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REVIEW: What Remains of Heaven by C.S. Harris

Dear Ms. Harris,

0451228022.01.LZZZZZZZI have been anticipating the release of What Remains of Heaven, the fifth book in your Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series, for several months. I’ve come to expect a new book in this series every year, and while I’ve liked some of the offerings more than others, each has been satisfying (with grades ranging from A- to B), and the continuing turmoil in Sebastian’s personal life has held my attention from book to book.

Just a quick note: I think it’s probably going to be hard to entirely avoid spoilers for earlier books in the series in this review, so if you haven’t read the series, intend to, and are fanatical about remaining spoiler-free, you might want to stop reading now.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has rather inadvertently and reluctantly become known as a murder investigator (don’t you hate when that happens?). His imperious aunt comes to him accompanied by her friend, the ailing (but still formidable) Archbishop of Canterbury, to request Sebastian’s assistance in finding out who killed the Bishop of London, Francis Prescott. Bishop Prescott had been summoned to the village of Tanfield Hill one night upon the discovery, in a recently opened crypt, of a body that did not belong there – a long-deceased man found not in a coffin but on the floor of the crypt, with a knife sticking out his back. The Reverend Earnshaw, who had ridden to Lond to inform the bishop of the grisly discovery, is late in meeting him at the crypt and discovers Prescott practically atop the first body, with his skull bashed in.

Sebastian has no particular personal interest in this crime (unlike some of the previous ones he’s investigated), but agrees to look into it because of his regard for his aunt. Bishop Prescott, as it turns out, had any number of enemies (don’t they always?). He had angered many with his abolitionist stance, and the fact that he was being considered for the powerful position of Archbishop of Canterbury may have made some who opposed his views on slavery nervous. One of this group, a foppish aristocrat named Lord Quillian, was overheard threatening the bishop shortly before his death. Additionally, Prescott was see arguing with a butcher the day he was killed (it turns out the butcher’s son has an unpleasant past association with Sebastian, which ends up complicating his investigation), he had had a run-in with William Franklin (a real historical figure and son of Benjamin Franklin, William had been exiled to England for his support of the British during the American Revolution) and there was apparently acrimony between the bishop and his nephew Peter Prescott, an old school chum of Sebastian’s. Things get even murkier with the introduction of a subplot about a mysterious spy who had operated against the British during the revolution 30 years earlier; this thread ends up involving both Prescott’s family and Sebastian’s own (this is another one of those series that makes me wonder if there were only a couple of dozen people living in London in the 19th century, since the same people turn up over and over again).

As with previous books in the series, the mystery didn’t engross me hugely. At times it felt like there were lots of potential red herrings and improbably coincidences thrown at the reader, but those may be par for the course in mysteries, for all I know; I haven’t been a regular reader of the genre since I was a teenager. When I read mysteries these days, I tend to filter out the very same information that mystery fans are probably filing away to see if they can figure out the solution to the crime. I really don’t care about solving the crime myself, and untangling the clues makes my head hurt, so it’s hard for me to assess the worth of this book as a straight mystery, except to say that I was impressed by how neatly all of the pieces fit together in the end. That’s really all I ask of a mystery; other readers may have more stringent requirements. (I guessed one fairly obvious “surprise” early on, but the the ultimate identity of the killer did surprise me.)

Again, as with previous books in the series, my real interest is the setting and the continuing characters. Sebastian remains an intriguing and highly sympathetic hero, one who has been buffeted by a number of distressing revelations over the course of the series. This book is no exception, and while these revelations are fairly melodramatic, even soap-operaish in nature, there was an internal logic to the ways in which the characters were manipulated, I thought.

As in past books, Sebastian’s romantic travails are featured in What Remains of Heaven, but I was a little disappointed that the characters seemed to pretty much tread water for the course of the book. Sebastian’s relationship with Hero Jarvis is complicated by the consequences of their night together in the last book, but while they meet up a number of times in What Remains of Heaven, their conversations have a repetitious quality that frustrated me. (Hero has her own reasons for wanting to get to the bottom of the bishop’s murder; he was a friend of hers and was helping her with a personal problem.) Sebastian’s relationship with Kat Boleyn is rocked by an entirely unshocking shocking revelation, but there are still considerable obstacles between this couple and their HEA (and honestly, I’m more on Team Hero at this point). I would have preferred a bit more balance between the mystery and Sebastian’s relationship drama. I don’t mind the series being drawn out, and I realize that this dictates that things go slowly on the personal front, but I do want to see some progress in the course of a book.

Sebastian’s relationship with his father continues to intrigue; the two have been very up and down in the course of the series, owing to the fact that Hendon was hard on Sebastian as a boy and continues to lie to him about Very Important Things now that Sebastian’s an adult, things that Sebastian has a way of finding out, leading to a fresh round of recriminations and then estrangement. I can’t help but like Hendon in spite of his flaws because he really is a fully drawn character; he loves his son but he can’t seem to stop making mistakes with him. He has functioned at times as an antagonist in the series, but he’s anything but one-note (unlike, say, Sebastian’s sister, whose personality seems to be permanently set on Witch).

The prose is mostly smooth, marred here and there by a lack of subtlety and a tendency to over-explain (Hero at one point thinks that it’s tedious that as an unmarried female the rules of society dictate that she can’t visit a man she wants to question in the murder case; I would think the vast majority of readers would understand enough about the mores of regency society that they would not need to have these circumstances pointed out to them so explicitly). My enthusiasm for the series really does rest mainly with the characters; Sebastian, Hero, Hendon, Kat and a few others are sympathetic enough to make me care about them and faceted enough to keep me interested from book to book.

My grade for What Remains of Heaven is a B+.

Jennie

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

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.

18 Comments

  1. MelissaG
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 04:16:34

    I am about a third of the way through What Remains of Heaven and I am loving it. I only wish I didn’t have to wait until next year for the next book (I even peeked at the back to see what would happen with the Hero situation but that wasn’t enough!) I am firmly on team Hero too, I think I like the plain, strong-willed heroines more in general and I like being there to watch the romance grow from the beginning instead of coming in later. Great review.

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  2. sandy l
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 05:38:33

    I loved this book also. And can’t wait for the next one. I loved the way that Hero and Sebastian worked as a team and didn’t realize it. They have an interesting and exciting relationship.

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  3. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 06:38:55

    I read the previous books (a little out of order, but once I read the third, I ordered the first two and then later the fourth. Must buy fifth). C.S. Harris is one writer I’d like to chain to a computer chair, provide a life-time’s worth of Red Bull and make sure she writes as fast as she can. The series is amazing.

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  4. RStewie
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 07:41:39

    I’m going to get this series for my sister for Christmas. I think she’ll love it…I also will be reading her copies. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

    Are these along the same lines as the Julia Spencer-Fleming novels, but Regency? She loved that series, which is what is pushing me in the direction of getting her these.

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  5. Barb
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 07:57:00

    Another fan and member of Team Hero here. I have only one question–what is with the cover?? Girl in diaphanous dress, barefoot, on staircase–WTF??? I guess she is supposed to be coming out of the crypt, but sheesh.

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  6. HelenKay Dimon
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 09:28:43

    I didn’t read the review because of your spoiler warning so I’m not sure if you covered this, but is this one of those series I need to read in order? I want this – have to admit barefoot/dress/staircase cover won me over – but am thinking I might need to start at the beginning.

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  7. LizC
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 09:34:11

    I am totally on Team Hero and have been pretty much from book 1 because I’ve always found Kat boring. Or perhaps I find the Kat and Sebastian angst boring and I, too, like seeing a romance grow. I don’t like coming into the middle of what I’m supposed to believe is some great romance only I didn’t get to see it begin.

    I absolutely admit that I do not read these novels for the mystery. At least not the stand alone mystery. I read for Hero and I read for Sebastian’s personal issues.

    I actually expected to come out of this book with almost no hope for Team Hero because I figured Sebastian would finally learn that the thing keeping he and Kat apart was a lie but surprisingly I’m more hopeful.

    I can’t believe I have to wait a year for another book.

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  8. Stephanie
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 10:16:20

    Thanks for this review. I’m looking forward to reading WRoH, although I agree it’s the characters more than the mysteries themselves that keep me coming back. These books fill a little of the gap left by the Julian Kestrel series after Kate Ross’s untimely passing. I suspect I may be in the minority about the Sebastian and Hero pairing. It’s not that I don’t like Hero–on the contrary, I like her enormously–but I can’t help thinking she deserves better than a man with Daddy and Mommy issues up the wazoo, who’s also carrying a gigantic torch for another woman.

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  9. Jennie
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 10:24:54

    I loved the way that Hero and Sebastian worked as a team and didn't realize it. They have an interesting and exciting relationship.

    I agree. I felt a little disappointed that Sebastian mostly seemed concerned about his obligations to Hero in this book – while yearning for Kat – but I figure there’s time for that to change. Neither Sebastian nor Hero are the types to indulge in a lot of silly mental lusting, anyway.

    Are these along the same lines as the Julia Spencer-Fleming novels, but Regency? She loved that series, which is what is pushing me in the direction of getting her these.

    I haven’t read the Julia Spencer-Fleming series, though I have the first two books waiting for me to read (I think they were available as free downloads, oh, maybe a year or so ago?). I have heard good things about that series. I have to say that I really like the Regency setting of the Harris mysteries, but I’m a big historical fan in general, anyway.

    I have only one question-what is with the cover?? Girl in diaphanous dress, barefoot, on staircase-WTF??? I guess she is supposed to be coming out of the crypt, but sheesh.

    You know, I hardly noticed that (I bought the ebook). That is a bizarre cover, now that I think about it. I will never understand cover art, though.

    I didn't read the review because of your spoiler warning so I'm not sure if you covered this, but is this one of those series I need to read in order? I want this – have to admit barefoot/dress/staircase cover won me over – but am thinking I might need to start at the beginning.

    Probably. There’s a lot of carry-over from previous books. The mystery is stand-alone, but all the other stuff in Sebastian’s life is not. It may be explained well enough for someone who hasn’t read previous books to get it, but I think you’d be missing out by not reading these in order.

    LizC, I still think Sebastian and Kat have an almost unworkable amount of baggage attached to their relationship. I think I’d believe that even if Hero weren’t in the picture, though Hero’s presence definitely makes me even more doubtful about Sebastian and Kat.

    I think I said this in my review of the last book in the series – I feel a bit bad preferring the bluestocking spinster heroine over the experienced actress heroine. I am one of those readers agitating for edgier heroines! But while I like Kat, Hero is just a more interesting character at this point, and though I feel kind of bad about it, I think she’s more right for Sebastian.

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  10. MaryK
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 13:45:28

    I haven’t read these books, but I just had to comment on this:

    I haven't been a regular reader of the genre since I was a teenager. When I read mysteries these days, I tend to filter out the very same information that mystery fans are probably filing away to see if they can figure out the solution to the crime. I really don't care about solving the crime myself, and untangling the clues makes my head hurt, so it's hard for me to assess the worth of this book as a straight mystery, except to say that I was impressed by how neatly all of the pieces fit together in the end. … my real interest is the setting and the continuing characters.

    This describes me exactly. :D

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  11. DS
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 18:08:42

    I read the first two in this series but gave up due to her historical clunkers. I do read and enjoy a lot of historical mysteries so I might be more sensitive to this than other readers.

    One example was a character in 1812 mention sado-masochism. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man whose name became the source of the term, wasn’t born until 1836. And that was just one of the most obvious errors.

    I do rather like what I saw of Hero, but not enough to put up with the errors that could have been fixed with a Google search or two.

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  12. Jennie
    Nov 20, 2009 @ 00:10:55

    DS, sometimes ignorance is bliss. I didn’t notice the reference to sado-masochism, and if I had, I wouldn’t have known that it was anachronistic. I can see how those sorts of things would put you off the series. I have noticed the occasional element that strikes the wrong chord, but nothing that bothers me enough to counteract all the things I like about it.

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  13. Vicki
    Nov 20, 2009 @ 09:00:29

    Great review. I almost gave up on this series after one too many teenage angsty moments between Sebastian and Kat, but I stuck with it and I enjoyed the last book and this one quite a bit. The relationship between Sebastian and Kat is annoying, cloying and makes no sense to me. The character of Kat bores me to tears and Sebastian seems to turn into a whiny child when he is around her. We are constantly told that she is the love of his life, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you why. I also love Hendon and find the scenes between he and Sebastian to be some of the strongest. Also love Hero’s father. Talk about a complex character…

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  14. Diane
    Nov 21, 2009 @ 20:21:29

    This was a very helpful review. I have mostly enjoyed this series and I’m excited to read What Remains of Heaven. Although unlike most other people, I don’t like the character of Hero too much. She’s a walking cliche in terms of romance heroines (the plain, innocent, do-gooder). I prefered the more complex intimacy between Sebastian and Kat. I miss that part. His relationship with Hero is too cold. Either way though I can’t wait to read this book.

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  15. Jennie
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 02:16:02

    Vicki and Diane, strangely I can relate to both of your feelings re Kat v. Hero. I don’t think either is the “perfect” heroine. Maybe my preference for Hero at this point is simply because we haven’t seen her and Sebastian fall in love (I agree about the coldness there) yet, so we have that to anticipate.

    I think my feelings could be more accurately characterized as liking both Hero and Kat rather than favoring one over the other. I almost wish Sebastian didn’t have to pick between them.

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  16. Sora
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 06:39:35

    Perhaps there is nothing [for Sebastian] to pick between? Perhaps Sebastian’s heart will forever belong to Kat and vice versa? Perhaps Hero’s role is something different? Perhaps the sort of story C. S. Harris is envisioning is different from ours, with our ideas of what is Romance cliché and non-cliché?

    As with other readers of this series, I have my own theories regarding this tangle and other things related to Sebastian St Cyr, but they are a bit too fantastic. Then I thought “Well, there are witches (living or dead) in this story and a necklace with power, so why not?” Still, I wouldn’t dream of posting them here publicly, not while this series is still running. Perhaps (sorry) when everything is finally revealed to us, there could be a book discussion on this series?

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  17. Jennie
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 18:37:13

    I think you may be right, Sora – I mean, since the romance and relationship aspects of the books are what interest me most I’m very much reading the books from a romance perspective. But I’m alway of the possibility that Sebastian won’t end up with either of them, or that if he and Hero do end up together it may not be a fairytale romance ending. I’m okay with that (within limits!).

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  18. N Parkes
    Nov 24, 2010 @ 07:59:42

    I’m still rooting for Kat. At this point, Hero is the predictable choice, being an aristocrat just like Sebastian. Imagine the delicious twists and turns we can expect from the author to make Kat into the respectable, and preferred, wife for Sebastion.

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