March 11, 2013 by Heidi
Title: 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.”