008 – Bespelling Jane Austen by Susan Krinard

Bespelling Jane Austen cover But even if the whole world was against them, it would not matter. They were together—again. And this time they would remain together. Until death do them part and, of course, long after that.

What if Austen had believed in reincarnation and vampires? Join four bestselling romance authors as they channel the wit and wisdom of Jane Austen.

Almost Persuaded

In this Regency tale of Robert and Jane, New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh brings together former lovers who have seen beyond the veil of forgetfulness to their past mistakes, and are determined to be together in this life, and forever. Northanger Castle

Caroline’s obsession with Gothic novels winds up being good training for a lifetime of destroying the undead with her newfound beau, in this Regency by Colleen Gleason.

Blood and Prejudice

Set in the business world of contemporary New York City, Liz Bennett joins Mr. Darcy in his hunt for a vampire cure in New York Times bestselling author Susan Krinard’s version of the classic story.

Little to Hex Her

Present-day Washington, D.C., is full of curious creatures in Janet Mullany’s story, wherein Emma is a witch with a wizard boyfriend and a paranormal dating service to run.
Bespelling Jane Austen is actually one of the first books we’ve gotten an ARC of, and holy shit I was thrilled. Jane Austen is my favorite author, and romance-book-ified Jane Austen stories with supernatural twists? SIGN ME UP. In more detail: Bespelling Jane Austen is a collection of four short stories written by four authors (Mary Balogh, Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard, and Janet Mullany), each taking a theme and/or characters from one of Jane Austen’s novels and giving it a supernatural twist. These mash-ups have varying degrees of success – personally I didn’t find any to be a complete home run – but I think the real deciding factor in whether or not you’ll like this book comes down to how you like your Austen, and how you like your romance. There’s actually a bit of something for everyone.

The first story is Almost Persuaded by Mary Balogh, who is apparently the book’s headliner (this was a surprise, since the writing struck me as average at best, the dialog being especially awkward). It’s a take on Persuasion (obviously), though it’s such a loose take that you wouldn’t immediately have pegged it as Austen-influenced if you weren’t told. It centers around a pair of lovers who have been reincarnated together through the ages, though something or another has always kept them from spending a life together – for the most part, they’ve been persuaded to reject one another due to social or financial differences. However, when the lovers find each other in this life time, they (conveniently) happen to remember bits of their former lives, and are able to make a conscious effort not to be drawn apart by class or fortune. And…that’s pretty much all the story is about.

Now, full disclosure here: I’ve never read Persuasion (though I have seen the movie), and I’m not a fan of lovey-dovey reincarnation. I suppose that’s at least one strike against me for liking this story, and I did indeed find it sappy, a bit boring, and full of frustratingly happy coincidences that took away from its credibility. For example: despite being unable to recognize his soul mate on sight, our male lead, Captain Mitford, just decides that she must be among one of the first three women he meets upon returning to England (and of course, she is). These three women are the Everett sisters – Jane, Louisa, and Edna – and Mitford immediately sets his sights on Jane because the other two are snobs. Of course it is Jane, because a personality conflict between soul mates would make things far too interesting, and the two fall deeply in love over the course of a walk home (no, seriously). This can naturally be attributed to the whole ‘soul mate’ thing (which is part of why I hate that idea – it’s LAZY), but it takes a lot of tension out of the story, and we’re really not given the chance to get invested in the relationship because it just happens.

The conflict is supposed to come from the social imbalance between the two lovers, and from Jane’s reluctance to accept her memories of their past lives together, but we know right from the beginning that this is the sort of story that will have a happy ending, which makes it fairly predictable. The only rogue element of the plot involves revelations from their former lives as star-cross’d lovers, which I thought lent a sense of tragedy and reality to this bit of fluff, until it all turned out to be a big misunderstanding that was resolved in the cheesy-Lifetime-movie-esque ending. And really, that’s a rather good description of this story in general: cheesy-Lifetime-movie-esque. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’ll work for you. If you’re not, there’s…

Northanger Castle by Colleen Gleason. Northanger Abbey is the one story featured in this book that I know the least about – never read it, never seen it – but it’s not strictly necessary to enjoy this particular short, and it might have even worked to its benefit, since I didn’t really have any set standards. Northanger Castle is about a rather imaginative and plucky young woman named Caroline Merrill, who is obsessed (putting it nicely) with Gothic novels of the age, and as such, sees vampires, murderesses, orphans, and villains everywhere she looks. The twist is, of course, that there are vampires and villains all around her, but she constantly misidentifies them.

From what I understand (by which I mean ‘from Wikipedia’s summary’), Northanger Castle has the same basic plot and characters as Northanger Abbey, although, of course, many are actually vampires or vampire hunters, and as such motivations differ a bit. The leads are on the traditional side: perky, free-thinking, defiant heroine? Check. Brooding, growly, sarcastic-and-potentially-dangerous love interest? Check. However, the absurdity of the premise (actual vampires and vampire hunters in a prim-and-proper Austen novel? LOL) and, more than that, the heroine’s overenthusiastic, misguided book-gained insight into the supernatural events taking place around her, give it a light, playful feel and spice up the familiar love-and-marriage plot.

On the downside, the conclusion felt a bit forced (Must. Have. Action-filled climax.) and left me scratching my head (wait, then who exactly was the Tutela member who was supposed to retrieve the artifact? Hello? Story? Wait – are we just ignoring this little plot hole? What? It’s over? Uh…okay.). And naturally it has all the pitfalls of the misinformed slap-slap-kiss romance, most notably the heroine despising-on-principal and being afraid of but inexplicably attracted to the hero until the moment that she finds out he’s not the bad guy, then it’s TRUE LOVE. I also liked (sarcasm!) how Blanchard had to explain exactly why he’d fallen in love with Caroline in the end, since he’d never acted anything but annoyed with her before.

But as a whole, it wasn’t a bad story. The premise was fun and the execution amusing (I particularly enjoyed the final scene between Caroline and Blanchard – “It that a stake?”). It’s apparently a side-story to Gleason’s Gardella Vampire Chronicles, and the story was good enough to encourage me to seek out the other books in the series.

The third story, Blood and Prejudice by Susan Krinard, was by far the one I was looking forward to the most. It’s a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice (one of my favorite books) with vampires. Akdslnf DO WANT. That’s (only slightly) better than Pride and Prejudice with zombies, how do you go wrong? Yet it was the one I was most disappointed with.

In Krinard’s version, Elizabeth Bennett is a bookstore owner whose family owns a laboratory research company that is going to be taken over by Bingley Pharmaceuticals. Mr. Darcy is its undead business adviser who meets Elizabeth when he and its president, Charles Bingley, attend the company birthday part for Elizabeth’s father. From there, B&P follows P&P‘s sequence of events pretty faithfully, but gives them a vampire-y spin, and the driving force behind the latter half of the story has more to do with Elizabeth’s desire to find out more about Darcy and his vampy nature than anything else.

I think this is probably what bugged me the most about this story: Lizzie is pretty much obsessed with Darcy from day one. She’s immediately physically attracted to him, despite (or, more likely, because of) the ‘danger’ alarms that go off in her head when they first meet. Sure, she says she doesn’t like him after he insults her and snubs her family, but you never get the sense that she actually means it, only that she’s thinking it because Krinard’s slavish adherence to P&P‘s sequencing and the development of Lizzie and Darcy’s original relationship requires her to.

First of all, I have to say this: I never read Pride and Prejudice as being a slap-slap-kiss relationship (ILU TV TROPES). I always saw Lizze’s regard for Darcy (in the beginning) as well-founded and sincere dislike, which totally MAKES SENSE, given his actions towards her. But here, every scene between Elizabeth and Darcy is given this thick coating of SEXUAL LONGING that totally contradicts not only the character Elizabeth is supposed to be, but also what is being said and done in this story. It’d be different if Elizabeth’s lines or behavior were changed from the original, but they’re not, so Elizabeth’s outward dislike of Darcy rings totally false. This bothers the crap out of me, because you end up with an Elizabeth who is annoying, self-deluding, and stupidly obsessive, which is so totally TYPICAL of this genre. WHY ARE YOU PURSUING THIS? HE’S A JERK AND YOU SUPPOSEDLY BELIEVE WICKHAM WHEN HE SAYS HE’S DANGEROUS. Oh, right, because he’s HOT and THE PLOT SAYS SO.

That aside, there are other things that bug. Again, Krinard adheres to the original so much that the pacing feels rushed (it could have been streamlined with some unnecessary subplot pruning). Example – the inclusion of Wickham’s abduction of Lydia seems stupid when it’s an issue of all of two pages, and then almost immediately forgotten in favor of a rather silly vampire-flavored Darcy vs Lady Catherine boss fight. And to top it off, frequently characters who aren’t supposed to be from the early 19th century speak like they are, in order to maintain some of the original dialog. All in all, I was very disappointed. Krinard could have done much better by making taking elements from P&P and making it her own, the way Janet Mullany did with Little to Hex Her.

Little to Hex Her is Mullany’s modern interpretation of Emma, set in a Fantasy Kitchen Sink world in which Emma herself is a young witch who has taken over her older sister’s matchmaking business (for supernatural creatures – no, I’m not joking) in Washington DC. The book differs from the novel in a variety of ways (not that this is necessarily a bad thing), but most prominently in the new ‘business sabotage’ subplot that’s included to add something more modern and relevant to the novel’s must-find-my-friends-a-husband storyline.

I actually didn’t mind that addition – it’s something new and interesting for those who’ve read the book (or seen the movie) but not totally at odds with the original concept; after all, modern paranormal romance readers are familiar with a heroine solving a mystery while simultaneously finding love, which is something I don’t think the other three writers really understood with the way they refused to let their heroines do anything more interesting than steadfastly deny to themselves that they were panting after a man.

On the downside, ‘solving a mystery’ is overstating it a bit; Emma herself is actually relatively inactive in her subplot. Bad things happen to her business, but she’s too distracted by her complicated love life and the random bouts of drama that occur around her to notice or pursue even important things like her lover potentially breaking into her computer and money missing from her accounts. Even in the end when the sabotage is impossible to ignore and demands resolution, Emma becomes utterly irrational and blames Knightly (lol wut?), who has to ride in on his white horse and tell her exactly what to do to fix it, at the same time cleaning up another mess she’s made along the way. For a character who’s supposed to smart and sensible, she does some ridiculously stupid things that I don’t think any competent person would do, so, again, the heroine gets to play dumb because the plot demands it.

Emma as a character is kind of frustrating. She lacks a lot of the warmth that I remember from Austen’s novel, and her attitude is much more practical (though this in itself isn’t bad). But a large aspect of Emma’s character was her love of playing matchmaker, which, while being presumptuous, arrogant, and conceited, also made her character lively and gave the reader the feeling that she really did care about her friends (Harriet, especially). Here, she doesn’t really take any part of the matchmaking itself, and instead focuses mostly on running the business. She’s more detached from people, and there isn’t much of a sense of friendship between her and Harriet, or even her and Knightly until they start boinking. As a whole, Emma isn’t given that much to do here besides run the company and play dumb heroine. Yes, in the end there’s a brief plot thread that deals with Emma realizing she may be a stronger witch than she thought, but that doesn’t excuse all the other instances of plot-convenience inactivity.

Still, even with all that, this story was better-written and more entertaining than B&P or Almost Persuaded. I liked that the Miss Bates character actually ended up being something more than a jabbering idiot – that was a nice twist on the original. And Knightly was all right (despite my misgivings at his first line – “Yo, Woodhouse.”). There were good moments in the development of their relationship, when, you know, they actually got around to it. Plus, they had an actual sex scene, and those were surprisingly absent from this book, considering it’s a Harlequin title.

Anyway, all in all, this book left me kind of ambivalent. I really didn’t care for two of the stories, was meh on another, and even though the remaining story was pretty good, I can’t say I’d advise buying it just for that. I’d recommend this book to Austen fans as a library read at best, or a browse at the book store.

I’m definitely gonna look up those Gardella Vampire Chronicles thought 🙂

two stars


2 Responses

  1. jewelknits

    October 27, 2010 2:36 pm, Reply

    This one went right on my to-buy list! I do love anthologies, and as an eternal Jane Austen fan, anything that brings her literature to mind is a must read for me. I always like a few stories better than others when it comes to anthologies, so I’m hoping that at least ONE of them will make my day!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  2. Kayla + Cyna

    October 27, 2010 7:31 pm, Reply

    That’s how I felt when I picked this up 🙂 And yeah, there’s probably at least one in there that you’ll enoy, it’s that kind of book 😀 Good reading!

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