Book review: Tell the Wind and Fire, Sarah Rees Brennan

Sarah Rees Brennan is extremely adroit at two things: Writing incredibly smart, fully-realised characters who are funny, rounded, and well-crafted, and trampling readers’ feelings into the dirt. I expected both of these things in Tell the Wind and Fire — a reimagination of A Tale of Two Cities — and I was not at all disappointed. There are a lot of reasons Brennan’s work does it for me, and Tell the Wind and Fire has a lot of them on display. If you like books, you will want to read this one, trust me. If you don’t like books, I honestly don’t know why you’re here. And if you haven’t picked this one up yet, rest easy, for here lie no spoilers.

In Tell the Wind and Fire, Brennan has built a world split between Light and Dark magic, with Light magicians holding the power and control in New York City, and Dark magicians isolated. The two have a complicated and interdependent relationship, with each needing something from the other, and they attempt to balance a sense of mutual hatred, frustration, and need. High society on the Light side likes to politely pretend that it doesn’t need to interact with the Dark, while the Dark side chafes with frustration over social inequality.

Enter our heroine Lucie and her boyfriend Ethan — and Ethan’s doppleganger, a creature created through dark magic who is forced to hide his face and live his life under a collar. Lucie may be a member of the social elite, but she feels compassion for those trapped on the Dark side of the divide — because in her childhood, she lived among them. With a foot in both worlds, she’s struggling to navigate a city that is rapidly changing, teetering on the edge of a revolution.

Brennan has an extensive and really delightful knowledge of literature in general, including the classics, and the roots of this story lie deep in Dickens’ famous work (which is indeed the point), without being so inside basebally-y that they’re impossible to follow. For Dickens fans, they’re an added bonus, but for those who aren’t as familiar with his work, this is still a compelling, legible, driven story (a reminder that stories can always be remade and explored in new ways, and perhaps maybe an instigator to read A Tale of Two Cities for those who have been putting it off). Brennan’s deep connection with literature informs all of her work, because while it’s snappy and contemporary and her characters are very much the products of the modern age, they have much darker, fuller roots, and those play into their realisation as people.

Lucie is a smart cookie, as Brennan’s girls generally are, and her kindness also comes through throughout the text, even when it comes at her own cost. Some of the characters around her may be callous and sometimes actively cruel, but she seeks for the good in herself, trying to be a better person. One thing she’s definitely not is a Pollyanna — she understands that if she wants to see good in the world, she wants to make it, rather than looking for it in others. And she identifies injustice and fights it, rather than sitting by to tolerate it.

The developing tension between Ethan — who on the surface seems to be a soft, coddled member of the elite — and his doppleganger, and their relationship to Lucie, is too complicated to describe as a ‘love triangle,’ a term often used dismissively to describe complex romantic entanglements in YA. (It seems especially popular for implying that teen girls are silly and obsessed with romance, and convinced that their own romances are the most important, sweeping thing ever.) This is a tension not just of love and interrelationships, but of worlds, and what kind of world all three of them want to live in.

While the two boys may look identical, they have lived very different lives, and they have very different relationships with society as a result. They also have extremely distinct personalities, and the doppleganger in particular is a familiar figure from Brennan’s other work, the sharp, slightly sarcastic boy who is really hiding the pain and discomfort of a world that doesn’t want him and has no compunctions about making that apparent.

This would not, of course, be a Sarah Rees Brennan books if events did not inevitably lead to something completely heartbreaking, which is absolutely the case here. I don’t think telling you this is any particular spoiler, I’m just noting that this is, as you would expect, a thing. This particular book feels especially wrenching, but it might just be because she finds new and thrilling ways to drive the knife in each time, or because this case hits me in a strange place because of where I am right now, or any number of other things. That said, you will definitely want to brace yourself for her inevitable flick of the whip, because it is coming, even as you desperately think ‘maybe just this once she won’t be mean…maybe there’s a way to get out of this…’ And then of course there is not.

Tell the Wind and Fire is a standalone, rather than a trilogy that will torment you slowly over time (the need to pack the cruelty into a single book might be why it feels so awful), and the standalone nature would also make it a great introduction to Brennan’s work for anyone who hasn’t converted yet. There’s something less intimidating about embarking on a single book with a new author, rather than plunging in and investing in the first of a trilogy. If you haven’t read her before, start here. If you have and you’re trying to bring others into the fold, you might as well start here too.

(If you like reading book stuff, I also have a book blog, where I talk about, you know, more book stuff, including books that don’t manage to make their way all the way over here, and other things. So, you know, go take a look at s.e. smith reads.)

Image: New York City, Daniel Mennerich, Flickr