Bespelling Jane Austen
by Mary Balogh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bespelling Jane Austen / 978-0-37377-501-9
I've always been fond of Jane Austen, and I've enjoyed the paranormal Jane Austen novels that have been coming out of the woodwork; I felt that zombies was precisely what "Pride and Prejudice" was lacking the first time around, and I absolutely adored "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters". And while "Bespelling Jane Austen" looks at first glance to be capitalizing on all the hype, this collection of novellas is really quite solid, and I enjoyed very much the chance to read the Advance Review Copy that was sent to me from the publisher.
This collection of novellas is not, unlike "PPZ" and "SSSM", a direct port of Austen novels, with new text woven in and around the original Austen text. Instead, these shorter renditions of Austen's novels are more like modern `adaptations' of her stories, not unlike the Shakespeare adaptations that maintain the underlying themes but with new settings, characters, and dialogue. Austen "purists" will likely not enjoy these adaptations, if only because of the more modern emphasis on physical passion and sensuality, but Austen lovers who enjoy seeing her delightful themes in new situations and experiences will find much here to enjoy.
"Almost Persuaded" by Mary Balogh, takes a serious and surprisingly deep look at the theme of reincarnation, applied against Austen's backdrop of marriages impeded by social distance. Two soulmates come together in the persons of Jane Everett and Captain Robert Mitford. The captain is of relatively low station and the lady is the daughter of a proud baronet, and yet they come to know - supernaturally - that they are immortal souls who have been trying and failing over a series of lifetimes to chose their eternal love over the concerns and trivialities of mortal lives. Though each party recognizes their mutual love and the importance of their choice, it is difficult to cast aside their social training to satisfy an attraction that does not make logical sense. This first novella in the series is, in my mind, easily the best - and it was here that I realized that "Bespelling Jane Austen" is not another Austen parody like "PPZ", but rather a serious adaption of her themes. Although there is no indication that Austen believed in reincarnation, "Almost Persuaded" seems very much like a story she would write, if she had.
"Northanger Castle" by Colleen Gleason, is a fun little story that stars as protagonist the character of Caroline Merrill - a young girl who has read far too many gothic novels and whose overactive imagination fancies every man she meets a letch who locks up his madwoman wife in the attic, or a deserving orphan girl with a terrible secret, or a scheming lady slowly poisoning her unsuspecting husband's tea, or - worse of all - a vampire with red eyes and long fangs. The twist, of course, is that Caro's daytime fancies are not too far off from the truth - a twist that the reader can hardly fail to see coming, but which is cute in its own right. This story does not contain the same depth and complexity as the previous one, but is a fun romp to the end, even if the end is a bit abruptly resolved.
"Blood and Prejudice" by Susan Krinard, is another "Pride and Prejudice" adaptation featuring Mr. Darcy as a vampire - not the first adaptation to do so, but if the premise lacks originality, it does at least nicely account for Darcy's self-importance and egotism in a modern setting (given that the social birth position must vanish somewhat with modern American settings). The adaptation isn't a poor one, although I confess to not being the biggest of "Pride and Prejudice" fans. The writing isn't stellar - young lady protagonists in modern settings realistically probably don't reference "Casablanca" and "The Seven Year Itch" that often, but the character in question is an antique book buff, so I'll let it go. Authorial intrusion lines, though, such as "Since this story is rated for general audiences, I won't say what I really thought of Darcy," are really inexcusable, and lines like "I sat frozen, my mouth as dry as a quote from Oscar Wilde," really do feel like the writer is trying too hard. Overall, though, the story isn't too bad - although the elements are lifted so strongly from Austen, with just a vampire theme added, that long-time fans may get a little bored at the repetition. The ending, too, somehow left a bad taste in my mouth - likely because I'm more of a "Sisters of the Moon" fan (where Elizabeth's actions would fall under the moniker of "blood whore") than a "Twilight" fan (where Elizabeth's actions line up nicely for the Team Edward fans).
"Little to Hex Her" by Janet Mullany, is an "Emma" adaptation, which I was wary of - for one, because the premise (protagonist runs a dating service in a Fantasy Kitchen Sink setting in Washington D.C.) seemed a little overly zany, and for another because I've never really like Emma or Mr. Knightley. Surprisingly enough, Mullany address the later problem head on in the foreword, and makes good on her word by giving both the characters a bit of a status upgrade to not be quite so tedious. As for the former, the zany setting is handled surprisingly well, and comes off as some of the better world-building and world-mixing techniques that I like so much in the "Sisters of the Moon" series. The plot isn't entirely without holes - I can't help but feel that Knightley could be a bit less of a jerk about Emma being potentially date raped by a vampire (short story: she agreed to the sex, but not - to her recollection - the biting) - but the overall presentation is fun and enjoyable. This novella is definitely the one with the highest sex content, however, so be aware of that going in.
Overall, I enjoyed this series, and it's nice to see a paranormal Austen adaptation that doesn't take the easy route and republish an entire Austen novel but with some random fantasy element copy-pasted in.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through NetGalley.
~ Ana Mardoll
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