Book Review

Lightning-Reviews: Laura Kinsale Part II

This is the second installment of capsule reviews of romance novels written by Laura Kinsale. Read Part I first, if you’re so inclined.

For My Lady’s Heart: Hot damn. Dialogue in Middle English. A story based inspired by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A relentlessly honorable and completely adorable hero who hasn’t had any nookie in 13 years. A dangerous, scheming princess who doesn’t know how to trust anyone, doesn’t want to trust anyone, but is thrown for a loop by a knight who refuses to let her push him away. Kinsale once again busts through romance conventions (when people make fun of romance novels as being brainless and predictable, I like to tell them about this book) and makes her characters real to you in a way nobody else can. A

The Dream Hunter: This is the only book of Kinsale’s I don’t love. I don’t hate it, but it didn’t grab me the way her other books did. Arden, the hero, is wonderful. He’s shy yet courageous, and very, very sweet. The heroine…. Oy. I don’t know, I found it hard to like her. Kinsale says that Zenia presents a role reversal (usually the hero is the one being the demanding, tormented brat, not the heroine) that few readers are comfortable with. She may be right, but I don’t know. I liked Zenia by the end of the book, but the way she treats Arden during much of the book is almost too much for me to take, and I think that if the roles were reversed, if Arden had been the one pulling all that crap on Zenia, I think I would’ve disliked him too. In fact, I know I would’ve, because my dislike of heroes who mistreat heroines too badly is legendary, and a big big part of the reason why I’m not particularly fond of romances from the 70s and 80s. I’ll try re-reading it soon and see if my opinion of the story holds. B-

My Sweet Folly: Folie is quite possibly my favorite heroine of all time. She’s no raving beauty, but she’s full of love, integrity, common sense and the most wonderfully droll sense of humor. I re-read this book just to enjoy her various quips and to see her relate to different people in the book. The hero, Robert, is a rather interesting mixed bag. Some of the shit he pulls on Folie is almost as bad as what Zenia does to Arden in The Dream Hunter, and his character (or rather our expectations of what his character should be) go through a couple of abrupt about-faces. But overall, he’s really hot, he doesn’t mistreat Folie too badly for too long, and he has pretty good reasons for being an asshead. Some people thought the external plot was tiresome and that the rest of the book didn’t match the wonderful first chapter, but personally, I really liked the book as a whole. A-, but Folie is A+

Shadowheart: The sequel to For My Lady’s Heart, it features Allegretto, the boy-assassin who was assigned to “guard” Melanthe in the first book. Kinsale does a great job of portraying so many different aspects of medieval Italy: the importance and power of the Church in people’s lives, the intense rivalries that would erupt between city-states, the non-stop plotting and scheming and skullduggery. The love story isn’t too shabby either. It’s a coming-of-age tale for Elena, the heroine, and Allegretto achieves redemption, so hooray all around. And the love scenes… people bitched about how disturbed they were by them, but you know what? I liked ‘em. I don’t normally enjoy BDSM sex scenes, but I thought the ones in Shadowheart were really hot and completely in keeping with Allegretto and Elena’s characters. The only small peeve I have with the book: Not enough scenes from Allegretto’s viewpoint. A-

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    emdee says:

    Shadowheart is a particular favorite of mine.  I adore this book.  The love scenes are a perfect example of how to use characters’sexual interaction to move a story forward.

  2. 2
    Gail D says:

    Hmm. There are apparently Laura Kinsale books that I haven’t read. How did this happen???

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never read The Hidden Heart or Uncertain Magic. On the other hand, I think I’ve read My Sweet Folly, but I can’t remember it. If you could give a bit of the plot? If I have read it, I’m sure I have the book stashed somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s stashed in the boxes in the garage. I need to be more ruthless with the keepers in the house so I can bring in some of the keepers out of the boxes.

    Will I really read all these books again??

  3. 3
    Lisa #2 says:

    For My Lady’s Heart is the only Kinsale I’ve been able to finish so far.  But I loved it!

  4. 4
    annie says:

    My Sweet Folly, Midsummer Moon, the Shadow and the Star, and Flowers from the Storm are in my Keepers box.  But, thankfully, my Flowers does not have Fabio on it!

  5. 5
    vaughan williams says:

    I am really surprised to see how popular Shadowheart is, because I thought it was simply *terrible*… the romance between Elena and Allegretto seemed contrived, as was the coincidence that the very person he needs to overcome his enemy happens to appear on his windswept pirate isle. Deus ex machina-convenient, even.

    I loathed that he basically raped her, her first time, and yet she fell in love with him anyway—thought we left storylines like that back in the 80’s, but I guess they’re making a comeback? Hope not.

    As for the BDSM sex, I’m fine with kinkier stuff, but I felt that a gently-bred medieval woman would not be so comfortable with getting into the kink so early upon her initiation into sex, esp. since that initiation was forced more than it was voluntary. Elena’s acceptance and enjoyment of it felt contrived.

    Elena is rather vapid, and not too great a judge of character, in the beginning but by the time the political stuff gets going in the middle is suddenly a diplomatic mastermind. Huh? Does kinky sex somehow make a person grow new job skills? Because if so, sign my ass up. Forget grad school, I’ll just join a local swingers’ club.

    I also thought that the political subplot in general was added to beef things up and provide a convenient impetus for Allegretto to value Elena so highly, since the romantic plot between them was so thin. I had to force myself to finish the book, hoping it would redeem itself miraculously, but it just stayed awful to the end. Bleh.

  6. 6
    DS says:

    Shadowheart is the only book by Kinsale that I would not give an A and it has nothing to do with the BDSM content or the rape.  Or maybe it did have something to do with the BDSM. It felt contrived to me. (Not as bad thankfully as a Thea Devine novel from the early 90’s where the heroine whipped the hero with a ribbon! See, she wouldn’t really hurt him.) But I was not able to still the critic in my head and immerse myself in the story so I ended up skimming and setting the book aside to see if coming back to it later would make it a better read.

  7. 7
    Kassiana says:

    Shadowheart is the only Kinsale I’ve attempted so far, and it makes me not want to try anything else by her. The setup was boring and hard to read (so I didn’t see the point of trying hard enough to understand it), the rape squicked me out, and while I have nothing against BDSM in general, I hate femdom scenes. I also hate anything that is or borders on castration. The whole “Let’s mutilate Allegretto’s penis!” stuff made me ill.

  8. 8
    Janetm says:

    A relentlessly honorable and completely adorable hero who hasn’t had any nookie in 13 years.

    While not totally averse to celibate heroes (having had one myself, in a book, I mean) I found this one of the disturbing things about For My Lady’s Heart. The hero is someone who puts his life—not just his willy—on hold for thirteen years after a chance encounter with the heroine. All fine and well with the rules of courtly love, I suppose, but to me that implies he’s missed out on a lot, lot more. All that good relationship stuff, all the luuurve. All the growing-up.

    I’ll read Chaucer quite happily but the middle English, however authentic and lovely, just annoyed me. But then I’m one of those people who sees the word “tarse” and just loses it. Also one of those readers who wants to smack tortured heroes around the head and tell them to get over it, so I’m afraid I miss out on the whole Kinsale experience.

  9. 9
    seton says:

    The hero is someone who puts his life—not just his willy—on hold for thirteen years after a chance encounter with the heroine.

    I dont think the hero was celibate for 13 yrs because of the heroine. He was married after all and he thought his wife was still alive becoming a saint.

    Candy, thanks for the lightning reviews. God, I miss LK. Why cant she get off eBay and write more books dammit?

  10. 10
    Robin says:

    My favorite Kinsales are My Sweet Folly, For My Lady’s Heart, Seize the Fire, Dream Hunter, and Midsummer Moon (not necessarily in that order).  Sheridan, Ruck, and Arden are my favorite Kinsale heroes and Folly, Melanthe, and Tess are my favorite Kinsale heroines. 

    As for Ruck’s long period of celibacy, besides the way it built on the honor intrinsic in his character, IMO it was worth it just to have that scene with Melanthe where he describes his experiences in confession!!!  I view Midsummer Moon as perhaps Kinsale’s most unfairly under-rated book, because IMO it is so brilliant the way she writes the story in reverse and places Merlin firmly in the driver’s seat of the book as a whole. 

    As for Folly, I think she is underestimated (something Leda suffers, too); IMO Folie is probably Kinsale’s strongest heroine.  Her idealism can make her seem naive, but I think her letters to Robert and her assistance in clearing Robert’s reputation demonstrate that she’s isn’t stupid or naive, but rather unwilling to give herself over to the despair that she might have felt being married to a man who didn’t love or understand her, or in being disappointed so terribly by Robert, or in struggling with his issues and the danger all that puts her in.  In that she’s a lot like Leda to me, and maybe a little like Tess, although I think Tess is forced to be much more worldly because of what happens to her with Stephen and Samuel. 

    I don’t *hate* any of Kinsale’s books, although Shadowheart felt a little rusty to me.  My Sweet Folly and Seize the Fire move me the most (although my experience of STF is similar to Candy’s experience with Flowers From The Storm), and even though Kinsale apparently struggled with MSF, I think it has some of the most beautiful language and emotionally powerful moments in all of her fiction.  There is just so much *grief* in and around that book, but IMO the way she handles it (despite some terrible overplotting and an IMO unforgivably rushed ending—like she just wanted to get it OVER WITH already!), is intense but uplifting.  In fact, now that I think about it, grief may be the most powerful sensibility in all of the Kinsale novels I love the most.

  11. 11
    Molly says:

    I love, love, love Shadowheart. I’m not usually into femdom or anything, but the intensity between Elena and Allegretto and how into it THEY were made it hot for me. The rape scene isn’t treated as something positive/romantic, it’s there to show the transformation of the power relationship between the two of them, which is a major theme of the book. Anyway, Shadowheart is definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long time, and my favorite of Kinsale’s (I haven’t read them all yet though.)

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    While not totally averse to celibate heroes (having had one myself, in a book, I mean) I found this one of the disturbing things about For My Lady’s Heart. The hero is someone who puts his life—not just his willy—on hold for thirteen years after a chance encounter with the heroine.

    As seton pointed out above, Ruck doesn’t do this for Melanthe, he does it because he thinks he’s married and because his personal code of honor doesn’t allow him to indulge in extra-marital affairs. He doesn’t find out what happened to his wife until well into the book. This is, in my opinion, one of the things I love best about Ruck—his unwavering faithfulness to his batshit insane wife. He made a commitment, he loved her, and he’s sticking with it. And give the cultural conditioning and mores of the time, I find it convincing that he remained celibate for that long.

    Also, I think Ruck’s motivation seems true to somebody from his time period. Nowadays, we’d call him crazy and tell him to divorce his wife and move on. Viewing what he’s doing as putting his life on hold is a very, very modern filter to place on the actions of a man who supposedly lived over 600 years ago. But he was a knight. By the standards of his time, he wasn’t remotely putting his life on hold. He was fighting for God and his King, and in doing so, remaining true to his wife; those were all causes that were viewed as highly worthy.

    And Ruck is probably one of the least tortured heroes I’ve encountered in Romancelandia. Dude has some issues, but he doesn’t whine about them, and he’s largely whole and healthy—unlike, say, Melanthe, who’s a mess. I’d compare him to Christy Morrell of Pat Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish in terms of being relentlessly honorable and good-natured without being inhumanly perfect in the face of adversity.

    And vaughan: Yeah, the plotting in Shadowheart wasn’t the greatest, but Kinsale has admitted herself that her plotting isn’t her strongest point. The thing is, I get so caught up in the characters that I find myself not caring.

    As for the rape scene: I read about it before I read the book, and I was feeling leery, because it’s one of the aspects of romance I hated and one of the main reasons why I thought the genre as a whole was worthless for a long, long time. But I thought this particular scene worked. By the time it happened, I knew that Elena was a very, very strong person, one who wouldn’t take any shit. It also helped that she felt very ambivalent towards Allegreto, and also towards that sexual encounter. She seemed more angry than anything else, which rang true to me.

    I also saw the pain-in-pleasure as a natural outgrowth of that first encounter, actually. Allegreto had hurt her sexually and he hadn’t quite forgiven himself for it, so he allowed her to hurt him in retaliation. IIRC, the pain games started as a way for him to apologize; he explicitly allowed Elena to dictate the terms of their next encounter, including the speed at which it happened. And Elena used pain to slow him down and to make him aware that he was displeasing her. The first instance seemed accidental, if my memory of that scene is correct, and then the two of them figured out that it was a huge turn-on.

    All of this also dovetails nicely with the incredibly abusive childhood he had, and all the evil things he’s done; he sublimated his guilt and need for punishment into sexual pleasure, something I found very convincing.

    So the kink thing, which so people had trouble with, seemed organic and pretty much inevitable to my eyes, given the personalities, the terms of their initial relationship and how their first sexual encounter happened.

    Those who don’t like femdom and genital abuse of any sort (including the very, VERY mild form Elena subjects Allegreto to, with his full consent) almost definitely won’t enjoy Shadowheart, so it’s no surprise Kassiana didn’t like that aspect.

  13. 13
    Robin says:

    And Ruck is probably one of the least tortured heroes I’ve encountered in Romancelandia. Dude has some issues, but he doesn’t whine about them, and he’s largely whole and healthy

    Let’s face it; the hotness that is Ruck (nobility + physical strength + sly humor) is virtually unparalleled in Romance fiction.  I love Christy, too, as well Stuart Aysgarth and Graham Wessit from Judith Ivory’s imagination, and Devon Crandall from The Windflower, but Ruck is, like, so viscerally sexy and etherically noble that he’s just perfect in that wonderfully imperfect way.  The scene near the end of the book where he has angry sex with an exhausted Melanthe is one of my favorites in all of Romance fiction.

  14. 14
    Candy says:

    Robin: You know what would be really, really wrong? Time-travel slash fiction involving Christy and Ruck.

    *falls over screaming with glee and terror*

  15. 15
    Robin says:

    Robin: You know what would be really, really wrong? Time-travel slash fiction involving Christy and Ruck.

    Can we throw Mick Tremore (from Ivory’s The Proposition) in there, too—you know, for some blue collar flavor????

    verification word:  hope68

  16. 16
    Candy says:

    YES. I do love me some Mick.

    Oh man, I feel dirty. I’m not sure whether in a good way, or a bad way. Just…dirty.

    As for your verification word: HA! One away from a hope69.

  17. 17
    Robin says:

    YES. I do love me some Mick.

    Oh man, I feel dirty. I’m not sure whether in a good way, or a bad way. Just…dirty.

    As long as we keep Michael from Wild at Heart out of the mix, I think it’s good dirty all the way.  Heh, there is so much potential for bad punnage here.  But anyway, Michael’s involvement would be wrong, wrong, wrong.

    As for your verification word: HA! One away from a hope69.

    I know.  So close and yet so far: come to think of it, that’s sort of an ongoing theme in my life.

    New verification word:  both75

  18. 18
    Candy says:

    HAHAHAHAHA. Oh, dear. Yes, you’re right, including Michael would push it beyond the pale, though Michael is right up there with Christy and Ruck as one of my All-Time Favorite heroes. I think it’s Michael’s child-like air of innocence.

    But you know who’d be an excellent addition? Cyn Malloren of My Lady Notorious. Part fop, part soldier, ALL MAN.

  19. 19
    Robin says:

    HAHAHAHAHA. Oh, dear. Yes, you’re right, including Michael would push it beyond the pale, though Michael is right up there with Christy and Ruck as one of my All-Time Favorite heroes. I think it’s Michael’s child-like air of innocence.

    Exacty; I considered him for a New York minute (because I love him, too, and especially the way he embraced his own sexuality without judgment) and then had this terrible recoil for exactly the reason you give.  THAT made me feel dirty in a bad way.

    But you know who’d be an excellent addition? Cyn Malloren of My Lady Notorious. Part fop, part soldier, ALL MAN.

    You know, even though I have several of her books in the house, I haven’t yet read Jo Beverly.  But yours is probably the third recommendation I’ve read for this book in the past month or so, which means that I’m now going to make a concerted effort to start with this one.  So in the meantime, I’ll take your word for it and enjoy the novelty.  Is anyone keeping track here because I fully expect to see this story in print in the near future!

  20. 20
    Becca says:

    ok, I’ve never read any Kinsale, but these reviews have inspired me to start, even though I don’t normally like historicals. So – which one should I start with? (hint: I prefer romantic suspense, and love the In Death books. I did cut my teeth with Georgette Heyer, though, so I’m not totally opposed to historicals.)

  21. 21
    Wry Hag says:

    I’m very intrigued—have never read Kinsale’s books—but before I fork out $$$ I’d like to get a better bead on her work.  I’ve found myself perennially dissatisfied with “recommended” romances, largely because I can’t tolerate dogshit writing.  So…whose work would you compare hers to?

    As I read these reviews and comments, I’m wondering if her stuff has something of the feel of Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven—which I think is a fucking masterpiece.  (I know she’s been to Loopy School since then, but if she’d never written anything but that and Interview, I’d revere her.)

    Does Kinsale measure up?  If plotting is indeed her weak point, I won’t last with her.  (Hell, if I wanted a parade of interesting characters, I could reread Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio.)

    Don’t need my TBR pile getting any bigger, so I’d appreciate some more or less objective responses!

  22. 22
    Robin says:

    So…whose work would you compare hers to?

    I haven’t read the Rice book you mention, but I don’t think Kinsale’s writing is really comparable to anyone else in Romance—her voice, IMO, is strong and pretty unique.  I can tell you that she is not generally adored by readers who don’t want their Romance to be “too literary,” if that helps.

    Saying that Kinsale is plot-challenged is like saying Shakespeare wrote some bad plays.  IMO her books are so far above even the high norm in Romance that to speak of plotting weaknesses is narrowly comparative, often to her own work or in the way one picks apart a fine dessert after a tour of only the best restaurants. I will complain of plotting points in some of her books, but if I were comparing her to the genre norm, such complaining would probably be terribly unfair.

    The Kinsale book I recommend for new to her readers is Flowers From The Storm, although most people favor The Shadow and The Star.

  23. 23
    Sarah F. says:

    Wry Hag, Flowers from the Storm is remarkably well plotted—very tightly done and a brilliant romance as well.  As is The Hidden Heart.  I’m sure others would say the same about The Shadow and the Star but I haven’t been able to get all the way into that one yet.  If you can stomach the Middle English, For My Lady’s Heart is brilliant all around.

  24. 24
    Candy says:

    Wry Hag: Anne Rice is your pinnacle of good writing? I couldn’t work through Interview with a Vampire, largely because I thought the prose was somewhat bloated, so I’m not sure that we’ll see eye-to-eye on prose aesthetics any time soon. But I’d like to get a romance baseline for you. Who do you think writes romance well? Who are some of the romance authors you really enjoy?

    I more-or-less agree with Robin’s comment about Kinsale’s plotting and writing and how she stands relative to the rest of the genre; when it comes down to it, I couldn’t give all her books As or use plus marks to elevate them beyond the norm because I didn’t want this round of Lightning reviews to look like an eBay feedback page, but a Kinsale A- is different from, say, the A- I’d give Mary Jo Putney or Lisa Kleypas.

    Kinsale is one of the few whose writing transcends genre, in the way, say, Tim Powers and James Morrow transcend SF/F.

  25. 25
    Kassiana says:

    “Those who don’t like femdom and genital abuse of any sort (including the very, VERY mild form Elena subjects Allegreto to, with his full consent) almost definitely won’t enjoy Shadowheart, so it’s no surprise Kassiana didn’t like that aspect.”
    —Um, it didn’t seem mild to me. At the very least, his cock would have been bruised for weeks afterward.

    I dislike genital abuse so much that I have either refused to read or re-read books including castration scenes. They make me feel sick. Joe R. Lansdale, Dave Barry, Elizabeth Moon, and Mercedes Lackey have all included such in their books, and lost me as a reader for those particular books.

  26. 26
    Candy says:

    Um, it didn’t seem mild to me. At the very least, his cock would have been bruised for weeks afterward.

    Bruised? I remember her scratching and pinching his cock, not punching it. He was sore, but Kinsale didn’t indicate that he was bleeding or that his skin was broken. By my standards, that’s very mild for genital abuse—ANY kind of consensual sexual pain infliction, really. Frankly, I’ve done worse, though never on genitals—I’m OK with reading about it, but it’s definitely one of those “Wow, that sure is an interesting kink to read about that I’m not even remotely interested in attempting for myself any time soon” sort of a thing.

    I dislike genital abuse so much that I have either refused to read or re-read books including castration scenes.

    I can understand how certain things can be dealbreakers. In my opinion, castration goes far beyond genital torture—that’s like trying to torture somebody’s head by severing it, y’know?

  27. 27
    Wry Hag says:

    Uh…Anne Rice is FAAARRRR from my “pinnacle of good writing.”  It’s just that Cry to Heaven, one of her early and decidedly nonrepresentative works, comes close to epitomizing a compelling blend of evocative prose, attention to historical detail/setting, deft plotting, and engaging, multidimensional characters (who are that way without making me think, Oh, bullshit, I can’t even begin to imagine that people like this ever existed, regardless of whatever backgrounds the author has slapped onto their asses).

    As far as Interview goes, I believe its purple hue was intentional and ended up being part of its charm.

    The rest of her output isn’t even worth arguing about.

  28. 28
    Candy says:

    Whoops! I misunderstood what you meant by “masterpiece,” then.

    Also, answer my questions, damn your eyes! *shakes puny fist in Wry Hag’s general direction* Who are the romance authors you enjoy, and which ones do you think write well? (I know the two aren’t always the same thing.)

  29. 29
    Kassiana says:

    I remember her scratching and pinching his cock, not punching it.
    —The issue is that it’s his COCK, not just his back or other parts that aren’t as fragile or nerve-encrusted, that don’t have as many blood vessels under the surface. I wouldn’t take that kind of treatment of my genitalia, either, and I like sexual pain. But that pain was anti-erotic, just like a scene of a guy biting a woman’s clit is.

  30. 30
    Suisan says:

    Leaping away from the topic at hand, I just wanted to put in a note about Dream Hunter. The idea of putting Hester Stanhope in a Romance is just too brilliant. And, as an afficiado of desert-bred Arabians and a part-time pedigree researcher, I love the way in which the “Pearl of the Desert” is handled.

    The Westerners want her just because she’s supposed to be the very best, and the Easterners want to hold on to her because someone else is looking for her, but there’s not a lot of time dedicated to the search for her, or how magnificent she is. (Very anti-Black Stallion where the horse is some sort of mystical representation of all things powerful and beautiful.)

    My favorite bit of plotting is that once the mare comes to England, everyone had basicaly lost interest in her. It was the reason why the H/H met, but ultimately, she gets forgotten because the orginal financiers of the trek to the desert have moved on to other interests by the time she gets back.

    This is The Only work of fiction I remember reading which centers around horses which gets this aspect of their fascinations and subsequent importation correct.

    OK, now you all can go back to talking about Shadowheart. (In which the “kinky” sex, it seemed to me, was a complete surprise to both characters. Each scene grows from the previous one and the characters are shaped by their sexual interaction. It wasn’t thrown in “just because”, and therefore it completely works. For me.)

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