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C.S. Harris

REVIEW:  When Maidens Mourn by C.S. Harris

REVIEW: When Maidens Mourn by C.S. Harris

Dear Ms. Harris:

I have read the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series since the first book, What Angels Fear was published in 2005. My grades for the first six books have included three B+ grades, two B grades and one A-. So it’s fair to say that the series has been pretty consistent for me, and though I didn’t jump on this book when it was published earlier this year, I had always intended to read it.

When Maidens Mourn by C.S. HarrisSebastian St. Cyr is a Regency gentleman who is accused of murder in the first book in the series. After clearing his name, he continues to become embroiled in murder mysteries, sometimes due to his friendship (of a sort) with Scotland Yard investigator Sir Henry Lovejoy. Sebastian has a complicated relationship with his father, and a tortured one with his ex-mistress, the actress Kat Boleyn. He’s also recently acquired a wife, the former Hero Jarvis, daughter of Sebastian’s sworn enemy. Lord Jarvis is a very powerful and dangerous man, ruthless in devotion to maintaining the government of his cousin, the Prince of Wales. Jarvis hates Sebastian and hates that Sebastian and Hero have married and that his first grandchild will be Sebastian’s son or daughter.

Hero and Sebastian also have a complex relationship (you may be sensing something of a theme here); Hero is fiercely intelligent and loyal to her father, though she’s aware of his shortcomings. A bluestocking, she hadn’t thought to marry, but she’s thrown together with Sebastian during a life-threatening situation (in an earlier book), and one thing leads to another. Now the two are married but still extremely wary of each other. They are just considering going on a honeymoon when word comes of the murder of Hero’s friend and fellow scholar, Gabrielle Tennyson.

Gabrielle is found at Camlet Moat, an excavation site not far from London that she was supervising. She was looking for evidence that Camlet=Camelot and that this is the location where King Arthur is buried. Gabrielle”s been stabbed through the heart and left in a boat at the edge of the water, apparently on the evening of the pagan festival of Lammas (a fact that may or may not be significant). Alarmingly, her two young cousins, who were visiting her in London, are missing.

Suspects pile up quickly: there’s the scholar who had pursued Gabrielle since she was disturbingly young and with whom she’d quarreled over the Camelot question, the paroled French officer with whom Gabrielle had struck up a friendship, and maybe more, the owner of the land on which Camlet Moat sits, as well as his religious zealot wife, and finally, Gabrielle’s social climbing cousin, Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt, who just seems to be an all-around creep.

Hero’s own father, Lord Jarvis, comes under some scrutiny: he’s trying to tamp down a sort of Arthurian fever that’s sweeping through London, driven mostly by discontent with the current monarchy. Posters heralding the return of “the once and future king” keep cropping up, thought to be the work of French agents. Jarvis’ attempt to quell the notion that Arthur could return (which I guess some people really believed? It seems far-fetched for the 19th century, but whatever) put him in conflict with Gabrielle, and both Sebastian and Hero have no trouble believing he’d stoop to murder to protect his interests.

In the midst of the mystery of Gabrielle’s murder, another mystery crops up, one that was more intriguing to me (in general the mysteries of Sebastian’s past that are dealt with throughout the series interest me more than the central mystery of each book). Jamie Knox is a tavern owner who was seen arguing with Gabrielle a couple of days before her murder. When Sebastian investigates this lead, he finds that Knox is extremely dangerous, and that he has an unexpected connection to Sebastian himself. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out in future books.

I’m honestly not a big reader of mysteries, and to some degree I find the machinations of mystery plots sort of tiresome. First this person is suspected, and then that person, and there are always plenty of suspects and suspicious behavior to keep the investigator guessing and running down leads. It can feel a bit rote to me. In the case of this book, I’ll admit to being sure near the end of the book that I knew who the killer was. I was wrong, which is fine, but what bugged me was that Sebastian seem to pull both the identity of the real killer and the motive out of thin air at the last minute. It didn’t feel organic or realistic to me.

I’ll continue to read the series, mostly to see how Sebastian’s personal issues resolve themselves, both in his family and romantic life. Not much progress is made in Sebastian and Hero’s relationship in the course of this book, but they do take tentative steps towards trusting one another more fully (something that definitely does not come easily to either of them).

My grade for When Maidens Mourn is a straight B.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW: Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

REVIEW: Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

Dear Ms. Harris,

I’ve been a devotee of your Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries since the first book, What Angels Fear, was published in 2005. Where Shadows Dance is the sixth book in the series featuring an aristocrat turned amateur detective in Regency-era London.

Where Shadows Dance A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery C.S. Harris - AuthorThe book opens with doctor Paul Gibson taking receipt of a fresh (well fresh-ish) cadaver from a couple of resurrection men . Gibson, as a surgeon, has a keen interest in human anatomy, but like other doctors of the era, he’s prevented by law from obtaining bodies for study legally. Gibson has actually “ordered” this specific body, that of a young man named Alexander Ross, after hearing of Ross’ death several days previous, apparently from an undiagnosed heart ailment. Gibson cannot resist the opportunity to study the heart of a young and apparently healthy man to see if he can discover what made it stop. However, it doesn’t take Gibson long to discover a small but deep knife wound at the base of Ross ‘ skull, evidence that he was in fact murdered. Now Gibson faces a dilemma; he cannot reveal his knowledge of Ross’ murder without his own illegal activities coming to light. He turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin for help.

Sebastian has a full plate already without a new murder investigation, but he cannot turn down an opportunity to try to bring a murderer to justice. He has recently proposed marriage to Miss Hero Jarvis, daughter of Sebastian’s sworn enemy, Lord Jarvis. Hero and Sebastian have sparred for several books – she is a rather formidable spinster/bluestocking type who has ended up entangled in several of Sebastian’s mysteries. The two hadn’t previously had too many overt romantic sparks, perhaps chiefly because Sebastian has been consumed with his long and complicated relationship with Kat Boleyn, an actress with a tormented and tangled past. Events in one of the previous books led to an unexpected encounter between Sebastian and Hero, and Hero is now pregnant with his child. Both are ambivalent about the upcoming marriage; Hero had never planned to marry, being that she considers marriage to be comparable to indentured servitude for women. For Sebastian’s part, though he admires and perhaps is attracted to Hero, he cannot let go of his feelings for Kat, who is now married and beyond his reach. Sebastian also has a very strained relationship with his father, one that has been impacted by some shocking truths about Kat.

I’m not a huge mystery fan, so I will be upfront and say that I mostly read these books for the continuing, evolving story of the lives and relationships of the main characters. I find Sebastian, Hero, Kat, Paul Gibson and the Earl of Hendon (Sebastian’s father) to be interesting and sympathetic characters. I have mentioned before that I have some ambivalence about the Sebastian/Kat/Hero love triangle. Normally, I’d be all for the pairing of an aristocratic hero with an actress/fallen woman with a tortured background. I’d be less enamored of the more conventional and expected pairing of Sebastian with the feisty Wollstonecraftian virgin of good birth. But while the outline of Hero’s character reads like a collection of romance cliches, the character herself has been imbued with depth. She’s smart, tough and sympathetic, and has her own complex relationship with her father, a rather shady character with a lot of power in the government but few apparent scruples.
Besides my fondness for Hero, I have felt for a while now that a relationship between Kat and Sebastian is just too loaded with baggage to ever result in a satisfying HEA. I do like Kat, but I guess I would say I’m Team Hero for now (and events in this book furthered that allegiance).

The mystery of Ross’ murder is rather complicated (as murder mysteries generally are, I guess, at least in novels). Ross turns out to have worked in the British Foreign Office under Sir Hyde Foley; Foley subsequently becomes a suspect. It’s discovered that another man, an American, was murdered on the same day as Ross by the same method. Suspicious characters begin to pile up. There is some business involving an American who has been impressed into the British navy, and his father and sister’s efforts to free him (these events occur on the eve of the War of 1812). There’s a French ex-priest and bookdealer who claims to be fervently anti-Napoleon, but Sebastian isn’t so sure. There’s a Swedish trader, Carl Lindquist, who was connected to Ross and appears to have been acting in some sort of sub rosa capacity for the Swedish government. Finally, there’s a Turkish diplomat who was seen arguing with Ross shortly before the man’s death, possibly over Ross’ relationship with the man’s wife. Some of these threads, at least, are tied up in political goings-on of the era, having to do with England’s relationship with Russia (I think). Honestly, it was all more than a bit byzantine to me, at least in part because I’m not that familiar with the Anglo-Russian War of 1807 to 1812. Actually, I don’t think I was aware that there was an Anglo-Russian War of 1807 to 1812. According to both Where Shadows Dance and Wikipedia, it was mostly a war in name only, and had something to do with the Russians trying to keep Napoleon appeased (anyone who knows more is welcome to correct me if I’m wrong on this). The Swedes were involved somehow, too. I think.

Look, I like history. Scratch that, I love history. Maybe it’s that I just don’t know enough about this aspect of European history, and the book either doesn’t explain it well enough, or there’s an assumption that the reader does know more than I did (which I think is fair – I actually prefer authors under-explaining historical events – I can always look stuff up if I’m interested – if the alternative is an info-dump of historical facts). But the point is, there were a number of discussions in this book that I had a good deal of trouble following. I didn’t understand the connections between the Russians and the Swedes and the Turks, and how that all related to Napoleon and the French. The Americans, at least I think, were a separate issue.

I just realized that I left two people off my suspect roundup above. Man, that’s a lot of suspects. Luckily (?), more murders occur, and as the bodies start turning up the suspect list does shrink. Still, having so many people involved didn’t really help my already-present confusion.

So, I don’t know that I can evaluate this book much as a mystery. Perhaps a proper mystery reader wouldn’t have issue with the number of suspects running around, or confusion about what was going on. In fact, that is probably the case. I am capable of being absorbed by mysteries, though (I’m thinking of Mistress of the Art of Death series; the mysteries in that series have been pretty decent). The Sebastian St. Cyr book that was most successful to me as a mystery was Why Mermaids Sing, but I’ve never been sure if that’s not because it’s rather luridly gruesome. I suppose in general I do better with murder mysteries that feature a personal reason for the murders than those with a lot of political intrigue.

This is all to say that I’m not going to mark Where Shadows Dance down because the mystery didn’t do much for me. As I noted, I mostly read the series for the characters and the developing relationships between them. In that sense, this book was relatively successful. That aspect of the story is being stretched out from book to book, which is to be expected. There was some progress towards the very end of Where Shadows Dance, and I will be interested to see how things develop in the next book. My grade for this book is a straight B.
Best regards,
Jennie

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