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Review: Bespelling Jane Austen, part I

I won this book in a giveaway last year (thanks, Janet!) and have finally got round to reading it. The premise of this anthology is for four modern authors to play with characters, themes and stories from Jane Austen novels. There are two historical stories and two modern ones, each taking inspiration from a different novel. I decided to review each story separately as I finished it and then give an opinion on the book as a whole. Since the review seems set to become somewhat long, I will divide it into two parts. The other part will be posted tomorrow.

Genre: Paranormal romance
Year of publication: 2010

Almost Persuaded by Mary Balogh

Sub-genre: Historical
Setting & time: England, Regency era
Level of sensuality: Kissing plus one very short (and very flowery) sex scene.

Mary Balogh has written some pretty good historical romances set in England during the Regency and Georgian eras. This, however, is her first venture into paranormal territory. The story she chose to play with was that of Persuasion (my favourite Austen novel), but she did not use the same characters (although some of them are clearly echoes of those of Austen’s book) and she merely alludes to Austen’s story and doesn’t follow its plotting.
What she has done is add reincarnation and Indian mysticism to the premise of Persuasion: lovers kept apart by other people’s intervention, and also by their own insecurities. Her lovers have never met before in this life, but feel a strong affinity and connection from the moment they first meet that turns out to have been caused by them having been star-crossed lovers through many reincarnations, and then it’s a matter of being strong and not letting themselves be separated once again.

The story is written in Balogh’s customary readable style, but it is slow and lacks the sparkle and liveliness of those of her novels that I have read, and frankly I found it a little dull. 2+ stars.

Northanger Castle by Colleen Gleason

Sub-genre: Historical
Setting & time: England, Regency era
Level of sensuality: Kissing.

Here we have an entertaining tale, a spin-off from the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, and if the writing and plotting in this short story is anything to go by, I think I might enjoy those. As the title indicates, it is based on Northanger Abbey, and as the story follows the original quite closely for the first two-thirds of the narrative, I don’t think I will give a summary of the plot. As for the last third, the twists are perhaps not entirely unexpected but clever enough for this to become more than just a clever pastiche of Austen’s original.

As in the original, the story concerns a young woman who loves to read Gothic novels and has an active imagination which leads her into some potentially sticky situations. As these not only concern social faux pas but an actual vampire, there is real danger involved. The characters are quite clearly based on Austen’s, but Caroline Merrill is not Catherine Morland under another name, but a heroine with more modern sensibilities and more courage. If Catherine is “in training for a heroine” as Austen put it, Caroline already is one, albeit quite inexperienced.

As for the hero, he is a bit of a surprise, so I’ll say as little as I can about him. He is underdeveloped as a character and the attraction between him and Caroline feels more like sexual attraction than one of love. They hardly know each other before they have confessed their love for one another and it all feels very sketchy.

However, it is fun to trace the original story, to see how Gleason tackles the task of making Austen’s characters her own and follows or deviates from the original plot, and easy to forgive her for the slight historical inaccuracies which would matter if this were straight Regency and not an alternative reality one. If only she had taken more time to develop the relationship between the hero and heroine than in trying to follow the plotting of the original, this might have been a more believable coming together.

I found this tale entertaining but not very romantic and am giving it 3 stars.


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