Two Tales of Two Cities

Somehow I ended up reading three books in a row that are about the French Revolution, or are inspired by a book about said revolution. I don't recommend doing that yourself. It's a little too grim. I have been on a bit of a Charles Dickens kick lately, steadily plowing through David Copperfield, and badly wanting to punch Uriah Heep in the face, so I had A Tale of Two Cities lined up on my Kindle, awaiting its turn. Then I saw that Sarah Rees Brennan, a fantastic author with a great social media presence, had an ARC available on Net Galley (free of charge for reviewers, as all ARCs should be) called Tell the Wind and Fire, so I grabbed it, thinking I would take a little break from David Copperfield and come right back to it. But to my surprise the new novel is a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, so I had to take two breaks as it were; one read to A Tale of Two Cities and one to read Tell the Wind and Fire.

I didn't actually know that A Tale of Two Cities was about the French Revolution. I tried to read it in middle school, back in the middle ages, but couldn't get past the opening. How could it be the best of times and the worst of times? Now I understand that the story is about two classes of people; the very privileged and the very poor, whose lives are so different they might as well be living on different planets.

Ms. Rees Brennan takes that dichotomy further, making her classes different races (or maybe species?). Her world is divided by types of magic that people have and can use. There are light magicians and dark magicians. As with much of Western viewpoint the dark magic is bad and scary while the light is viewed as good. Ms. Rees Brennan uses an interesting twist to the magic; as a light magician uses her magic she gets a buildup of poisons in her system. If this isn't relieved she will die, and until she gets it drained she is in pain and is ill. The poison (and the magician's blood) is drained by dark magicians, who get power from it; especially when they drink the blood.

The light magicians live in a version of New York with every privilege imaginable. The dark live in a ghetto with rationed food (everyone is hungry and thin) and other deprivations. Naturally there is a great deal of resentment towards the light and a rebellion is fomenting. As the story begins Lucy (same name as an important character in A Tale of Two Cities) is on the train with her boyfriend Ethan, the son of a wealthy and influential family of light magicians. They should be on a train that is only for fancy folk such as themselves, but they were late leaving their vacation spot and are now on a train that has separate cars for those who dwell in the dark. Lucy and Ethan are asleep when guards see Ethan, believe him to be a rebel, and prepare to cut his head off. (Shades of the guillotine from A Tale of Two Cities, although this time the blade is in the hand of the oppressors, not the rebels.)

Ethan is seized by the light guards as a spy. As proof they show Lucy images captured of the spy and they definitely look exactly like Ethan. She has momentarily managed to stop them from cutting his head off but once they show her the proof she can no longer stop or slow them down. Just as the sword is starting to come down someone steps off of the dark train car and pulls his hood off revealing that he is an exact duplicate of Ethan.

He is a doppelganger, which in this universe is a being created when someone is dying. This being is believed to consist of all of the darkness in that dying person. Doppelgangers, who are not viewed as people per se, are terrifying to the general populace. And they're forced to wear a collar around their necks and hoods so that people can easily identify them and don't have to look at their faces, which may be duplicates of someone that they love. Lucy has approach avoidance conflict with Carwyn, Ethan's double, and is both drawn to him and repulsed/afraid of him. But she also feels a strong connection, as she grew up in the dark city, before moving to the light and becoming something of a celebrity, and an icon. She knows what it is like to be scorned, hungry and treated as less than human. She takes action that has very strong repercussions, and then hides what she is done, even as everything around her is turned upside down, as fears of revolution sweep the light city.

The Lucy in Charles Dickens' book is practically not even a character. She is so good so sweet so demure, so dedicated to all the men in her life while at the same time fading into the background. Perfection of this kind is irritating. The Lucy in Reese Brennan's novel is much more real. She's much more three dimensional; she is constantly at war with herself. She's desperate to not have to go back to the dark city. She's desperate to keep everyone she loves alive. She worries about doing the right thing, mainly because she's done the wrong thing. Or at least she's done something that would be viewed by most of society as the wrong or even an evil thing. For the entire novel she's trying to pull off a balancing act.

Although it's not terribly long A Tale of Two Cities has a huge number of characters. They are all intertwined with each other like the strands of a hangman's rope. Not all these characters have crossed over into Ms. Reese Brennan's novel. Some characters that were minor in A Tale of Two Cities are much more important in Tell the Wind and Fire and vice versa. Dickens novel is slow and steady while Reese Brennan's novel is much more fiery and fast moving, which is to be expected with a YA novel. YA novels don't waste a lot of time. Teenagers are busy people and they don't want to sit around reading 20 page descriptions of a sunset.

If you're planning to read both of these books and you aren't sure which one to read first I recommend a Tale of Two Cities. I think you'll miss a lot of the allusions in Tell the Wind and Fire if you aren't familiar with the Dickens novel. There are some subtle things that will whoosh past you. In fact I would go ahead and recommend that even if you've already read Tale of Two Cities you might want to reread it before you tackle Tell the Wind and Fire. It's not a long read for a Dickens novel. I read it in less than a day. It is rather grim and really brings the horrors of the French Revolution to life. And I suppose if you read it will give you some spoilers for tell the wind and fire? On the other hand the two novels are divergent enough that even if you know what's coming in the Dickens story it may never happen in the Reese Brennan story.

That said, even if you never even glance at A Tale of Two Cities Ms. Rees Brennan's novel will enthrall you. Interesting, exciting, thrilling, suspenseful, and nerve wracking. You should be like me and read it as soon as you can. Tell the Wind and Fire will be released on April 5th and is available for preorder. In the meantime you can get a peek at the cover and read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is just the thing for those cold winter days. (Did you get a ton of snow? Where I live we got record snow a couple of weeks ago, but thankfully our power stayed on, letting us stay warm and happy.) It's a recipe for pork chili verde that we tried out this past week. It is so, so good. The hardest part was cutting up the pork, which was time consuming. But I think that this would actually work fine without the meat. We served it over rice, but I think it would also be delicious in a burrito, or over lentils, or with corn chips, or whatever you think would be interesting.