Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"The Shadow and the Star," by Laura Kinsale

The Chick: Leda Etoile. A penniless seamstress gets the shock of her life when she discovers a black-clad man hiding in her room - a man who later hires her as his secretary when she doesn't turn him in.
The Rub: Yes, he's really, really, ridiculously good-looking, but he's also courting another woman, one who is more of his station.
Dream Casting: Kelly Macdonald.

The Dude: Samuel Gerard. Rescued from horrific conditions by the Ashlands, he's dedicated himself to protecting their beautiful daughter, Kai, from the cruelties of the world. But he needs help in courting her, help that Leda could provide.
The Rub: Unfortunately, his desire for Leda far outmatches his affection for Kai, and frightens him to his core.
Dream Casting: Matt Damon.

The Plot:
Leda: Woe is me, I am an impoverished (and now unemployed) seamstress. Hey! Who's that?

Samuel: *ninja appearance* 'Sup.


Samuel: You seem to have ninja-broken my leg.

Leda: Oh no! Let me help you with that!

Samuel: Thank you. You are a veritable ninja of kindness.

Leda: You can stop using ninja as a descriptor now.

Samuel: Be my secretary!

Leda: ....what.

Samuel: I can see that my proposition came upon you silently and unawares, much like a --

Leda: DON'T FINISH THAT SENTENCE. Fine. I'll be your secretary.

Samuel: Awesome. God, I wish I wasn't so attracted to her. Ninja boners are the worst boners.

Leda: Wow, he's so perfect. I wish he wasn't trying to marry his sister. Foster sister.

Samuel and Leda: *knock boots*

Samuel's Fams: Don't be a dick, Samuel. Marry her.

Samuel: That is so not ninja.

Leda: Well, now that we've married, I will try to be the best wife for you. And look, your totally not-suspicious Japanese butler has led us all to this ship in the middle of the ocean where no one can hear our cries for help. Not that we'll be making them!

Evil Japanese Villain: Someone order a climax? Do you have a Japanese sword that has had little bearing on the plot? Surprise! It's important!

Samuel: Whoops. *drops sword in ocean*

Random Shark: *eats sword* See you later!

Leda: Well you can't get more ninja than that.


Leda: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 White Ninja

1 Penniless Seamstress

1 Ill Translator
1 Magic (?) Sword

1 Magic(?) Sword Eating Shark

1 Secret Baby

1 Completely Oblivious Romantic Rival

1 Weak-ass Sister-Whipped Romantic Rival
The Word: Laura Kinsale has been able to get me out of a quite a few jams. She'll take stories that, on paper, sound ridiculously fantastical (half-deaf highwaymen and cults? What? A celibate knight who learned oral sex tips from Catholic priests? Wait, what?) and make them into such deep, gorgeously detailed stories of longing and pure, unadulterated romance.

In The Shadow and the Star's case, this book rescued me from a total brain and heart shutdown brought on by reading Judith McNaught's poisonous "no-doesn't-mean-no-mance" Whitney, My Love. Honestly, after Whitney, I didn't want to go near romance novels with a ten-foot pole. Don't get me wrong - by no means do I tar all (or even most, or even 99% of) romance novels with the same rapey brush, but I figured that, at least for a while, every uberalpha male decision I read might very well conjure up echoes of Clayton "Please Don't Make Me Rape You For Your Own Good" Westmoreland. After all, a lot of the basic ideas in Whitney still come up in modern historical romance novels, even if the execution is far better.

But again, if anyone can make me run back into romance's ample, soft, and sweet-smelling bosom (preferably in slow motion, on a windswept beach), it's Laura Kinsale.

With Shadow, Laura Kinsale takes a plot point from the list of "Top Ten Stories You Cannot Possibly Write and Have People Take Seriously" (white ninjas) and proves everyone wrong. As a sequel (of sorts) to The Hidden Heart (which I haven't read but is on the way to my house via Amazon as we speak), this novel apparently deals with the little boy the hero and heroine from the previous book rescued - Samuel Gerard.

Rescued from horrific sexual abuse as a young child by Lord and Lady Ashland of Hawaii, Samuel subsequently learned the art of Japanese warfare from their mysterious butler, Dojun, gaining in skill and technique all the while. As an adult, when he accompanies the Ashlands to England to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee, he uses his ninja training to expose houses of underage repute by stealing priceless cultural artefacts from visiting dignitaries and leading the irate police force to the brothels.

Our heroine, Leda Etoile, a poor seamstress slaving away under a prominent dressmaker, first meets Samuel when he accompanies the party of the Queen and Princess of Hawaii to the dress shop and helps translate for some Japanese dignitaries. While entranced by his loveliness, she knows she's miles out of his league - until one evening when she discovers him hiding in her room with a stolen Japanese sword hilt.

Samuel's bout as England's Child-Prostitution-Fighting Robin Hood comes to an abrupt end when his scuffle with Leda ends with her breaking his leg with her sewing machine. For reasons even she can't fully understand, Lena refuses to turn Samuel in, and he rewards her by hiring her as his new secretary.

The romance between Samuel and Leda is so interesting precisely because both characters are rigidly repressed, albeit in different ways. Samuel's past of sexual abuse has led him to violently distrust sexual desire, identifying it in himself as a dark similarity to the people who first hurt him. His ultimate dream is to court and marry his foster sister, the Ashland's daughter Kai, because he feels no desire (albeit much affection) for her and thus can cherish and protect her from the sufferings of the world that he endured. Unfortunately, he spent too much time learning awesome ninja skills to learn awesome lady skills, and he requires Leda's help and advice.

However, Leda, an orphan who was adopted by a wild tribe of impoverished widows and spinsters, knows only the strictest and most proper rules of deportment. She clings to her rules because she knows no other way to survive in the world. Both characters are terrified of their feelings for each other, but still come to express it in astonishing and lovely ways.

I particularly liked Leda, probably because we get more of her current POV (we don't get to see how Samuel sees Leda until about the halfway mark). She gets in on the ground floor when it comes to Samuel, discovering firsthand his ninja training and his darkness (which he's kept secret from the Ashlands), and learning to love him going on from that, which is a marked contrast from Kai, who is bubbly but oblivious, and knows only the surface of Samuel that he shows to everyone.

Samuel, meanwhile, is a study of contrasts. At once confident in his training and desperately insecure about his life (his past has convinced him that no one can truly love him), intelligent about some things and blindingly ignorant about others, he is a mystery for much of the novel.

Another thing I loved, no, adored about this novel was the details and the settings, which are almost characters in their own right. The novel plays a delightful tightrope between conventional settings (1890s London and English countryside) and the fantastically unconventional (the burgeoning cultural mosaic of the Hawaiian islands, and the Japanese demon-sword subplot). These details are both relevantly portrayed and seamlessly integrated into the storyline, so I never felt I was reading an historical diatribe, but rather exploring a fully-realized world, with strong English, Hawaiian, and Japanese influences.

The only small misstep was the ending, which had a bit of a bizarre climax (in which Leda does little except cry and act terrified), but it's only a small element of dissonance in quite a magnificent and original novel.

A+, as usual.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

VIDEO REVIEW: "Whitney, My Love," by Judith McNaught

*WARNING: Images of childish, petty and disrespectful reader rage ahead. You've been warned. This is what happens when a girl with too much time on her hands and too many cold meds on the brain decides to express her opinions with a video camera. Written review to follow in a couple of days!*