Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale

As I'm in the middle of two books right now (paperback for bath-reading and electronic for the rest of the time), I'm going to review one of my favourite books today.

While my favourite genre is without question dark/urban fantasy, I've also long been a fan of romance.  It sounds cheesy - especially historical romance - and much of it is, but there are a few authors whose work I really respect in this field.  One of those is Laura Kinsale.  I struggled to choose which of hers was my favourite, but in the end I went with The Shadow and the Star.  I find her titles a bit ... naff ... if I'm honest, and the cover of my copy reinforces that impression.  It features that huge muscular male model with the long hair who was on so many of the bodice-rippers of the 80's and 90's.  I used to be embarrassed to read them in public; I think perhaps I'm too old to care any more, though!

The cover is - of course- not indicative of what's inside, however.  This was published in 1991, and not discovered by me until years later.  It follows timid, law-abiding seamstress Leda and rich businessman (and martial arts afficionado) Samuel.  I know what you're thinking.  Seriously?  Can anyone say hackneyed plot?  Well, it's a case of suck it and see, with a Laura Kinsale book.  Samuel is most definitely not your typical strong, silent alpha male.  He is (as you would know if you had read her earlier book The Dream Hunter - not necessary, by the way) very damaged.  And filled with self-loathing at the feelings gentle Leda inspires in him.  When he acts on them, almost in spite of himself, she doesn't rebuff him, and it's not entirely because she's so innocent that she doesn't understand what's happening.  Some small part of her wants something beautiful for herself, even for a fleeting moment.

Of course, even fleeting moments have consequences when it's 1887 in London.  And much of the book tells the tale of how their lives change when they have to deal with those consequences.  Samuel still believes it is wrong that he wants to touch Leda and she struggles with the almost subservient nature her upbringing (and social station) has left her with, to try and make him see that it isn't.  We see how the characters fall in love, and how Leda begins to heal Samuel in her own quiet way.  Laura Kinsale has a rare talent for making her characters unique.  I've lost count of how many romances I've read which could have had various characters from other books dropped in and out without me even noticing.  But Kinsale's characters really do have their own voice and their own distinct nature.  And you're not told Leda feels x because of y, you're shown.  Which, to me, is how a good book should be written.

There is a minor suspense plot that creates some peril for the characters and enables the story to be wrapped up.  I've never been entirely sure that it was necessary, although it does prompt Samuel to reveal his feelings, so perhaps it was.

Anyway, if you like romances with beautifully-drawn characters, some plausible angst, a little well-stirred sexual tension and a few touching love scenes, you might want to give The Shadow and the Star a try.  You may also like Flowers from the Storm by the same author - another woeful title (in my opinion), but a heart-wrenching love story about a Quaker and a nobleman who has suffered a stroke - something which had yet to be diagnosed back then, and was seen as madness.

5/5 stars.

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