Sunday 21 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 100: "Across a Star-Swept Sea" by Diana Peterfreund

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Set in a different part of the same post-apocalyptic world as For Darkness Shows the Stars, this book is more of a companion novel than a sequel. The two islands of New Pacifica are Albion (think a futuristic pacific islander England) and Galatea (sci-fi revolutionary France). In Albion they have democracy and happily genetically alter their bodies to be their very best selves. Princess Isla is the regent of Albion until her toddler brother comes of age, because while they are big on genetic engineering, they also seriously underestimate women and still believe in primogeniture. In Galatea, the general population rebelled against their tyrannical despot of a queen and are currently subduing all of their former nobility with drugs that pretty much chemically lobotomise them. Unfortunately, as Revolutions are wont to do, things are starting to go a bit pear-shaped, with those in power Reducing (giving the drugs to) anyone not entirely agreeing with their point of view. The leaders of the glorious revolution have become as bad as the leader they initially rebelled against.

The Wild Poppy is an Albian spy who through a series of rescue missions liberate Galatean citizens, taking them to safety in Albion. Because everyone is incredibly sexist and no one believes that women are any good at anything, it is assumed that the Wild Poppy is a man. This suits Lady Persis Blake perfectly, as no one would suspect that the vapid, teenage socialite and best friend to the Princess Regent of Albion is in fact the most talked about spy in New Pacifica. Along with some of her friends, she risks her life repeatedly to rescue Galateans from the Reign of Terror they are under. Making very sure that no one remembers that a few years ago, Persis Blake was one of the most brilliant and promising young minds in Albion, Persis instead acts like every single fashionista party girl you can imagine. She's princess Isla's BFF and fashion adviser, throws the best parties and knows all the good gossip. She's also brave, excellent at disguises, brilliant at deflecting unwanted attention and a loyal friend to the beleaguered young queen.

Justen Helo is a Galatean medic who is deeply disenchanted with the direction the revolution is taking. He wants to defect to Albion and help find a cure for the all the people who have been chemically Reduced. Princess Isla wants it publicly known that Helo has defected from Galatea and decides that he and Persis should pretend to be an item, something neither of the two are all that happy about. Yet the princess gets what she wants, and Persis and Justen have to pretend to be madly in love. He believes she's a narcissistic socialite with nothing more serious on her mind than what she's going to wear next, never realising that she's the genius hero behind all the daring rescues. He wants to find a cure for the chemical Reduction which his guardian, the head of the Galatean revolution is responsible for, as well as rescuing his sister who is still in Galatea. As they spend more time together, they banter and argue and obviously grow more attracted to one another. Persis knows that Justen despises her chosen persona, but can't risk showing him her true self.

There are so many excellent female characters in this book. Persis is an amazing heroine, all the more remarkable because she's just seventeen. Her friendships with princess Isla and Andrine, another of the members of the Wild Poppy league are realistic and nuanced and it's great to see these young women taking advantage of the prejudices of the society they live in, in order to make the world a better place and save lives, without ever asking for credit or glory. While I didn't like her much (she is one of the villains, after all) Vania Aldred, Justen's foster sister, is also an impressive and strong female character trying to prove herself in the Galatean army but constantly being underestimated and accused of only gaining her position thanks to nepotism. Justen's sister Remy, while young, clearly also wants to make a difference and make a name for herself, even if she has to risk her life to do so.

Peterfreund's world building is a thing of beauty and I am simply not doing the plot or the richness of the environment these books are set in justice in my review. I love The Scarlet Pimpernel and this was such a cool gender reversed science fiction re-imagining of it. Lady Persis Blake is in many ways even more of an impressive hero than Sir Percy Blakeney, because he was a very wealthy and fully grown man. Persis is rich, to be sure, but she's also just a teenage girl, running a spy ring consisting mainly of other teenagers. It makes her feats even more impressive. Of the two books, this was absolutely my favourite. I'm so glad I finally got round to reading these books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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