Pages: 352 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The Brontë siblings find escape from their constrained lives via their rich imaginations. The glittering world of Verdopolis and the romantic and melancholy world of Gondal literally come to life under their pens, offering the sort of romance and intrigue missing from their isolated parsonage home. But at what price? As Branwell begins to slip into madness and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away, they must weigh the cost of their powerful imaginations, even as the characters they have created—the brooding Rogue and dashing Duke of Zamorna—refuse to let them go.
Gorgeously written and based on the Brontës’ juvenilia, Worlds of Ink and Shadow brings to life one of history’s most celebrated literary families in a thrilling, suspenseful fantasy.
If you ever read and loved Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, you should probably read Lena Coakley’s forthcoming novel, Worlds of Ink and Shadow.
I didn’t entirely love Worlds of Ink and Shadow – which posits that the Brontë siblings could all construct fantastical imaginary worlds and enter them at will – but at what cost? ::cue ominous music:: View Spoiler » (Premise: what if the Brontë siblings all made pacts with the devil, where they traded off days of their lives for access to imaginary worlds where they could escape the misery of their lives? And also tell the beginnings of stories that we now recognize as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre? That’s the book. It works out about as well as you think it will, which is to say, not at all well, i.e., if you’ve ever wondered why they all died so young, it wasn’t from, like, tuberculosis or like poor sanitation, it was from the devil! This bothers me a little bit. PSA: Don’t make bargains with the devil. « Hide Spoiler What I did really love was being reminded of how much I love the Brontës, and the obvious affection that Coakley has for her subjects. I also haven’t read much of their juvenilia – I’m only familiar with it from Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës – but now feel renewed interest in their work and curiosity about material that I haven’t read, which is never a bad way to feel.
In any case, the premise of the novel is a really interesting one – the Brontës can all enter Verdopolis, in some form of immersive storytelling, where they become characters in the story they’re telling, too. It’s a fun ride because the four siblings take the role of Genii in the mythos of Verdopolis – the Genii are known by the characters who inhabit Verdopolis as the the controlling agents of the realm – and you get to see their distinct narrative voices and preferences take form as the story continues and Anne, Emily, Charlotte, and Branwell script the story to their liking. Anne wants things to be more true to life; Charlotte wants to feel the passion between her two main characters and is puzzled by why it’s curiously absent; Emily creates a Byronic-like hero who is so vibrant that he View Spoiler » springs forth from the world they’ve created, takes the form of a wolf, and bites someone in Haworth while in search of her. Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home, I’m so cold, etc. « Hide Spoiler.
What I liked most about this book was being reminded of how wonderful the Brontës are and, in some ways, the idea behind the story itself. (I really liked the idea that they were so absorbed in their fantasy worlds that they were actually physically creating them on some level? The whole deal-with-the-devil, this-is-why-they-died-young thing rang less true to me.) The novel is peppered with references to things that you’ll get if you’ve read and loved Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights (true story, tho, Villette is my favorite, because Lucy Snowe is the best and she deserves better, goddammit). In some ways, this novel is more about Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Tenant of Wildfell Hall than anything else – and by that I mean, trying to trace a literary lineage for these works through the Brontës’ juvenilia. This is both a strength and weakness for Worlds of Ink and Shadow.
On the one hand, it’s neat – if like me, you haven’t read the Brontës’ childhood writings, it’s interesting to get to think about these works in relationship to their later novels. On the other hand, though, in some ways, it means that Emily, Anne, and Charlotte feel less like fully fleshed out characters to me in this book. Instead, they feel more like embodied versions of Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Jane Eyre. And this isn’t a huge problem? It’s a fantasy novel, not a historical piece about the Brontë sisters so it’s certainly appropriate, whatevs! But I did feel as if this limited the characters a little – it makes their juvenilia interesting because of what it becomes, you know? (Which is probably why Branwell feels so absent from this review and from this book although he is a big honking part of it. My bad.) It’s not as if the novel doesn’t allow the juvenilia to become the grounds for other narrative conflict – it is, for example, also where Branwell and Charlotte duke it out over who is going to be the bestest Brontë of them all, as well as a place where the Brontës deal collectively with their grief over their other siblings, Maria and Elizabeth’s, pre-narrative deaths – it’s just that the strongest link seems to be between the juvenilia and the later novels.
Anyway. If you like the Brontës – or are interested in fantasy set in Victorian England! – I’d certainly give this a go.