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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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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.

14 Comments

  1. Darlynne
    Mar 23, 2011 @ 16:41:25

    Jennie, I’m very invested in this series, too, for the characters. The mystery is a little confusing, but I frequently have that trouble when there are so many characters as there were here. Ms. Harris’s credentials are stellar, however, historically speaking, and I enjoy what I’ve come to think of as her walking tours of London, its environs and past; I am happy to look at whatever she wants to show me and feel infinitely smarter for the journey.

    Hero continues to intrigue me and is so much more complicated than one might expect. She obviously respects and cares for her father, but she isn’t stupid or naive; overall, I think her interactions with him have been nuanced and skilled.

    All the things we are shown about Hero, i.e., her interest in the nearly ancient plans for one of the buildings in London (I don’t have the book in front of me, sorry) make me want to shake Sebastian and say, “Look, look, she is perfect for you.” She is so brave in her terror, proving the supposition that courage really is holding your ground for ten seconds longer than everyone else.

    I love the angles at which Hero and Sebastian approach each other. This is no easy or lighthearted dance between them, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. Each new facet revealed, however, is considered and weighed, and not once do we veer into cliché land: no big misunderstandings, no icy withdrawals, just a recognition of another piece fitting into place. I don’t expect the road ahead to be straight or trouble-free, but I do hope it is paved with respect and affection.

    Fan girl much?

    I also like the way Hero is described throughout these books. She is not conventionally or breathtakingly lovely as Kat is, but such fierce intelligence and social adeptness make for a very powerful and attractive presence. That she is always beautifully dressed avoids the smart-ergo-frumpy trope, which pleases me no end.

    I was so glad to see your review and would probably rate Where Shadows Dance A-. Obviously I am besotted with the Hero-Sebastian story line and while the intricacies of the mystery were somewhat confusing, the behind-the-scenes look at this slice of history was riveting.

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  2. orannia
    Mar 23, 2011 @ 17:07:15

    Thank you Jennie! I am another who reads this series for the characters. Yes, I like a mystery, but…its the characters in a book and their development that keep me reading.

    Obviously I am besotted with the Hero-Sebastian story line…

    Me too *grin* I like Kat, but…I just feel, as Jennie said, there is too much baggage between them. And part of me is still stuck on the fact that Kat was spying for the French while Sebastian was away fighting in the war. I guess it just feels like a betrayal.. And I know Kat was focused on independence for Ireland, but still… And I like Hero. There is so much to her. I like that she tries to walk her own path, but she is…aware of society and where the line of no return is. She works within the lines, and I find that far more interesting than a character who walks all over the lines and gets away with it because of…whatever reason the author provides.

    I am looking forward to reading this, but thank you Jennie for making me aware of the complexity of the mystery plot. I might keep Wikipedia open and ready when I need to work out the political wheeling and dealing (if it’s anything like pre-WWI politics then it will be complex :)

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  3. Susan/DC
    Mar 23, 2011 @ 21:49:31

    I left this comment on Tracy Grant’s blog about heartstopping moments. In “Where Serpents Sleep”, Sebastian and Hero are trapped in an underground vault. The water level is rising, and they fear they will drown. Not quite friends, not lovers, yet they find comfort in each others' arms. “He heard her breath catch, felt her body arch against his as the bells of St. Clements echoed away into stillness. He knew a strange sense of wonder, like a man awakening from a long, drugged sleep. And he thought, This is what life feels like. This is what a woman feels like.”

    Sebastian, so wounded by the war, by his family, by the murders he has tried to avenge, is brought to life and awareness of another in this moment with Hero, and I for one find it deeply, utterly romantic.

    I liked “Where Shadows Dance” as a whole, both mystery and for the developing relationships. However, as for the mystery, I’m still not quite sure why Alexander Ross was killed by the person who killed him.

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  4. msaggie
    Mar 24, 2011 @ 07:16:05

    Thanks so much Jennie, for the review! I also prefer Hero to Kat. And I think that the current plot development has much more scope for conflict (we already have some idea from Hero’s musings near the end). The romance is very much understated, and I think Sebastian is stuck in his “I’ve lost the love of my life” attitude without actually examining the extent of his feelings for Hero. It reminds me a bit of one of my favourite romances, Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, where the hero Samuel also starts out thinking he loves and wants to marry someone he’s loved since he was a teenager.

    I am a great fan of mystery novels, and usually like mine thick and convoluted. However, I felt that there were too many bodies in this one, and at the end, it read a bit like an action movie. That’s my only gripe – I really enjoyed the book nevertheless, and would recommend this series highly – more for the characterisation and general story-arc. It may not be for the average romance reader though, who’s looking for more h/h interaction, etc.

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  5. Jennifer
    Mar 24, 2011 @ 10:01:35

    Thank you for the review. I’ve enjoyed the St. Cyr series, and am looking forward to this one…

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  6. KC
    Mar 24, 2011 @ 13:19:10

    I’m afraid I’m quite disappointed in this book. I really enjoyed the first three books, but I don’t like how contrived the Hero/Sebastian pairing is. There is no way that Sebastian would ever have married Hero without the pregnancy storyline. Being Jarvis’s daughter is the main reason, but there really was very little interaction between the two until the fourth/fifth books. The entire plot feels so manufactured.

    Now we’re in book 6 and Sebastian still loves Kat. He even thinks to himself that he would never have chosen a future with Hero, but he has to be a gentleman. Why not have left Sebastian single and interacting with both women? Why change the heroine mid-series? Ms. Harris manufactured a pregnancy plotline to force two characters together that had never shown any interest in one another. Possible attraction isn’t love.

    I think Hero is a strong, independent woman who truly wanted to remain single. There were plenty of possible storylines to showcase her, yet Ms. Harris has made her and Sebastian conform to society’s expectations. Plus, that scene with Hero and her kidnappers was way over the top. A wealthy, pampered aristocrat has the ability to overpower three men? It just seemed forced – as if the author has to make Hero more appealing as the new heroine.

    I admit I prefer the storyline of Sebastian being in love with a foreign agent/actress. I think this has more possibilities in a mystery series. Between the theater and spying for the French, the plots are endless.

    Finally, Sebastian loves Kat, yet he’s keeping his place in society by not announcing his true parentage. Meanwhile, Kat truly has an aristocratic father and is left on the outside looking in. This isn’t something that Sebastian, as portrayed in the first few books, would have done. He didn’t care what society or his father thought and wouldn’t have been happy being accepted by society, while Kat was condemned to stay in the lower classes.

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  7. Janine
    Mar 24, 2011 @ 15:48:49

    I only read the first book in this series, but I loved it. I’ve been talking about reading more of the books, and I really should do it.

    @msaggie — Your comparison of the Sebastian/Hero relationship to the dynamic between Samuel and Leda in The Shadow and the Star has heightened my interest. Plus I love marriage of convenience storylines.

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  8. Jennie
    Mar 24, 2011 @ 18:36:26

    @Darlynne: I really agree with you that while Hero is not conventionally as beautiful as Kat, she is given a number of small but appealing characteristics that make her really likable. You’re right on about her social adeptness (I love the way she seems to know everyone and everything, to the point where Sebastian comes to her for information), and she dresses well and behaves correctly. She’s not your wallpaper historical bluestocking ninny who runs about carping about injustice and getting into dumb scrapes because she doesn’t understand the rules. Hero knows the rules very well, and she mostly obeys them, because she knows the consequences of not obeying them.

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  9. Jennie
    Mar 24, 2011 @ 18:38:41

    @orannia: Yeah, I don’t want to be too hard on Kat but her spying activities are a bit distasteful to me. If she were the main character, maybe I’d be on her side more, but being as the focus is mainly on Sebastian, and I really like Sebastian, I kind of feel protective of him and thus bugged by Kat’s deception, even if she had worthy (to her mind) motives.

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  10. Datus (AD Usher)
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 01:18:20

    Agreed, this book is not quite up to scratch, but some comments are woeful!… Kat did not betray Sebastian,she had not met him when she became a very minor spy for the French, for excellent reasons, and he was fighting the French. By this book, she had given up that activity. Readers should keep in mind some of the foreshadowing clues planted in previous books….Sebastian has no option but to keep his parentage hidden, at this stage. This is not because he wishes to keep his social position, but because of the damage it would do to others. He is still searching for his mother. Jarvis knows something about her, a secret he is keeping. Kat’s husband is protecting Kat by holding something over Jarvis
    Jarvis has a hold over Kat’s husband. Hero obviously knows of the Kat/Sebastian history, but is wise enough not to comment. Doubtless it will all play out in future books of the series.
    As for not understanding the historical bits, they are well set out. The author is hardly responsible for the ignorance of her readers.

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  11. Darlynne
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 15:45:49

    @Datus (AD Usher):After re-reading the previous comments, I don’t see anyone saying they didn’t understand the “historical bits.” Even if they had, your dig about “the ignorance of her readers” is uncalled for.

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  12. Datus
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 23:00:37

    Darlynne. Point taken. But is this not at the core of this series? Is not all reading a contract between author and reader, no matter the genre? The first in this series gave promise of being a Regency detective yarn, with
    allusions to people and events integral to the plot familiar to the reader. It was the success of the characters introduced into this milieu that hooked the reader. So, the author continued to deliver a Regency detective, and readers, in the main, were confortable. Now, has the contract changed?
    Is the author striving to meet some expectations of a romantic Regency detective? Are readers demanding ‘romance’ rather than detection?
    There is no ‘romance’ between Sebastian and Hero. Two sexual encounters, initiated by Hero, and enjoyed by Sebastian. Is Hero seeking commitment from him? Is she trying to fall in love with him by confusing love with sex? Is he willing to give her some commitment, despite loving Kat? Kat loved him always with all her heart, and still does, but she will never betray her husband. Jarvis and his rage against Sebastian simmers in the background, will he once again threaten Kat? And, there’s Hendon, no friend of Jarvis’, would he move to protect his daughter Kat? Oh, let’s not forget Sebastian’s mother, and his repulsive vindictive sister. So, if you want the series to degenerate into ‘romance’ its all there. Or, if the author wishes to remain true to the original concept of a Regency detective, there is time to pull back from the present confusions. Who knows, her readers may love it the more!
    And, by the way, are copy editors getting careless? e.g., Sebastion pouring tea for his aunt puts milk in the cup before the tea! Even today that is a no no, not only on grounds of courtesy but taste.
    The first sexual encounter between Sebastian and Hero, initiated by Hero, takes place in a cold cellar as they await death by drowning. Brilliant, believable. In Where Shadows Dance there’s a throwaway allusion to this encounter as an interlude in a garden. Ouch!

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  13. FanLit
    Mar 28, 2011 @ 12:04:41

    The actions and motivations of some of the characters in the first few books no longer resemble them in the last few. A case in point is Sebastian inviting his father to his wedding. After the lie that Hendon told to Sebastian – namely, that he was involved with his own sister, there is no way that Sebastian would then give his father the honor of attending his wedding. Look how upset he was with Hendon in the first and second books when he merely lied about paying Kat off. Now his father told an absolutely unspeakable lie, yet Sebastian calls a truce. He didn’t invite his sister, but his father has done far worse.

    Then there’s the way the author is forcing the marriage between Hero and Devlin. Again, there is no way Sebastian would marry the daughter of his enemy, so there is this contrived pregnancy to force the two characters together. Too much groundwork was laid for Sebastian and Kat’s love story for the realtionship with Hero to seem believable. Jarvis is the master of manipulation, yet he allows Hero to marry the enemy. With his connections, any sort of arrangment could have been made to protect Hero and the baby without marrying her off. This entire part of the story seems rushed and not well thought out. Since it is mainly a mystery, it would have been better to leave Sebastian single and interacting with both women.

    Finally, what about Kat’s reaction to the pregnancy. She’s loved this man for years, yet doesn’t display any hurt at the news of the pregnancy or his upcoming marriage? How civilized and unbelievable. Sebastian drank for months after he lost Kat, yet the author gives Kat a mundane attitude at the news. It’s as if the author knows where she’s going with the mystery of Sebastian’s mother, but has lost touch with the essential characteristics of the protagonists.

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  14. Elaine
    May 04, 2011 @ 16:16:33

    Actually, Kat began spying for the French AFTER she fell in love with Sebastian. She naively plans to marry him but sends him away when his father impresses upon her the ruin she would cause for him. Heartbroken Sebastian goes off to fight the French, and Kat begins spying for them – all to help Ireland, course. This is all backstory to the first book. She is STILL spying for them when the series begins and Sebastian has returned from France. It is only when they resume their relationship that she calls a halt to her spying. Even then she is not honest with Sebastian. He has to discover her big secret for himself then he forgives her. Which is fine for him, but does not excuse her actions from my point of view.

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