The Wild Poppy will save you

Cover art for Title: Across a Star-Swept Sea

Author: Diana Peterfreund

Publisher & Release Date: Balzar + Bray, October 2013

The Hook: A dystopian sci-fi retelling of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Baroness Orczy.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Centuries after wars nearly destroyed civilization, the two islands of New Pacifica stand alone, a terraformed paradise where even the Reduction–the devastating brain disorder that sparked the wars–is a distant memory. Yet on the isle of Galatea, an uprising against the ruling aristocrats has turned deadly. The revolutionaries’ weapon is a drug that damages their enemies’ brains, and the only hope is rescue by a mysterious spy known as the Wild Poppy.

On the neighboring island of Albion, no one suspects that the Wild Poppy is actually famously frivolous aristocrat Persis Blake. The teenager uses her shallow, socialite trappings to hide her true purpose: her gossipy flutternotes are encrypted plans, her pampered sea mink is genetically engineered for spying, and her well-publicized new romance with handsome Galatean medic Justen Helo… is her most dangerous mission ever.

Though Persis is falling for Justen, she can’t risk showing him her true self, especially once she learns he’s hiding far more than simply his disenchantment with his country’s revolution and his undeniable attraction to the silly socialite he’s pretending to love. His darkest secret could plunge both islands into a new dark age, and Persis realizes that when it comes to Justen Helo, she’s not only risking her heart, she’s risking the world she’s sworn to protect.”

Overall Impressions: If you’ve read The Scarlet Pimpernel, you have a fairly good idea of the overall plot arc. The coolness lies in just what Peterfreund did with that story, including gender flipping and the implications of genetic engineering and its effects over time.

The story is told through four viewpoints: Persis (the Wild Poppy), Justen (medical researcher with secret guilt), Remy (Justen’s younger sister and pretty awesome) and Vania (foster sister, villain, remorseless). The changing narrators worked quite well with each having their own voice and worldview. The story becomes a window into cycles of oppression: What is the line between justice and revenge? What is the role of forgiveness? Is it even possible? How do you end the cycles?

I appreciated the lack of a love triangle. In fact, romance really takes a background role. Yes, Persis and Justen are pretending to be in a relationship and in the process do fall in love. But the focus is on their beliefs about and reactions to the world in which they live – their separate self-appointed missions, which eventually, after a lot of hiding things from each other, they realize overlap. Persis reminds me of a blend of Hannibal and Face from “The A-Team,” leader, charisma, disguises, bravery, strong moral center, running into danger, determined to do what her country’s leadership refuses to see as needed and save people.  Justen’s efforts are more cerebral, spending every possible moment  researching a way to make right what he unintentionally caused. You can feel the weight of responsibility on their shoulders.

Vania is a very effective villain – a peer and a true believer – but in her focus she had no shades of grey and felt a little flat in character. Persis, Justen and Remy confronted situations that challenged their beliefs and grew from that. Vania … didn’t grow other than into a tighter version of herself. That said, she also seemed a very authentic villain for this kind of story. And as I reflect further, isn’t refusing to change and grow one of our definitions of a villain?

The part where a pill was developed that effectively creates dementia in anyone at any age is chilling. Horrifying even. And then it is given (forced) as a punishment. It’s brilliant on the author’s part and a very clever stand-in for beheading.

Confession: I have Peterfreund’s “For Darkness Shows the Stars,” which is set in the same world, but haven’t read it yet. I have read Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” the classic it re-interprets, so I have an idea of the story. I suspect that reading “Darkness” first would make for a richer reading of “Star-Swept Sea,” but it works out of order and on its own. Though I can see how having no knowledge of “Darkness” would make for some confusion when certain characters appear.

The Highs: I really enjoyed picturing the over-the-top fashions the Albian aristos wore. I want the Cove dress, just for a few hours.

Remy, underestimated by everyone, and utterly fantastic. I was holding my breath for her a few times!

The lush tropical setting.

Persis’ parents and their love and support of and pride in their daughter, as well as the love they have for each other.

Buzzkills:  I did get a little tired of Persis reminding herself that she had to be a silly, shallow young woman or the jig would be up.

The Source: Public library.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or amazing silks were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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