Friday, 25 April 2014

Review | Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson


by Jane Nickerson

My Rating: 

When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

Jane Nickerson's Strands of Bronze and Gold falls into several categories: it's a piece of YA, a piece of Historical Fiction, and a fairy tale retelling all rolled into one.

It was an interesting take on the Bluebeard myth; I haven't read any other retellings of that particular story, nor do I think I've ever read anything set in the "Deep South", so that's something I'll have to change!

In this retelling, seventeen year old Sophia "Sophie" Petheram travels to live with her godfather, the wealthy Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, after the death of her father. All her life he has sent her lavish gifts, and when she arrives at his estate he spoils her. Soon, however, Sophie realises there is a much more sinister side to her godfather than she ever could have imagined.

Before I say anything else, there will be spoilers in this review, so please don't read on if you haven't read this book yet - I don't want to be responsible for ruining it for you!

Personally I felt as though de Cressac, our Bluebeard, was too obviously dodgy from the start. Perhaps it's because I'm familiar with the Bluebeard myth (though I believe many people are) but I just couldn't understand how Sophie wasn't more suspicious of him sooner. After all, when she arrives she discovers that not only has he failed to mention that his wife has died, but that he's managed to get through four wives, all with red hair like her own.

Having said that, when Sophie did finally come to the conclusion that de Cressac had murdered his previous wives she came to it far too quickly. I'm not trying to say that finding six human teeth in your godfather's bedroom is normal, but in reality they could have been anyone's! I was hoping the book would build up with a slow, sizzling tension before Sophie finally found the bodies of the previous wives in de Cressac's chapel. In the original myth I'm fairly certain the heroine doesn't know for certain that her husband is a murderer until she finds the bodies.

Sophie herself I found a little boring at first, but as the novel wore on she developed much more of a personality of her own. One thing I really loved about her, though, was that Nickerson didn't try and make her 'bad ass' to pass as a YA heroine. She's very feminine and 'girly', but that doesn't mean she doesn't possess a different kind of strength to the strength of, say, Katniss Everdeen. Personally I think we need more feminine heroines in YA - a heroine shouldn't have to adopt stereotypical masculine traits to be taken seriously as a protagonist!

Sophie is also one of the few, if only, YA heroines I've read who's openly acknowledged a faith of some kind. I'd describe myself as agnostic, but I love that Sophie isn't apologetic for her belief in God, in the same way that she isn't apologetic for being feminine. I can understand why there isn't a huge amount of religion in YA - at least not that I've come across - because it can alienate some readers from the book, but personally I find religion fascinating; if it's used tastefully, and not as a way to try and convert readers, then there's no reason why we shouldn't see more of it in YA.

In fact religion is such a big part of Sophie's life that her love interest is a preacher! I quite liked Gideon; he was the complete opposite of de Cressac, and sweet in a dorky, 'boy next door' kind of way, which was a refreshing change for me. Lately all of the YA I've come across has involved love interests who are dark and/or brooding in one way or another. 

However, at times he and Sophie almost felt too good. I expected the retelling as a whole to be quite a bit darker than it was given its original source material; I honestly expected Sophie to marry de Cressac a little earlier in the novel and then discover his awful secret. This would have been a nice change from all of the YA in which the heroine meets her 'true love' when she's still innocent and virginal and all those things which, sadly, we associate with young women.

I did love, however, that Nickerson chose not to have Gideon or one of Sophie's siblings save her from de Cressac; instead he ultimately got caught in one of his own traps. A small part of me wanted Sophie to kill him herself, but if we're being honest she doesn't seem like the kind of heroine who could kill anyone, and there's nothing wrong with that! I'd rather have an ending where the protagonist's actions were believable than sit back and watch them do something I couldn't imagine them doing.

Though I enjoyed the book on the whole I was still left with some unanswered questions at the end. For example we never really found out how de Cressac came to be Sophie's godfather in the first place; a few times it's mentioned that he had a fondness for her mother, whom Sophie takes after, but his relationship with her parents is never really expanded upon.

I also would have liked to see more of Odette, Sophie's handmaid and eventual friend. I guessed quite early on in the book that she was some sort of relation to one of de Cressac's previous wives, and I wanted to know more about this woman who'd had the guts to enter this dangerous man's house and investigate for herself. In fact I was rather disappointed that Nickerson chose to kill her; I think she had a lot of potential as a character.

The issues concerning slavery also seemed a little too ghosted over for my liking. I appreciated that Nickerson chose to include it in the novel, especially as it is a piece of Historical Fiction, but sometimes it felt as though she'd put it there as an afterthought; as though she'd just remembered that black people were enslaved in the South of America at this time.

There were a few times in which Sophie even compared herself to the slaves who worked for de Cressac, and while I certainly felt sorry for Sophie and the dire situation she was in, I'm fairly sure de Cressac's slaves suffered more than she did.

That being said, the end of the novel was full of hope for the future. I loved that Sophie inherited her godfather's wealth and that she intended to use it to free and help de Cressac's slaves, and I appreciated that, though she agreed to marry Gideon, she would do so in a year or so after she'd had more of a chance to enjoy her independence. 

All in all it was an interesting retelling. I liked it enough to read all of it; it's not the best writing I've ever come across, some sections were a little melodramatic, but I recommend it to anyone who likes retellings. I'll definitely pick up Nickerson's next retelling, The Mirk and Midnight Hour, some time in the future.

J.

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