was a woman? Was it because Justen was actually far shallower than Persis had ever appeared to be?
That’s right, Justen. Continue to berate yourself. That’s what modern feminism is really all about: making guys feel guilty.
Wildly Complicated Plot Twist
This book was really well-paced, and I loved that. There were just enough story threads working together to feel like they were creating a cohesive and engaging whole. Then, with only about a quarter of the book left, Peterfreund drops a gigantic and extremely complicated plot twist into the whole thing. It was very frustrating because it didn’t really feel like it was necessary to move the story on, and, in the end, left me with a lot more questions. It just felt like the story could of wrapped up in a much neater fashion without this additional complication. Ah well.
I actually really, really liked this book, and am definitely checking out Peterfreund’s other works. While there were a few things that irritated me, I overall felt like it was well-written and definitely worth my time to read.
No one is innocent in the tide of history. Everyone has kings and slaves in his past. Everyone has saints and sinners. We are not to blame for the actions of our ancestors. We can only try to be the best we can, no matter what our heritage, to strive for a better future for all.