By Jane Nickerson
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Random House)
Sophia Petheram grew up poor but happy with her three siblings. When their father dies, she is invited to live with her wealthy godfather Monsieur Bernard de Cressac. Thus she goes to live in Mississippi, far from her home in the North, to live with a man she only knew through his extravagant gifts.
Sophie is initially charmed by Monsieur Bernard, who offers her a life of luxury and indolence. She loves the pretty dresses and excellent food. However, there is a darkness lurking in Wyndriven Abbey. There are Monsieur Bernard's many former wives - all redheads like Sophie. There's his need for control and his temper. There are the slaves, something the daughter of an abolitionist finds intolerable. Eventually, Sophie cannot ignore her instincts and she begins to investigate Monsieur Bernard's secrets and assert her own personality.
At first, STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD didn't have much to interest me aside from the setting. I love the fairytale "Bluebeard," but it seemed like the novel was moving so slow. I loved the descriptions of Sophie's new world and how well Jan Nickerson's prose evoked the oppressive heat of Mississippi, but it felt like nothing was happening. When a visitor comes to town and helps Sophie find her resolve, STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD clicked into place for me. Suddenly, the novel was working. Shortly after that moment, I fell completely in love with STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD when something happens to make Sophie realize the difference between idly crushing on Monsieur Bernard and having him return her affections. It's a creepy, quiet evil in a novel full of more theatric, Gothic evils.
I cannot praise the setting enough. Nickerson manages to make the pre-Civil War South fairytale romantic and dreamy, but the sort of romance that has edges and dreams that turn to nightmares. Fitting, since "Bluebeard" is one of the most menacing fairytales I've ever heard. Nickerson does not pave over history to make the story work, but instead weaves the two together. Sophie would free all the slaves escape if she could, but she's mostly ineffectual. She's unfamiliar with the area, has no real power at Wyndriven Abbey, and there's no reason for anyone to trust her when she claims to want to help. And her efforts for one individual often make things worse for others.
For those familiar with "Bluebeard," STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD will hold few surprises. Yet it's a story that always has the power to startle because it's so macabre. And Nickerson does a wonderful job of bringing something new to the tale. Sophie is not innocently curious, but haunted by her glimpses of Monsieur Bernard's evil and her strange kinship with his wives.
I'm eager to see Nickerson complete her trilogy and transform more fairytales. STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD will appeal to fans of Sarah Rees Brennan's UNSPOKEN and Donna Jo Napoli's BREATH.