Underwhelming Retelling: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickersonstrandsofbronzeandgold

Published: March 12th 2013 by Random House Children’s Books

Source: ARC from publisher

Synopsis (Goodreads): The Bluebeard fairy tale retold. . . .
When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

Glowing strands of romance, mystery, and suspense are woven into this breathtaking debut—a thrilling retelling of the “Bluebeard” fairy tale.

My thoughts: I was so excited to read this. A Southern Gothic historical retelling of my favorite fairy tale? It sounded like a dream come true. Sadly, the execution was lacking and this ended up being a burden to read. I was very disappointed in this debut, which had so much potential but failed to deliver the creepiness factor I expected in a story that was supposedly paying homage to one of the most twisted fairy tales ever written.

PLOT

This story moves at a glacial pace. Ideally, this time would have been used to develop the creepy dynamic between Sophia and her godfather, M. Bernard, but unfortunately, it still drags.

I’m all for romantic subplots. Nothing keeps me turning the pages faster than a well executed love story. That doesn’t mean I think every novel needs to have one, and in Strands of Bronze and Gold, it felt forced. When Sophia realizes that despite his enigmatic charm, M. Bernard is a manipulative, controlling, and frightening man, she conveniently meets a young, noble preacher and subsequently falls in love. These scenes lacked any chemistry and added nothing to the overall story, in my opinion.

At approximately 65%, Nickerson introduces a supernatural element that seemed unnecessary or under-developed. Sophia sees visions of M. Bernard’s former wives, but they’re never quite scary and they have little impact on the story. I like my ghosts to be frightening, and these didn’t even begin to give me chills.

There is real potential in fairy tale retellings to be subversive and feminist, and Strands of Bronze and Gold misses this opportunity. The ending sequence is bland, and Sophia never really feels in control of her own destiny. She’s reactive, rather than proactive, which contributes to the slow movement of the plot.

CHARACTERS

I didn’t hate Sophia, but I didn’t find her very compelling or dynamic. I did appreciate that she had genuine sympathies for those around her, particularly the servants and slaves, and that she recognized her own silly vanities. Still, her narration was bland. She seemed resigned to her fate rather than a fighter, even in the end, which is ultimately why I found her rather bland.

I appreciated the historical context. Nickerson confronted the issue of slavery head on, but the slaves, and particularly Anarchy, felt like caricatures rather than fully formed characters. I never felt invested in the fates of any of the secondary characters. As far as a villain, M. Bernard was moody and charming in equal measure, but he felt more sadly manipulative than truly devious. While it’s refreshing to see a controlling and domineering man that isn’t romanticized, I still didn’t feel much tension or dread, even when he was at this worst.

WRITING

I found the endless description tedious, rather than atmospheric, as intended. I love period fashion as much as anyone, but I felt like Sophia spent half the novel getting dressed. It was just too much considering how little else actually happened.

This is a novel that I felt would have been better suited to an adult audience. I felt like it wasn’t dark enough. This story is predicated on a psychotic, exploitative, older man preying on an innocent girl, but I felt like the story never really captured the spine-chilling menace it could have. Why I felt Nickerson did do a passable job of showing how a woman can be trapped and taken advantage of by a man, particularly in this time period, I never felt the truly sickened or disturbed. Possibly because the novel tried to explore such dark themes within a young adult framework, the story felt watered down. Then again, maybe I’m just expecting my YA to be too mature. Still, this novel is recommended for 14 and up, rather than 12 and up, so I was expecting a more sinister story.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Readers looking for a truly creepy Bluebeard retelling should read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I found The Madman’s Daughter, which I reviewed here, to be a much more exciting and creepy young adult Gothic retelling. I imagine this is a “take it or leave it” type of book for most readers. If you’re on the fence about it, read a few other reviews. If you are still compelled to read it, by all means, do, but I was quite underwhelmed. I won’t be back for the subsequent novels set in this world.

Second opinions:

Mrs. Readerpants: “I was consumed by this book, and I once again stayed up too late on a school night just to finish it. There are several plot threads outside the Bluebeard story–The Underground Railroad, a romance between two slaves, a maid who acts suspiciously, concern over Sophie’s brother’s activities, a potential romance with a young clergyman–all wrap into the story beautifully and kept me absolutely riveted.”

Mostly YA Lit: “Strands of Bronze and Gold will really appeal to fans of historical and Gothic horror, as well as people who like a lot of suspense in their novels. Think the Brontes or Frankenstein. It’s satisfyingly scary, but it also has a pretty strong female heroine and a good message.”

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8 thoughts on “Underwhelming Retelling: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

  1. I have just started reading book review blogs and I am very impressed with yours. I love the fact that you give ‘second opinions’ after your own review.
    I actually loved Strands of Bronze and Gold! I found it just creepy enough and I thought Sophia was very relatable. I loved the beautiful descriptions and I read it two days because I just didn’t want to put it down!
    I had never heard of The Bloody Chamber but I think that I will give it a try now and The Madman’s Daughter is already on my list to read.
    Thanks!

  2. Reading the synopsis in your review here, I got really excited, but then I read the rest of your review and I’m also sad that it didn’t live up to its potential!

    Also, I love the idea that you post second opinions. That’s an interesting thing to do, and I may or may not steal that idea, haha!

  3. Yep, yep, I said many of the same things, essentially adding up to the fact that this is going to be a take it or leave it book for most people. I was glad I stuck through to the end, but I could have just as well not have started. It was incredibly slow to start, I didn’t think the romance needed to be there, and I wish the creep factor was upped a bit (though I do think I found it a bit creepier than you). In the end, I did enjoy it and am interested in reading her next book (which I hear is going to be a Tam Lin retelling), but if she doesn’t improve there, I’ll be bidding her work goodbye.

  4. I’ve been curious about this book. It sounds really great. I looooved the Madman’s Daughter. It was a really great Gothic thriller, and I was hoping this book would be similar. But… if not a whole lot happens and there’s a lot of description I don’t think I’ll enjoy it. The thing I loved about Madman’s Daughter was how little Shepherd had to describe to build the atmosphere. Great review. Thank you for The Bloody Chamber recommendation, now that sounds good.

    1. I’ve seen others who really liked this one, but it just didn’t work for me. Oh, and if you are into creepy fairy tales, you should definitely check out The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter! They are wonderfully creepy and kinda feminist.

  5. Great review. This part made me laugh: “I love period fashion as much as anyone, but I felt like Sophia spent half the novel getting dressed. It was just too much considering how little else actually happened.”

    It’s interesting that you had such a different reaction from the second opinions you mentioned (although one of them also says that the novel drags in the beginning). Your view of this book reminds me of my reaction to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, an atmospheric book that gets too bogged down in description and fails to deliver on the action. I hope this isn’t a trend in publishing these days.

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