Laura Kinsale sure doesn't believe in half measures. From what I've seen in three of her books so far, all of her characters are unique and her stories intense, every single one of them extreme cases of a trite plot in romance. I have to say that Kinsale breaths much needed life into trite romance plots. It's a wonder when a romance novel really tells a story beyond the sexually-experienced hero deflowering the innocent virgin. In THE SHADOW AND THE STAR, Laura Kinsale takes the tortured-soul-hero-with-demons routine to an emotional-angst extreme with her pretty-boy hero Samuel Gerard.. Kinsale's writing and prose enrich the reading experience tremendously and it's so nice to read her after so many poor romance novels. Kinsale skillfully sets the scene, builds the tension and concludes very satisfactorily. The oriental flavor and Hawaiian settings are nothing short of magnificent. I officially love all of Kinsale's endings from three of her books: SHADOWHEART (***), FLOWERS FROM THE STORM (****) and now, THE SHADOW AND THE STAR.
It's a tribute to Kinsale's characterizations and writing that even though all three of her heroines in the novels above are virgins, they still manage to stand out separately. Kinsale puts her heroes through a unique hell as well, and that too is delicious. I liked the way Kinsale flashed to Samuel's warrior training every other chapter for the first half of the novel and slowly but surely brought his perspective to the present. Our heroine Leda's subservience may rub some readers the wrong way, but if you can get past that, Leda's humor is something else. Leda's propriety and manners even during the most obscene circumstances proves absolutely hilarious. In Kinsale's note to her readers in this 449-page paperback, she reveals her inspiration for Leda's character: "[Leda] embodied the steadfast, kind and courageous ladies...the circle of grandmother and aunts and their friends in a small Texas town. Proper, generous, proud, sure of what was right and what was wrong..." And certainly, the circle of South Street ladies and their culture resonates in this book. I found Leda obstinately clinging to her propriety and morals in the most bizarre of circumstances and situations absolutely hilarious. Even after marriage, she continues to call her husband, "Dear Sir..." Leda is innocent, funny, proper, loyal to a fault and so caring and compassionate, any guy would give the world to her. And she would deserve it. Leda's humor is the highlight of the novel, and the book consequently belongs to Leda Etoile. That the novel belongs to Leda is even more astonishing given the inspiration for THE SHADOW AND THE STAR derives from Samuel's brief appearance in THE HIDDEN HEART which points the spotlight on Lady Tess and Gryphon Meridon.
"Really, I should like to have my own garden, with a fish pond in it, full of goldfish with tails like silk. Do you ever think of things such as that, Mr. Gerard? Whatever do gentlemen think about, I wonder?" She pondered the question, and answered herself. "Political difficulties, I suppose. It must be very trying and dull to be a man."
My problems with this novel stem from a pacing standpoint and the heavy reliance on the Ashland characters (characters from the prior book THE HIDDEN HEART). If you thought FLOWERS FROM THE STORM slow-developing, you'll find THE SHADOW AND THE STAR much more so. In fact, I thought this book never found its drive until the finale. This book also contains elements of the supernatural which fog the action sequences.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
Our tortured hero Samuel Gerard is described as a handsomely perfect Gabriel and he harbors a lot of emotional angst over an abusive childhood. After Lady Tess takes in the young boy Samuel as part of her family, he grows up in a caring environment at Hawaii and under the tutelage of his martial arts master Dojun (originally the Ashlands' butler). Years later, at 27-28, the Ashlands and Samuel return to England. In a dressmaker's shop, Samuel's beauty awes Leda Etoile. In London, martial arts expert Samuel plants filched valuable items in shoddy establishments to uncover their underhanded practices. Practically invisible to Leda, Samuel utilizes Leda's cramped upper floor apartment as a haven during his heists. An injury to his leg prohibits Samuel from returning a stolen sword mount (the hilt).
Strained finances and unwanted advances compel Leda to accept Samuel's proposition of a position as his secretary. Things progress from there and despite the fact that Samuel has always envisioned marrying Lady Tess' daughter Kai (Lady Katherine), a publicized night of passion joins Samuel and Leda in marriage instead. Samuel and Leda's union represents a first in the romance genre for me: both are virgins. Kinsale handles it very delicately, very sweetly as both of their innocence wrenches your heart.
Events shift to Hawaii towards the second half of the novel as Leda outfits the beautiful home Samuel has built there. The stolen sword mount and Dojun's purpose takes center stage and the action finally starts to pick up. Japanese legends, martial arts and the Hawaiian backdrop lend this a refreshing romantic reading experience. Not to mention the very unique characters: Leda's hilarious propriety and Samuel's anguished emotional angst.
Another excellent offering from an adept author.