Jane Austen Was Never Like This: Elle Katharine White’s Dragonshadow

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Updating, recasting, or otherwise reimagining a beloved classic is an exercise fraught with danger. The devotee might take umbrage over liberties taken with the original text, while the casual reader unfamiliar with the original may chalk up faithful representation to poor plotting or characterization. Critically, then, an update must work on its own merits, while staying true to a core themes of its forebear. Enter Elle Katharine White’s Heartstone, which recast Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in a high fantasy setting—with dragons!—an unusually successful reimagining. White replicated much of Austen’s most beloved classic character by character, beat for beat, while reforging the structure and motivations of the world with magic, to work on their own terms. I was quite taken by the world of that novel, so much so that I hoped White would continue the story, striking out past Austen’s influence. I got my wish in Dragonshadow.

The sequel picks up some weeks after the Battle of North Fields, where Alastair Daired, Eliza Bentaine, and a host of other dragons, dragon Riders, and the free people of Arle did battle with the Greater Lindworm, at terrible cost. Eliza and Alastair (our Lizzie and Darcy) are running out the last few days of their honeymoon at Alastair’s ancestral home in the opening chapters, just a few scant weeks later. Eliza is adjusting to life as the wife of a dragon Rider of a noble lineage, the House of Pendragon. She may be vexed by the number and quality of the thank you notes she must write, but it’s a happy, domestic, and loving sort of exasperation. Yet she and Alastair are also grieving losses, the kind that haunt their dreams, and won’t be so easily overcome.

Their honeymoon is most definitely ended when a messenger from Castle Selwyn, an isolated keep on the northern border, collapses on their doorstep, round eyed and terrified, and convinced he was followed through the wilderness by a fell presence. He carries a message from the mysterious Lord Selwyn: there have been a series of escalating attacks in the area, first starting with the Idar, and then culminating in the disappearance of a young girl. (There are three kinds of magical creatures in this world: the Shani, allies of humanity; the Idar, neutral; and the Tekari, the humans’ sworn enemies.) Selwyn wants to hire Alastair and his dragon Akarra to solve the mysteries of the attacks.

When Eliza hears of the missing girl, she immediately thinks of her own sister, whose death in a gryphon attack was the precipitating event that brought Alastair and Akarra into her small town, and then into her life. Alastair takes the contract. Eliza, though she is not a dragon Rider, is determined to join her husband on the hunt. If she acquiesces this first time to life entombed on the estate while Alastair risks life and limb for the country, likely that will form the template for the future. She’s determined to forge a married life less constricted. After a newlywed squabble, Alastair acquiesces, and they soar off on the dragon Akarra’s back.

Their journey to Lord Selwyn’s home is ominous—dead or dying Idar litter the earth, stripped of their heartstones, and human towns are places where a bounty hunter might sell out their own kind for a bag of coins. Tekari who normally ignore humans work together to assail the pair. A silver box—a wedding gift from someone mysterious—keeps finding its way in their pack. As Alastair and Eliza work out their obligations and expectations of their new relationship, they seem to be being pursued by a deadly presence.

Perils aside, Eliza and Alastair are on uneven terrain. They are learning the roles and expectations of a married couple—how to navigate their different competences and weaknesses—even as their relationship is stressed by the extremity of their journey and the horrors of the recent past. Eliza wakes up with the sharp tang of nightmares, terrified she’s done something to endanger her husband. He’s stiff in his movements, still healing from a poison that almost killed him. He in turn feels shamed by his physical limitations. As a Rider, he was born and bred to fight the Tekari; that he can’t do that with the same finesse is a cut at the core of his identity. Eliza herself struggles with the trauma of the battle and her sister’s death. They’re both wounded, and struggling to heal.

Their interactions reminded me of the Austen-inspired pair at the center of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories, which begin with Shades of Milk and Honey. Both Kowal and White invoke the spirit of Pride and Prejudice—the former more for the Regency setting, while Heartstone replicates the plot beat for beat, but in a fantasy setting. Both series’ second novels—Glamour in Glass and Dragonshadow—stretch beyond Austen’s original parameters, into the rough hinterlands of their fictional worlds. Nothing is safe, and nothing is sacred, and thecharacters must learn how to live with the almost casual danger of their lives. Both continuations deepen our understanding of the magic of their respective worlds. While I was hoping for a bit more about the culture of the Riders, Dragonshadow instead focuses on the complex relationships between the humans and non-humans, especially the neutral Idar. Neutrality is not amity, and Eliza and Alastair’s interactions with the Idar encapsulates a broad range of responses.

When Eliza and Alastair finally make it to Castle Selwyn, after a terrifying sprint through the wild country, they come to realize they’ve escaped the frying pan only to leap headfirst into the fire. The people of this world—human, Shani, Idan, and Tekari—have long relied on an ancient social contract to govern their interactions. That treaty seems to be nigh on broken, and meetings between human and non-humans have become more personal, more political, and more deadly. Additionally, Lord Selwyn and the enigmatic Lady Selwyn appear to be hiding something big in their crumbling Gothic manse.

Eliza and Alastair and their new marriage are tested in Dragonshadow, often to the point of extremity. They make mistakes, and apologize, and altogether learn how to work as a couple. Their unity becomes more than personally important by the conclusion: war is coming, and the violence they’ve so far skirted in their travels is just a prelude.

Heartstone and Dragonshadow are available now.

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