Monday, October 12, 2009
"The Prince of Midnight," by Laura Kinsale
Alternate Title: I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again, You Never Gonna Keep Me Down
The Chick: Lady Leigh Strachan. When her parents and sisters are killed when an evil cult leader takes over her town, she dresses as a boy and flees to France to learn how to fight so that she can have her revenge. In particular, she seeks out the elusive Prince of Midnight, the best highwayman of his day.
The Rub: She doesn't find a dashing hero, but a handicapped, half-deaf recluse who can barely walk in a straight line.
Dream Casting: Natalie Portman.
The Dude: Sophocles Trafalgar "S.T." Maitland, a.k.a. the Prince of Midnight. After a bomb blast took away half of his hearing and all of his balance, he's lived in isolation with only a wolf for company. The appearance of a desperate woman on his doorstep suggests an end to his painful loneliness.
The Rub: As much as he loves her and wants to help her, she returns his romantic gestures with cold, hard practicality. He fears that once he helps her attain her revenge, she'll abandon him to solitude once again.
Dream Casting: A slightly younger Russell Crowe.
Leigh: Help me avenge my family!
S.T.: Sure. *trips* I'd be happy to. *falls on face* By the way, I adore you. *stumbles*
Leigh: We have sex if you want - as payment for your help.
S.T.: Oh HELL no.
Leigh: C'mon - let's take this ship to England!
S.T.: OH HELL TO THE NO.
After the Worst Boat Trip Ever
S.T.: I'm cured! Let's go kill some cult leaders!
Cultists: JOIN US! Come for the willing cult babes, stay for the acid we'll pour in your ear!
S.T.: OH TO THE HELL TO THE NO TO THE HELL NAW!
Leigh: Oh no! The evil cultists made my beloved highwayman deaf!
S.T.: Hell, no. Wait - you like me?
S.T: Good enough for me! *rescues Cult Babes* *rescues Leigh from burning building*
Magistrate: Hey, aren't you the Prince of Midnight?
S.T.: Crap. Remember me as a romantic bumbler! *flees*
Leigh: OH HELL NO. *wrangles a pardon* Let's get married!
S.T.: But...but my issues...and my dizziness...and my...
Leigh: Don't be a moron.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Emotionally-Repressed Heroine with a Sad Past
1 Stumblebum Hero
1 Pet Wolf
3 Fancy Horses
1 Deadly Fever (Unsexy Variety)
1 Real Deaf Ear
1 Fake Deaf Ear
1 Miraculously Vanishing Balance Impediment
Countless French Endearments
3 Hot Cult Babes
3 Evil Perverts (including the Marquis de Sade!)
1 Bout of Sex on a Horse
The Word: I've been calling myself a Laura Kinsale fangirl ever since I read For My Lady's Heart, a fantastic medieval romance about a chaste knight who falls in love with a calculating Italian princess. Since then, I've hyped Kinsale to the skies, proclaimed her as one of my favourite authors - even though I'd only read one of her books (not counting the excerpt of French Lessons at RWA Nationals).
I decided to rectify that. I had three of her books on my TBR - Flowers from the Storm (used), My Sweet Folly (used), and The Prince of Midnight (new). Rifling through the three huge boxes I keep my TBR pile in nowadays, I found The Prince of Midnight first and decided to have at 'er.
Now, of course, I'm a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth, sneaking-Kinsale-books-into-friend's-purses Laura Kinsale fangirl. Woe is me.
Imagine a room, if you will. Standing in the middle of that room is Adam Kent, Duke of Ridgeway from Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl. On his expensively-tailored jacket is a blue ribbon with the words "Favourite Romance Hero" embroidered in gold thread. The door opens in that room and S.T. Maitland staggers in. He moves slowly to get his bearings, and keeps his head cocked at an odd angle. He approaches Adam Kent with careful steps.
Then he knees Adam in the balls.
As Adam doubles over in agony, S.T. removes his ribbon and pins it to his own lapel. Pearl's Fleur quickly enters, pins a red "Second Favourite Romance Hero" ribbon on Adam's shirt and helps him out.
S.T. Maitland, Favourite Romance Hero, BAR NONE.
He doesn't feel very romantic at the novel's start, however. Once an infamous highwayman who stole from the rich when they annoyed him and occasionally gave to the poor, he was betrayed by a former paramour and while he managed to elude the authorities, the encounter killed his favourite horse, rendered him deaf in one ear and destroyed his sense of balance. He's perpetually plagued by dizziness and vertigo - even turning his head too quickly can unman him. As a result, he's lived for the last three years in an abandoned castle making several half-hearted attempts to paint and sculpt, all the while bemoaning the good ol' days.
Lady Leigh Strachan needs to learn how to fight. Her family is dead, her life destroyed, and her town overrun by an insidious reverend and his rabidly misogynistic Christian cult. The rest of her town has either been converted or cowed, so she knows she can't just murder the Reverend (although that's definitely Step One) - she also needs a popular folk figure to inspire the people to reject the cult itself. Who better than the Prince of Midnight?
However, when she tracks him down, she's bitterly disappointed to discover he's a stumbling, impractical mess of a man, of no use to anyone. She fails to recognize S.T. as a hopeless romantic, and when she succumbs to a fever, he ignores her pleas to let her die and insists on aiding her in her quest once she recovers. S.T.'s 9/10ths in love with her already and sees their mission as a way to recover some of the thrill he's been missing since he retired the Prince of Midnight's half-mask.
The story shares some basic similarities with For My Lady's Heart - once again, we have an idealistic hero paired with an emotionally-walled off heroine - but there the similarities end. S.T. is not an alpha male or a hardened warrior, but a flamboyant romantic at heart. He's all about jewellery and teasing and French endearments. He longs to seduce Leigh and sweep her off her feet and make mad, sweet love to her. He worships the ground she walks on and wants to solve all of her problems and buy her beautiful clothes and if she asked him to drive to the store and buy her some Ye Olde Georgian Era Tampax he'd saddle up and race off to Yon SafeWaye in the blink of an eye.
Part of this is because he genuinely loves Leigh but also because he wishes he could return to the carefree, adventurous, and roguish man he was before his accident. His vertigo is a severe and constant burden on his pride and sense of self - he used to be a graceful dancer, a talented rider, a legendary swordsman and at the beginning of the novel he can't be any of those things and so his romantic pursuit of Leigh is, in a sense, the one way he can regain some of the adventure of his youth.
He's just so sweet and adorable, but it all falls flat when it comes to Leigh. The only way Leigh was able to recover from the loss of everything she'd known and find a purpose in life was to lock all her emotions away behind brutal practicality. She fears allowing herself any emotion will only break the dam she's placed on her grief, drown her and leave her too paralysed with sorrow to fulfill her goal. She responds to his romantic advances with cold acquiescence - she offers her body numerous times to S.T. as "payment" for his services, knowing her identification of sex as a financial arrangement equals instant bonerdeath for the passionate S.T.
However, as much as she tries to convince herself that S.T.'s vertigo renders him useless and unnecessary dead weight on her journey, he keeps coming up with new, unintentional ways to awaken her dormant sentimentalism - such as his innate kindness and skill with animals like his tame wolf Nemo (who's frightened of all women except, eventually, Leigh) and a pair of abused horses. As much as she tries to convince herself that the only things important in life are things that can directly help her kill Reverend Chilton, S.T. slowly re-introduces her to other aspects of living that are fulfilling and needful (affection, kindness, romance), indirectly helping her with her crushing grief.
This is demonstrated in a harrowingly powerful scene where S.T. instructs Leigh in training a gorgeous grey horse who, thanks to a long history of abuse, has a vicious temper. Leigh follows the instructions like clockwork but is set off balance once the horse starts to trust her. Terrified by the notion that this terribly hurt animal is willing to follow her so easily, she realizes she's bonded with it and just like that, her emotional dam bursts. I can't describe the rest of the scene because it needs to be read first-hand to be appreciated.
But is there is so much more to this novel besides the romance - a fair amount of buckles are swashed as Leigh and S.T. confront the cult (which is creepy with a capital CREEP even BEFORE we learn about its secret Ultra-Creepiness that involves a purple silk curtain and a rope), several damsels are rescued (to Leigh's feminist disgust), and secrets revealed. It's addictive stuff.
However (Um, Spoilers Ahoy), the novel takes an interesting turn in the last hundred pages, a turn that seemed initially contrived but then delightfully surprised me by making altogether Too Much Sense. After the Cult Leader dies, the local magistrate recognizes S.T. as the Prince of Midnight. Leigh manages to guilt the magistrate into giving S.T. a headstart, but our hero not only refuses to let Leigh come with him, but he fails to meet her in London afterwards as he promised. He is later captured and then officially pardoned and he still refuses to go and see Leigh. By this point I was saying, "NO! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, S.T.? THE CONFLICT IS OVER, STOP MAKING MORE UP! GO TO HER, YOU FOOL!"
When he finally does ball up and reunite, he's awkward, inarticulate, even cowardly. "WHAT THE HELL, S.T.! MAN UP!" And that's when I realized the truth of it: when he was romantic and adventurous at the novel's start with Leigh, S.T. figured there would always be an obstacle to an ultimate HEA - at first, it was because he feared Leigh would leave him once her revenge was attained. Then, it was because of the price on his head. He figured he could give it his all without being afraid of failure because failure was inevitable. Once every obstacle is taken away, once the HEA is actually within his grasp, the determined romantic is terrified because failure is not inevitable - he could actually have it all.
Or he could lose it all over again.
I also thought this made the romance's conclusion more poignant and meaningful. Although S.T. frequently tells Leigh that he loves her, she never believes him - because every romantic, poetical thing he says is just a repetition of what he told countless other women when he was a dashing highwayman. While the true emotions behind his words for Leigh are different, I can understand how "this time it's for real" isn't very convincing.
Once all the cards are on the table, once every obstacle is overcome, S.T. can't be romantic, or articulate - he can only tell the bare truth. It's a subtle reversal of the relationship dynamic - after 500 pages of pursuing Leigh, now he is the one who shies - so Leigh is finally required to pursue S.T. and claim their happiness. This final choice renders S.T.'s love more powerful while at the same time it demonstrates how far Leigh has come emotionally - that she's willing to be the one who chases, who puts her own heart forward instead of having someone claim it.
And by golly, it's just wonderful.
Sorry, Adam Kent.