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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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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

17 Comments

  1. Janine
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 12:07:34

    I enjoyed the first book in this series but couldn’t get into the second one. Your reviews of them always make me want to try to wade back in, though!

  2. Readsalot81
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 12:29:29

    The first two in the series were purchased for me as a gift. This review is making me think I’ll have to set them aside and read the first one after the holidays. :)

  3. Kate Hewitt
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 12:37:50

    I love this series, although the books seem to be slowing down a bit in pace and character development. Still, I’ll read the next one as soon as it comes out :)

  4. Darlynne
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 12:42:14

    Great review. I have loved every one of these books, some more than others, and am completely invested in what happens to the characters, even the unsavory ones. Admittedly, I can’t always keep track of the suspects or the course of the investigation, but I am riveted by Hero and Sebastian, and not just as a couple; they are each intriguing in their own right and my hopes for their fledgling and fragile relationship are high.

    The idea of Arthur’s return has been around forever, often as a political tool, and that’s about all I know.

  5. Tina
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 12:44:48

    Good review and I agree with your assessment that the killer seemed pulled out of the air. I do love to read mysteries but I have to say the mystery element of this was very much the weakest aspect of the book. I didn’t think the author did a good job at all of making any of the suspects seem especially viable. They were suspicious because Hero and Sebastian made them so.

    But I did really like this book because a) I am finding the trajectory of the Hero & Sebastian relationship really well done and their adjustments to each other was worked well into the mystery plot and b) I like the continuing mystery of Sebastian’s background. The inclusion of the Jamie Knox character (and what an interesting character he is…) just adds to the fun.

  6. Courtney
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 13:08:06

    This is one of my favorite historical mystery series. I glommed up all the books last year after seeing one someone rave about it somewhere (Goodreads? Here? I don’t remember). This series, although set in England in the 1800s reminds me of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Murder Mystery Series featuring Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy in NYC in the early 1900s and I read them for the same reasons – a good mystery, but ongoing stories about their families and their attraction to their loves ones (Sebastian and Hero; Sarah and Frank). I’m still dying to see when/if Sebastian’s long-lost mother returns from France and if he’ll ever mend his relationship with Hendon.

  7. Isobel Carr
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 13:20:20

    I really like this series, but yes, I really do only read it for the Sebastian/Hero dynamic. I love her!

  8. Elyssa Patrick
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 13:23:13

    This series seems right up my alley, but I haven’t picked them up yet. But this review makes me want to give them a try.

  9. AlexaB
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 14:53:33

    I adore this series, although I rate Ashley Gardner’s (aka Jennifer Ashley’s) Captain Lacey series just a wee smidgen higher when it comes to Regency England-set mysteries. Like everyone else, I read for the Hero/Sebastian dynamic. However, I wasn’t too fond of the Alfred Tennyson tie-in in this book, since a lot of it is wholly made up. I prefer it when historical authors play with the established facts and find a way to make their stories work within those parameters, but that’s just me.

    I didn’t mind the “once and future king” device. Prinny was unpopular at the time, thanks to his vacillation between the Whigs and Tories after Perceval’s assassination and his enormous personal expenditures during the Napoleonic wars. I read it as the rumor of Arthur’s return was spread not because people actually believed Arthur would return ala Jesus Christ, but to remind the populace that the Hanoverians were Continental European imports and perhaps no longer fit to rule the United Kingdom. The handbills’ goal was to make Prinny and his supporters nervous, and I fully bought Jarvis would try to squash them (or more important, that Hero and Sebastian would believe Jarvis capable of going to extreme lengths to squash them.)

  10. Shelley
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 16:33:31

    Would these be along the same line as P.B. Ryan’s Nell Sweeney mysteries? I like those though I’m not a big mystery fan.

  11. Jennie
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 18:24:23

    @Kate Hewitt: I agree that some of the personal developments feel like they are happening more slowly. I have to remind myself that these books take place in a fairly compressed amount of time – I think in this 7th book only about a year or 18 months has passed since the events of the first book. It makes me impatient sometimes, though.

  12. Jennie
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 18:33:25

    @Isobel Carr: I think I mentioned in a review of an earlier book that I felt conflicted a bit about Sebastian/Hero v. Sebastian/Kat. I felt like I *should* prefer to see Sebastian with the less conventional character, the non-virginal actress with a decidedly shadowy past, rather than with the sharp-tongued bluestocking Hero, who on paper (if only on paper) is a very familiar type of romance heroine.

    There are a couple of reasons I’ve reconciled myself to rooting for the Sebastian/Hero pairing: first of all, the way all three characters are written, they transcend easy labeling. Hero is so much more than just a “type”, and I never feel like she’s the heroine because she’s somehow worthier of heroine status than Kat. Secondly, Kat has a LOT of baggage, much of which relates to Sebastian, and some of which (if I’m remembering correctly, and I might not be) he still doesn’t even know about yet. It’s hard, very hard, to imagine an HEA between Sebastian and Kat at this point. I’d like to see her get a happy ending of some sort, at the end of the series. (Also, what about Paul? I’ve long wanted to see more of him…)

  13. bookfan
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 21:38:29

    I adore this series. I discovered these about two years ago and glommed them all within a week and a half while crazy busy with work. I would come home from work around midnight and then stay up to 3 or 4 am to read –that is how much I loved them ????. I agree that the big draw is really the characters and their dynamics with each other (in particular Hero/Sebastian, Sebastian/Jarvis and Sebastian/Hendon.)

    I also really appreciate that CS Harris was able to write a strong, intelligent heroine who does not feel anachronistic and an alpha-ish hero who is not abusive or a d-bag. For those on the fence, give them a try!

  14. Susan
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 22:37:43

    Another huge fan of the series here.

    Agree with many of the other comments that the mystery element is secondary to all the relationship stuff and character development. I don’t think there’s a single character I’m not interested in learning more about–I just wish it would happen faster!

  15. JoAnn
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 07:19:19

    I have been a long time fan of C S Harris and highly recommend the Sebastian series!! I would also suggest checking out her romance novels (written under the name Candice Proctor), many are now available as ebooks.

  16. dick
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 10:15:17

    Got started on the series by accident, picking up one of the books in a UBS. Upon finishing it, I acquired the entire series so I could read it in order. The writing is really good and although the mysteries seem, as the poster remarked, too readily wrapped up by luck rather than investigation, most of them are at least OK. I’ve just started the Ashley Gardner books, so can’t say yet whether they top this series.

  17. Jennie
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 17:45:05

    @Shelley: Yes, I’d liken them to Ryan’s series, which I also enjoyed.

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