Published by Harper Voyager on January 17 2017
When I heard this book described as “Pride and Prejudice with dragons,” my first reaction was “Yes!” But then I thought, “Huh? That sounds…weird?” This was an odd book for me because of the strange mix of elements that don’t quite seem to fit together. And yet, I loved it! How can one book evoke such mixed feelings? Even as I was gasping at White’s wonderfully unique world building, I couldn’t get over the fact that her story was literally matching the plot of Pride and Prejudice beat for beat. It was an unsettling feeling for me, as I knew exactly what was going to happen next in some spots. The story had two distinct parts for me–the conservative and proper beginning, and the all-out violent battle at the end. But one thing is certain: I could not stop turning the pages.
If you’ve read Jane Austen’s classic, then you have an idea of what you’re in for—well, at least until the dragons show up. Aliza Bentaine (Elizabeth Bennett) lives with her parents and three sisters Anjey, Leyda and Mari in Merybourne Manor, a modest home in Hart’s End. But their peaceful life has been shattered by a recent influx of gryphons in the nearby Witherwood, and even worse, Aliza’s little sister Rina was killed by one not too long before the story begins. Mr. Bentaine has decided to hire a group of Riders, warriors who fly on the backs of dragons, to rid Hart’s End of the deadly gryphons. Mrs. Bentaine is all aflutter with the arrival of the Riders, who include the handsome but ill-tempered Alastair Daired (Mr. Darcy) and the much more pleasant Mr. Brysney (Mr. Bingley), who is immediately drawn to Anjey (Jane). Mrs. Bentaine wants nothing more than to see all her daughters married and safely out of harm’s way, and she takes every opportunity to encourage Brysney and Anjey’s budding relationship.
Meanwhile, there are rumors and rumblings that an ancient and terrible creature is about to arise, a creature that could threaten everyone, not only in Hart’s Run but throughout the land. Will the Riders be able to stop the creature? Aliza might not be a Rider herself, but her kind and brave nature ensures that she will do everything in her power to help, no matter how dangerous the task.
Wow, where do I even start? Before I talk about the Pride and Prejudice aspects of the story, I must address the stunning world-building that lies within these pages. This is White’s debut novel, I believe, but her imaginative and addictive world feels as if it was written by a seasoned writer. Setting aside the fact that this is a re-telling of a classic novel, let’s take a look at some of the wonderful elements of Heartstone. White’s world is built on the premise that dragons are fierce but intelligent creatures who bond with humans of a certain social standing. These Riders protect the land and are highly respected and paid for their services. My favorite part about the dragons was that they talk, and in the beginning of the story, Aliza instantly bonds with Daired’s dragon Akarra. Daired’s ancestral home of Castle Pendragon even has huge open spaces and high ceilings so that the dragons can dine with their Riders!
The bond between dragons and Riders is so strong, that not even grave injury can keep them apart. Such is the case with one of the characters, Daired’s young sister Julienna whose wyvern was badly injured and is unable to fly. That doesn’t prevent Julienna from joining the Riders on the ground, though.
On the other side of the coin are the Tekari, dangerous beasts like gryphons, direwolves, and lamia (terrifying half-woman, half-snake creatures) who want nothing more than to kill humans. One of the jobs of the Riders is to protect people from the Tekari, but it’s a perilous job with a high mortality rate. But as scary as the Tekari are, the title of the book refers to something pretty cool. All Tekari have a precious gemstone embedded in their hearts, and when they are slain, these “heartstones” fetch a pretty penny for those lucky enough to acquire one. In one scene, Aliza and her sisters visit the shop of a heartstone merchant and gaze in wonder at the beauty and variety of the stones. And in typical Jane Austen romantic fashion, heartstones are used to woo potential husbands and wives, much like a diamond ring in our reality.
I loved the characters, although I won’t go into too much detail. Aliza is a wonderfully spunky and kind girl, and I loved her even more when she makes friends with Akarra. Daired was a very good Darcy, in my opinion, and he’s even more attractive because he’s a Rider. One of the best parts of Pride and Prejudice is its subtle romance, and White does a great job of creating chaste but heart fluttering relationships between several couples.
Which brings me to the Pride and Prejudice parts. I know some readers won’t agree with me when I say I almost wish the story hadn’t been a re-telling at all, but simply a wonderful fantasy about dragons and their riders. The first half of the book mirrors Austen’s story almost exactly. Even the characters’ names are similar to the original story, so it wasn’t hard to tell who was who. The story begins with the gentle familiarity of Austen’s classic. The women and girls wear dresses (although the younger girls do try to get away with wearing pants now and then), write letters to each other, and attend dances and banquets. Aliza is an artist and spends hours drawing and painting. But little by little, as the fantastical elements of this world are introduced, the story starts to veer away from Austen’s in subtle ways. And the more it veered, the more I loved it. Don’t’ get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, but even after having finished the book a couple of weeks ago, I still feel an odd disparity between the fantasy elements and the conservative Austen parts of the story.
There’s plenty of swordplay and thrilling action in Heartstone, which might surprise those expecting a more prim and genteel story. But the best surprise for me took place in the last quarter of the book, when the action ramps up to a truly exciting conclusion. Even jaded fantasy fans will love the bloody, high stakes battle at the end. White isn’t afraid of graphic violence and slaying her characters, although keep in mind that the author follows the Pride and Prejudice plot line, so you can expect at least some good news by the time the story’s over. Just saying.
But no matter what my opinions of the re-telling parts are, I can tell you one thing for sure: I would LOVE to visit White’s world again! I know this is a stand-alone, but her world is so rich and intricate, and there seems to be so much more to explore. Elle Katharine White is an author to watch. I’ll be eagerly awaiting her next move.