I’m not the type to read many YA fantasy novels, and when I do I rarely enjoy them. However, I made an exception to this one since it is a futuristic fantasy retelling of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I have read many retellings in my reading life, but I have never seen any author take on a masterpiece like Les Mis. I mean, where do you even start with the greatness of that book? It’s also massive (my copy is 1500 pages), so trying to retell such a story seems impossible.
But these authors did it and my feelings about the final product were…mixed.
Release: March, 2019
Synopsis: After the end of the world, a group of survivors settled on the planet of Laterre. Now five hundred years later, corruption is as rampant in the elite class as poverty is with the poor. A rebellion is brewing to destroy the powerful. Into this world we meet three strangers: a thief, a high-ranking officer, and a mysterious girl growing on in a refuge far below the city. They each have a dangerous role to play in the coming revolution, and one which will change the fate of a planet forever.
There are a lot of things to love about this book. The plot flows extremely smoothly, and I never felt confused about how the rules worked in the world. Even the characters were incorporated well, never letting me be confused about who was who. While I didn’t like most of the main characters outside of Marcellus, I think they were all reasonably motivated, though their character arches were a bit predictable. If this book had no relation to Les Misérables, I probably would have enjoyed it more. But this brings me to the fatal flaw of this novel: when trying to retell a masterpiece, you will invariably fail.
This is not cruelty towards Jessica Brody or Joanne Rendell in any way. In fact, I think they write very well if this book is any indication of their ability. But comparing their work to Victor Hugo is like comparing Twilight to War and Peace. You cannot compare a modern book filled with YA tropes to a historic classic. Of course, this book is far better than Twilight, but you get my point. If this book had no relation to Hugo’s classic tale, I think I would have enjoyed it better. If I wasn’t grasping at straws hoping to find some semblance in this 600 page book to the 1500 page novel, I would have been able to enjoy the story on its own.
Some stories lend themselves much better to retellings. Take a fairytale, for example. Most fairytales are short stories, making it extremely easy to expand upon or go in different directions. But with a massive classic, like Crime and Punishment or Atlas Shrugged, how can you retell something with such detail? What makes these books great? It is the depth of characters and the examination of humanity and its darker elements. This book feels like it takes a couple points from the spark note version of Les Misérables and inserts it into an otherwise unrelated YA fantasy.
Saying that, if you can get past the fact that this book is a retelling, it is quite good. I loved the idea of the Forgotten Word, where no one can read anymore except for a few underground people. This is great, because many dictatorships in history used control of books and knowledge of reading to suppress their people. Just look at Hitler, who burned millions of books which disagreed with his agenda. Also, the idea of the world being divided into three groups: First Estate (the royals), Second Estate (the officers and well-to-do’s), and Third Estate (the poor). This is very similar to the division of the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor, as this book takes much of its inspiration from history.
I feel as if anything else I say will be spoilers, so I’m just going to go to the spoiler section.
Out of the three main characters, I only really enjoyed Marcellus. He is perhaps the equivalent to Marius from the original. His story arch is interesting, as he is the grandson of the leader of the military, who realizes his life has been a lie and slowly begins to agree with the Vangarde, or the rebellion.
I didn’t feel like the other two characters had much of a change. Chatine (who I believe to be partially based on Eponine) started out as a thief with a heart, and she ended up that way as well. She might have developed a crush on Marcellus, but it didn’t really change who she was. Similarly, Alouette (based on Cosette, and they also share the same nickname of “Lark”) started out as a girl who was sheltered, but with a strong interest to learn more about the outside world. She ended up the same way, though perhaps not in the same place. I just didn’t see much character change in any of them.
The character I was perhaps most disappointed with was Jean LeGrand (based on Jean Valjean, and they also share the same prisoner number of 24601), who raised Alouette. He was the main character in the original book, but in this novel he is dumbed down to his most rudimentary characteristics. We never learn much about him outside of his relationship with Alouette. He felt so boring, compared to his classic counterpart, and I kept wanting to learn more about him, but he was constantly pushed aside for something else.
By the end, much of the story hinges on Alouette, which I also wasn’t fond of. In the original, she is more in the background of the rebellion, but in this one she is its most important asset. I found it all unbelievable.
And the ending just leaves me asking myself, “What was the main message or point of this book?”
If this book had stood on its own, if I hadn’t been constantly comparing it to Hugo’s classic tome, I would probably like it a lot better. But because all the depth and complexities were absent, I couldn’t enjoy it. If you are fond of YA fantasy, and you don’t know much about the original classic, I can bet you’ll like this book because it is well written…for a YA fantasy. This is perhaps why it’s never a good idea to retell a story which wasn’t broken to begin with. And no, I probably won’t be reading the sequel to this book.
Have you read this novel? What are your thoughts on retelling classic stories? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,