Review: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

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March 11, 2013 by Heidi

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane NIckersonTitle: Strands of Bronze and Gold [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Jane Nickerson [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone/first in a series of companion novels.
Genre: Historical, Gothic, Retelling, Fairy Tale
Published: March 12th, 2013 by Random House Children’s Books
Format: Hardcover; 352 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley

The Bluebeard fairy tale retold. . . .

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.

Glowing strands of romance, mystery, and suspense are woven into this breathtaking debut—a thrilling retelling of the “Bluebeard” fairy tale.

The moment I heard tell of Nickerson’s debut, a young adult Gothic retelling of Bluebeard set in the American South, I knew it was calling my name.  I was uncertain as to how an author would approach one of the more disturbing fairy tales–the kind that cannot be made pretty by simply not cutting off a step-sister’s toes to fit into a slipper or something of the like.  I didn’t want pretty, I wanted haunting and chilling, and I’m happy to say that Jane Nickerson did not hold back or shy away–skin-crawling Bluebeard moments achieved!

If you don’t know the tale of Bluebeard, I’m not going to spoil it for you.  In fact, I recommend you go into Strands of Bronze and Gold without reading it just to maintain a semblance of surprise (though I’m still convinced that horror can be worse when you know exactly what’s coming).  Jane Nickerson achieved more than just a competent retelling, however, she also infused her story with a distinct Gothic air right down to the big creepy house, and took on a pre-Civil War setting that not many are willing to approach.

Before I praise the latter half of Strands of Bronze and Gold, I’m afraid I do have to criticize the first.  Laying the setting for this retelling is slow in the extreme.  If I hadn’t been so bent on reading it because of my excitement, I would have given it up as a dud long before it got on track.  I don’t mean a low start as in the first 50, or even 100 pages, I mean the first half of this book was a struggle to get through, which is a shame because I fear many readers will give up before they get to the turning point and miss the wonderful story that is the later half of Strands of Bronze and Gold.  Having finished the book, I can look back and recognize that this crawling beginning was perhaps necessary to set up the relationship dynamic between Sophia and Bernard, as well as her support/lack thereof outside of her godfather, but again–I am not confident that all readers will have the patience to bear through.

Strands of Bronze and Gold reflects with frightening accuracy how any young woman can become ensnared in an abusive relationship.  This, more than any other aspect of this book makes is relevant to the lives of today’s readers despite the historical setting.  Sophia enters her godfather, Bernard de Cressac’s, wealthy country home in rural Mississippi after her father passes away and she and her siblings must find ways to make it in the world.  He is some years older than her (around 40 to her 17), but he is handsome and flatters her with words and gifts of possessions she could never have afforded with her family.  Sophia develops feelings for the man as he carefully winds her around his fingers, making her feel indebted.  It is only slowly that Sophia begins to recognize Bernard’s temper and moods, and to fear them.  He is very calculating–cutting her off from the outside world and all forms of support, reminding her how lucky she is to have him, insisting that he is a good and patient man whereas she constantly pushes his temper.  Revelations about the loss of Bernard’s former wives causes Sophia to pity him, and write off the earliest warning signs of his behavior.  It is frightening how easily Sophia begins to loose sight of herself, and of any possible exit from her situation.

Sophia’s resourcefulness and strength is the aspect that makes this story as strong as it becomes.  She is not as silly and naive as her godfather believes, and she learns quickly to play to his moods.  Sophia works out for herself who and what Bernard de Cressac is, and knows well how to play her cards in order to help herself and those around her.

A Yankee from Boston, Sophia is horrified by the practice of slavery in the south.  I was quite impressed with Jane Nickerson’s approach of this topic.  Through Sophia and Bernard’s interactions with de Cressac’s slaves, it is shown how these people are seen as less than human by the man who owns them, but we also understand their fear and reluctance to trust anyone who is white no matter how kind Sophia may be.  I loved that Nickerson infused her fairy tale retelling with one of our own country’s great stories of struggle against the odds, the Underground Railroad.  When the story began, I was worried from the terminology used for minorities in Nickerson’s writing that it would be unrealistically politically correct for the time, but instead Nickerson faced the issue of slavery and racial relations in the nineteenth-century South head-on.  Through Sophia’s associations with de Cressac’s slaves, as well as her attitude toward human beings in general, she develops important allies, whose support she feels even though she must undergo the bulk of her struggles alone.

The romance of Strands of Bronze and Gold was not a particular highlight for me, but I am also not bothered by this fact as I am a reader who would have been just as happy with no romance in this tale at all.  Sophia, through chance and defiance, meets a young man of the town, the preacher, Gideon.  He is a good and noble man who wishes to court Sophia openly, and refuses to do so behind her godfather’s back.  Knowing Bernard would never allow her to see Gideon (indeed, worrying for Gideon’s safety if he were to make any request), Sophia and Gideon are separated for the bulk of the book.  I appreciated Gideon’s morality, and recognize him as a counter-balance to Bernard.  The romance was done well, but it felt like an accessory to the main plot, and unnecessary save for the fact that many readers would be unhappy if it weren’t there.

I had a few minor quips with the story besides the pacing, namely that Nickerson introduces a paranormal element to the plot that I am not convinced needed to be there in such extreme.  I would have liked to see Nickerson find a way to carry the plot without the ‘help’ of ghostly figures, but I did enjoy the more subtle, quiet appearances throughout the story’s build-up.  In addition, there is a purposeful moment when Sophia is settling into Wyndriven Abbey and her copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is very pointedly mentioned.  This took me out of the story a bit, and honestly confused me–it had no reason for being there (Bluebeard isn’t a Grimm’s Fairy Tale).

All said, Strands of Bronze and Gold is a debut that is very worth checking into if you have the patience to withstand a slow start.  It is a well-written tale that is both horrifying and believable, a Gothic story where being a beauty is anything but a boon.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Absolutely.  Jane Nickerson’s debut didn’t grab me like I was hoping for, but she certainly had me tangled up by the end, and so I’m up for giving her another chance with The Mirk and Midnight Hour to see what’s in store.

Recommended for:  Those who love Gothic tales and the creepier fairy tales.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as A Curse Dark as Gold, but it is in a similar vein (in fact, the names/covers did confuse me for some time).  Strands of Bronze and Gold will be a take-it-or-leave-it type read for many readers.

Get a second opinion:
Great Imaginations – “if you can get past the unmemorable characters (though de Cressac is awesomely bad-ass) and the slow start, the plot builds and builds until the climax, and I pretty much thought the writing was beautiful.”
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “Overall I’m torn on this one. I can’t say I enjoyed it but, other than the pacing, it is well done.”

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37 comments »

  1. This sounds really good and completely different. I’ve hardly read ANY retellings to be honest because I’ve either had bad experiences with them or I just don’t see the point.

    But this sounds interesting. And, randomly, I LOVE the actual title of it.

    Also, really intrigued that you mentioned A Curse as Dark as Gold… I’ve been reading so much about that recently. I think I just need to read it already.

    Ace review, Heidi!

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I know some people just really don’t do retellings–I do a surprising amount of them, but I also try to steer toward the ‘tried and true’ ones, so this was a bit of a gamble on my part, but I couldn’t resist the call of Bluebeard. I love the title too, and the cover, both fit the book SO WELL once you read it.

  2. Just the fact that you’ll be back for more of this author’s writing has me convinced that I have to give this one a shot, despite the slow beginning. After all, I can always DNF it or skip ahead if I don’t have any patience…right? 😉 Anyway, I’m a little more excited that you’re reading Tiger Lily right now! GET OUT THE TISSUES! It’s just…AMAZING! I wasn’t expecting much when I went into it, but I wound up LOVING it! I hope you do too, dear! 😀 Also, in case it wasn’t obvious, wonderful review, as always!(:

    • Heidi says:

      Yep! I really am interested to see where she goes/hoping that she grows–this one wasn’t perfect, but it was worth sticking out and there’s really so much potential.

      I AM reading Tiger Lily…I’m not sure yet how I’m going to feel about it (and I’m nearly halfway through), but you can be sure I’ll let you know.

  3. I’m definitely interested in this one. I do know the folktale – and like you said it is definitely gory.

    Sorry to hear the first half of the book is so slow, though. But it seems like it’s worth it to stick with it.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes–this one was totally worth sticking it out! I’m so glad that I did, because it totally paid off with all of the disturbing Bluebeard goodness I was hoping for.

  4. I’m anxious to start this book, because I am a HUGE fan of Gothic Horror. Interesting that the paranormal element was a turn off, I’m curious to read and see why. I often think of Gothic tales having a supernatural feel to them (usually in the form of ghosts.) But really I am anxious to read this because a Gothic Horror set in the Deep South is just too perfect for a southern girl like me:)

    And really, I must profess some cover love. Really a beauty:)

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, I agree, the paranormal element is pretty standard for Gothic fair, and for the most part it worked well here, I just wished Nickerson hadn’t taken it as far as she did–I’m still happy it was there to begin with. I REALLY hope you get into this one, Heather, since it’s more or less perfect for you! I have hopes that Nickerson’s pacing will improve with the next book. And YES, the cover is gorgeous (and very fitting).

  5. Brandy says:

    Yes to the problems with pacing. It has them in abundance. I almost gave up too. She did do an excellent job of bringing the creepy though. I am also of the same mind as you regarding the paranormal aspect.

    I would like to read more from the author but saw she’s turning this into a trilogy. (At least according to Goodreads.) And I’m sort of put off by that. WHY????

    • Heidi says:

      Brandy, my understanding from ‘set in the same world as Strands of Bronze and Gold’ (which is about the only info I’ve seen) would be that they’re going to be fairy tale retellings in a similar setting, but about completely different characters–more like companion novels than a strait trilogy. I could be reading into things though.

      • Brandy says:

        I could handle that a bit better. I did like the setting. I don’t want stories that bring these characters back though. I’m good with where she left it.

        • Heidi says:

          Agreed! I’d like to her drop these and move on to something different in the same world.

          • Brandy says:

            So I just discovered the next one is going to be a Tam Lin retelling. I won’t be able to keep from reading it in that case. She has high standards to live up to there. The Perilous Gard and Fire and Hemlock are two of my all time favorite books. I’m intrigued by the Civil War setting though…

          • Heidi says:

            Ooooh, thanks for letting me know, Brandy! This is indeed IRRESISTABLE (as was Bluebeard for me tbqh). I’m shamed to admit I have just about every Tam Lin retelling ever in my TBR…(Includind The Perilous Gard, Fire and Hemlock, Tithe, etc.)

  6. Nice review, Heidi. I totally agree about the slow start. I almost DNFed it more than once. But I actually really liked Gideon and I seem to be one of the few that enjoyed the romance in this novel. The author’s writing is gorgeous though, but alas, I did not care for the setting though I agree that she was very careful and realistic when dealing with the topic of slavery. I think I might read the next one too. Depends on the blurb though!

    • Heidi says:

      I did like Gideon, I just wasn’t sure that the relationship really needed to be there. I know some people have labeled it insta-love, and I suppose it sort of was, but this didn’t bother me as the development of their relationship made perfect sense to me for the current social conventions, and I love that they were both smart about it. I’m sorry you didn’t care for the setting, though! I’m very interested to see what the next one will be–I’m hoping it’ll go more companion novel and not have anything to do with these characters.

  7. Cecelia says:

    I am a huge fan of fairy tales retold and will follow even the slow ones to the bitter end – and this one sounds spectacularly creepy, with a fully realized setting. I’m looking forward to it.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes–it IS spectacularly creepy. The best part is probably the way Nickerson surrounds you with a completely believable but absolutely creepiness.

  8. The time period and gothic setting sound awesome, especially b/c the author infuses real history from pre-civil war south. I’m also glad that this author didn’t hold back on the creepy, but I’m most excited about the psychological aspects of the story. I’m not that familiar with this fairytale, but I do know its general outline. I agree that horror can be scarier if you know what’s coming! I do know some people that gave up on this early, so knowing that it gets better is helpful. Oh and I’m definitely one of those people who like a romance in a book like this, so that is something to look forward to for me. Thanks for the review!

    • Heidi says:

      Yay! I really hope that you do check this one out, Lauren, and STICK WITH IT because it totally pays off. I did like the romance, and the creepiness is doubly so because so much of it is psychological. It’s wonderfully Gothic, and for some reason I’ve really been into books set in the south as of late (I’m reading another one now). Would love to hear what you think of this one!

  9. Actually, I usually don’t mind a slow buildup as long as the actual writing is good. And I love a beautifully realized historical setting. Plus, yep, I like the title and cover. So I think this is one to add to my wishlist. I don’t remember hearing of this one before, so glad to see your review.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, the writing in this one was good, and wonderfully fitting for the Gothic setting. I really enjoyed it, and it very much paid off in the end. And I love the cover and title–they both fit the book so well.

  10. Reynje says:

    Really intrigued by your review, Heidi. I’ve noticed this one around but wasn’t sure if it would be my kind of book, and I heard similar things about the slow beginning.. Also I have to admit that I actually don’t know the original Bluebeard story. But it sounds really good, I think I’ll have to give it a go :)

    • Heidi says:

      Bluebeard is super creepy, which is why I love it so much, and why I HAD to read this book. If you like Gothic, I feel like this is very worth checking out!

  11. A paranormal element, eh? Well I hadn’t heard that mentioned before, so that’s good to know. Though I am very curious to see what that is now.

    It definitely a bit disconcerting to hear that the first half of the book was so slow-moving, but the way you describe the rest of it sounds very promising, and I have hope for the second half.

    • Heidi says:

      Yep! Having some sort of ghost is fairly common for Gothic novels, and this one was no exception. The second half is really worth getting to if you’re willing to make it through the first half–I know I was really happy I did!

  12. Oh man… I have been wanting to read this oh so badly! You’re right – Bluebeard is definitely one of the creepier fairy tales and there’s really no getting around just how creepy it is! Sad that it’s slow at first, but I think I’ll be like you… wanting to read it so badly that I just get over it. However, good to know going in! Great review; can’t wait to read!

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, I hope you enjoy it, Candice! It was really worth sticking with it to get to the good bits, a fantastic take on Bluebeard.

  13. This book has also been calling my name ever since I first read about it. I mean, how could it not? Bluebeard is one tale that I haven’t read ANY retellings of, and I love that Nickerson has also given it a historical spin. And that she didn’t sacrifice authenticity in her historical depiction of the pre-Civil War South. I’m glad it pushed all the right buttons there. Like you, I don’t need romance in a book. In fact, I think I’d be disappointed if a romance happened outside of what is supposed to happen in the Bluebeard tale. I have read many more critical reviews of this book – perhaps they’re mainly due to the slowness of the first half of the book – but I am very glad to know that you found worth and enjoyment in this book overall. I am interested to get the chance to read this myself and see where my thoughts lie.

    • Heidi says:

      I totally know the feeling, Amanda, this book called my name as well! I’d never read any Bluebeard retellings either (though he is a character in Bill Willingham’s Fables). I’d be incredibly interested to see your thoughts on this, since you also read lots of retellings. The beginning IS slow, but I really felt it was worth it in the end.

  14. I’m so glad to get your opinion on this one, Heidi. I have to admit that I’m a huge fan of the cover – I spotted it in the bookstore this week and think it’s even prettier in person. I also think the setting and the whole pre-Civil War South thing sounds awesome, so I’m a little sad to hear about the slow start and ghosts thing. I still want to check it out, but I may try and get it from the library first. If the writing is great, I can usually get past pacing issues. I guess we’ll see! I love that you did such a great job of highlighting what you liked & didn’t like – helps me have better expectations going into this one!

    • Heidi says:

      The cover of this one is gorgeous, Hannah, I completely agree–AND it/the title fit the book beautifully. I would definitely say check this one out from the library, it was kind of middle of the range for me. I’d love to see what you think!

  15. Great review, Heidi! I’m glad that you did like it a bit more than I did. It probably says more about me than the book that I didn’t think it was creepy enough!

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Molly! I DID find it more creepy than you did, and was pretty satisfied with the lecher Bluebeard. 😛

  16. […] all of it was hugely disappointing.” Bunbury In The Stacks – “reflects with frightening accuracy how any young woman can become ensnared in an abusive relations…” Great Imaginations – “It’s creepy, disturbing, unsettling, full of […]

  17. Jasmine Rose says:

    I hate a slow start and really don’t like when paranormal elements are included when it’s not necessary, but I’m kind of obsessed with Bluebeard after reading Kill Me Softly last year. I haven’t really seen any other retellings, so I’ll trudge to the first half if you think it’s worth it :]

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I get the paranormal thing to a point because she was going for a Gothic feel, and ghosts are often a part of that, I just wish they had been creepier/hand’t had the extent of influence on the story that they did. I DID think this was worth getting through the first half, I hope you do too!

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