In a future New York City, society is divided between Light and Dark, and people are treated accordingly. Those who live behind walls in the Dark part of the city are referred to as “the buried ones”; they are feared and disliked, but they’re also necessary. The Lights and the Darks practice different kinds of magic, and each is dependent on the other for their very survival.
Lucie Manette is a Light magician, born in the Dark city. Her mother was murdered and her father arrested and tortured for violating the city’s laws; Lucie decided that she would stop at nothing to get him out.
Now they both live in the Light city, where Lucie is widely admired as a symbol of freedom for what she did for her father, but all she feels about it is guilt and anguish. She can’t fully enjoy her exciting new life with boyfriend Ethan, haunted as she is by memories of the past and by her father’s shattered state. And then a new threat appears in the form of Ethan’s doppelganger, Carwyn, and Lucie realizes that even what little safety and happiness she now has could be taken from her.
If Lucie’s name rings a bell, there’s a reason: Her story, “Tell the Wind and Fire,” is an update of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Acclaimed Young Adult author Sarah Rees Brennan has taken Dickens’ classic story and created her own version, set in a fantasy world that nonetheless contains strong echoes of the turbulent French Revolution period from the original.
Brennan skillfully weaves in Dickens’ plot threads, character elements, and language to create a story that’s both a tribute to his book, and a compelling work all her own. More than that, she understands and shares many of his views about societal conflict. Like Dickens before her, Brennan commendably resists the urge to villainize or idolize either side in the battle between the haves and the have-nots. Both authors make a strong case, as the cycle of vengeance plays out in their respective novels, that there is good and bad on both sides, and that redemption and restoration can never come through hatred, no matter how justified it may be.
Watching her beloved aunt preparing to torture one of the cruel and powerful members of the Light ruling elite, Lucie realizes, “His hate was as futile as hers had been for years. The power might have changed sides, but there was hate on both sides, inescapable. I felt like I was choking on it.”
But also, both novels have a cynical main character who experiences his own redemption and saves others out of love, his sacrificial actions contrasting sharply with the cataclysmic hatred and rage around him. Seeing this sacrifice teaches Lucie, among other things, that “People will come up with a hundred thousand reasons why other people do not count as human, but that does not mean anyone has to listen.”
Also like “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Tell the Wind and Fire” contains violent episodes. In place of Dickens’ guillotines, for instance, Brennan portrays cages in which prisoners are pierced with spikes, sometimes lingering for days. As in Dickens’ novel, the violent scenes are not explicit, but they are memorable. Other content issues include sexual references, including mention of the sexual relationship between Lucie and Ethan; though both of them come across as older, they’re still both supposed to be teenagers, so the fact that all the adults in their lives are somehow completely fine with this seems more than a little odd. As for profanity, there’s only a very small amount.
“A Tale of Two Cities” contains explicit religious elements. There are fewer of these in “Tell the Wind and Fire.” Light is occasionally referred to as if it were a deity (though not one that anyone is actually shown worshiping), and there are a few mentions of Dark rituals, including the one that created the doppelganger Carwyn. Near the end, there’s a mention of sins being wiped away, and though it’s subtler than the religious language and imagery in Dickens’ novel — and it’s not made clear who is wiping them away — it’s still a strong and significant idea.
As well as being a moving and powerful novel in its own right, “Tell the Wind and Fire” makes a good stepping stone for teens who may then want to go on and read Dickens’ original work. (Over at Dickensblog I’ve posted a piece that goes more deeply into the parallels between the two. I’ve also posted an excerpt from Brennan’s novel.) Their shared message about the dangers of hatred, and the possibility of transcending it through love and forgiveness, is always a timely and important one, in any age.
Image copyright Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.