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REVIEW: Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris

Dear Ms. Harris,

I have been a fan of yours since reading your first book, Night in Eden, written under the name Candice Proctor. Though the other romances written under the Proctor name never quite equaled that first book, I have continued to enjoy your writing both under that name as well the name you use for your Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, C.S. Harris.

Where Serpents Sleep is the fourth title in the series that began with What Angels Fear, and continued with When Gods Die and last year’s Why Mermaids Sing. Each book contains a central mystery that is resolved in the course of the book, but there are also overarching mysteries and storylines that continue from book to book. I liked the debut a lot, grading it a B+. I noted at the time in my book log that the mystery did not interest me terribly (I’m not much of a mystery fan in general), but that the writing was good and Sebastian was an interesting character. The second book worked a bit less well for me; without the newness of the central character to appreciate, the book felt thin and the mystery uninvolving. Still, I gave it a B, being that it was well-written and entertaining enough.

Why Mermaids Sing was actually my favorite of the series, earning an A- from me. The higher grade was due to some interesting developments in Sebastian’s personal life, and, I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit, the rather lurid mystery that formed the heart of the book. Not that the mystery was sleazy or titillating; rather it had a certain grisly fascination (and I’m not usually a fan of grisliness). So I was very much looking forward to Where Serpents Sleep.

The book opens not with Sebastian but with Hero Jarvis, the daughter of Sebastian’s nemesis Lord Jarvis; Hero has appeared in (and sparred with Sebastian in) previous books. She is a thorough bluestocking, a sensible 25-year-old spinster who has an interest social welfare. To that end, the opening finds her at Magdalene House, a refuge for runaway prostitutes run by Quakers. Hero is interviewing the denizens in support of a bill that’s to go before Parliament; she is researching the lives of these women to try to prove that they turn to prostitution not out of innate low morals but due to desperate circumstances. Hero is speaking to a prostitute named Rose Jones when a commotion erupts downstairs. Rose seems to know immediately that the intruders have come for her, and her fear and urgency convince Hero that the situation is dire. They escape by climbing out a window and jumping to the ground, but as they flee, Rose is shot and killed.

Hero turns to Sebastian for help in discovering who was after Rose and why. The trespassers at Magdalene House killed eight women, including Rose, and covered their crime with a fire. The public at large does not know that a crime has been committed, and if they did, many would likely not care, due to the social standing of the victims.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin has being having a rough time of it lately; events depicted in the last book have left him emotionally devastated, estranged from his father and torn from the love of his life, actress Kat Boleyn. Kat has since gone on to marry another man, and Sebastian has retreated from the world, drowning his sorrow in alcohol and generally wasting his life. He decides to help Hero mainly to aggravate her father, a fact that Hero uses to garner his cooperation.

Rose Jones, as it turns out, was not a typical prostitute, brought up in the slums and introduced to “the game” at a young age. She turns out to have been a born and bred member of the aristocracy; her real name was Rachel Fairchild. She had made her debut the year before and been engaged to be married when she supposedly abruptly retired to the country with an unidentified illness. In fact, she ran away and ended up in a brothel.

There are two mysteries in Where Serpents Sleep: why Rachel fled the safety and security of her privileged life for one of degradation and danger, and why someone killed her.

Honestly, neither mystery engaged my attention fully – the resolution to the first felt a bit obvious, and the second rather obscure and arbitrary, though I inadvertently partially spoiled myself for it by reading the author’s note at the end; maybe I would have found it more interesting had I not. But as I mentioned above, I’m not much of a mystery reader, and I don’t really read this series for the mysteries, anyway. I am interested in the characters and their relationships, the fine writing, and the way that Regency England is depicted. I’ve read so many regency romances over the years; it’s strange that some of the most vibrant descriptions of the era I read these days seem to be outside the genre. Maybe the various romance tropes get in the way of my getting that sense of realism that I crave. I think it helps that in these books Sebastian ends up interacting with people at many different levels of society – so you get a feel for the lower and middle class folks of the time as well as the aristocracy.

To get back to the relationships for a moment – one of the strengths of this book and indeed of the series so far is the complexity of the relationships between the characters. As I mentioned, Sebastian is estranged from his father, but even when they were on speaking terms, they had a rather tension-fraught relationship. His father is definitely flawed, but he’s no cardboard villain. Even Lord Jarvis, who rather decidedly is a villain (though not of the cardboard variety) shows some humanity in his concern for Hero.

It appears that we may be headed into a love triangle between Sebastian, Kat and Hero. I have mixed feelings about that. I find both of these women appealing and "right" for Sebastian, each in her own way. Kat is the more unusual heroine, at least from the traditional romance standpoint. But she has a lot of baggage, even if she and Sebastian were to resolve the issue keeping them apart at the moment. Hero fits into the no-nonsense, bluestocking spinster mold rather well, but at the same time enough depth is given to her characterization to make her feel like more than just a type, and in some ways I think she’s good for Sebastian. I must confess, after four books I feel a bit protective of him! He deserves to be happy. But I wouldn’t mind it taking him a few more books to get there.

Aside from being less than enthralled with the mysteries, I have few complaints about Where Serpents Sleep. One thing I noticed (and I seem to recall being the case in previous books in the series): the chapters are very short, often only about four or five pages long. I have mixed feelings about that – on the one hand, it seems to contribute to the book’s feel of being a quick and easy read that moves along briskly. On the other hand, it also lends a slightly insubstantial feel to the story, and I wonder if the book could have been a little longer. With fewer chapter breaks and thus less white space, I wonder if the book would have clocked in at closer to 300 pages rather than the 341 it ended up at. But that’s a minor quibble, and partly influenced by my preference for long, meaty books (actually, I used to really like big, thick tomes even more than I do now; these days I just basically wish every good book were longer and every bad book were shorter).

I’m giving Where Serpents Sleep a high B+, and look very much forward to the next installment in the series.

Jennie

This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

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.

20 Comments

  1. sandy l
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 15:41:42

    I read this book as soon as it came out. It was wonderful. I admit that I like Hero a little better than Kit. As you pointed out, Kit has a little too much baggage. Also, she feels inferior to Sebastian and I’m not sure that she will ever overcome that feeling. I am anxiously awaiting for the next one.

  2. Peggy P
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 17:00:45

    I just read all these books two weeks ago, I’m not sure how I missed them in the first place but I was happy to catch up. One thing about not reading books when they first come out is you can sit down and read a series straight through and that’s just what I did! I had Sebastian overload for sure.

    I really enjoyed these but I like mysteries and love historicals, so what’s not to love? They are very well written and the characters are well developed, throw in a little humor, some romance and some mystery, hey, that makes a great book for me. I also see a possible ongoing love triangle in the future and think I’ll enjoy that development too. I am looking forward to the next one and plan on checking out books by Candace Proctor also.

    I found these to be well worth my time but I’m glad I read them in order – I think it would be difficult to understand everyone’s motivations w/o having read the other books.

  3. orannia
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 17:08:04

    Thank you Jennie!

    This is the first I’ve heard of this series (and this author) but I’m rather intrigued. I’m currently reading another historical suspence – Silent in the Grave (Deanna Raybourn), which was reviewed here – and am really enjoying it (so much so I have requested the sequel :)

    I’m guessing it is best to start at the beginning of the series (and YAH my library has it!). I *heart* my library!

  4. Jennie
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 20:09:11

    One thing about not reading books when they first come out is you can sit down and read a series straight through and that's just what I did!

    I know; that can be totally gratifying, though on the downside there is even more of a let-down when you finish the last one! (I read the first four…or five? Sookie Stackhouse books at once, and fairly recently read all of the Nalini Singh books more or less at once.)

    I found these to be well worth my time but I'm glad I read them in order – I think it would be difficult to understand everyone's motivations w/o having read the other books.

    Yeah, it’s hard to even talk about certain aspects of the continuing story without spoiling plot points for readers. I can’t imagine reading these books out of order – I’d be totally lost.

    This is the first I've heard of this series (and this author) but I'm rather intrigued. I'm currently reading another historical suspence – Silent in the Grave (Deanna Raybourn), which was reviewed here – and am really enjoying it (so much so I have requested the sequel :)

    Great! Let us know what you think if you do give Harris a try. I’ve heard of the Raybourn books a few times and should probably add them to my list.

    It’s a rather disappointing truth for me that for a while now I’ve found that most of the “fiction with romantic elements” I read is much better written than most of the straight romances I read. I wish that weren’t the case. I think it probably has more to do with the fiction with romantic elements that I’m reading than a comparison of romance to fiction as a whole, but it’s still disappointing.

  5. Marg
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 21:03:13

    I really want to read this series, but my library system only has the third book in the series! I am not OCD about much, but I do need to read series in order!

  6. KristieJ
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 21:28:10

    I still haven’t gotten over my broken heart that she moved from Candice Proctor writing historical romance to CS Harris writing Historical mysteries. I have the first two books of this series but until I can come to terms with the fact that Candice Proctor is no more – or even better she returns every once in a while, I don’t know if I can read them. I know – that sounds totally odd and silly doesn’t it?
    But still – don’t you find it interesting that both she and Penelope Williamson her RL sister wrote such incredible romances books both switched to mystery? And for the record, yes, I really miss Penelope Williamson books too. Both were a couple of my favourite authors.

  7. Kay Sisk
    Dec 01, 2008 @ 23:27:50

    I just finished Serpents this afternoon. Would that the next one were already on the shelves. I do miss C Proctor (Night in Eden is a book I’ll give reluctant romance readers to get them started on the right path), but I applaud her for not denying her romance roots as some (former) romancer authors do.

  8. SonomaLass
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 00:10:52

    these days I just basically wish every good book were longer and every bad book were shorter

    Amen to that! I said the same thing about series, on Jane’s thread about them. I want the weak ones to just end already, while the really good ones could go on and on.

    This series sounds good, so I will add it to my list. Jennie, I did the exact same thing with the Sookie Stackhouse books!

  9. Jennie
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 02:19:48

    I still haven't gotten over my broken heart that she moved from Candice Proctor writing historical romance to CS Harris writing Historical mysteries. I have the first two books of this series but until I can come to terms with the fact that Candice Proctor is no more – or even better she returns every once in a while, I don't know if I can read them. I know – that sounds totally odd and silly doesn't it?

    No, I know what you mean. I think it helps for me that I didn’t really love any of the books written under the Proctor name except for Night in Eden. I don’t think I ever even read them all. I did like several of them, but none of them quite had the impact for me that NiE did.

    But still – don't you find it interesting that both she and Penelope Williamson her RL sister wrote such incredible romances books both switched to mystery? And for the record, yes, I really miss Penelope Williamson books too. Both were a couple of my favourite authors.

    You know, I’ve had the first Penn Williamson mystery in my tbr pile for…um, how long ago did that book come out? I’ve had it for years. I will read it, someday. But I think I do have a lot of trepidation because I love her romances so much.

  10. Sunita
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 10:54:31

    I went to look up the ebook version of this and was shocked at the prices. Depending on which title of the series you buy, which DRM version, and which bookstore, the prices range from 5.59 for a Kindle version to 23.95 list price at several ebook sites and at the Penguin store. What the heck is going on? This makes no sense whatsoever.

    ETA: The Kindle prices are the cheapest across the board (for ebooks, that is), but for those of us who are reading other formats, we are screwed. The Sony store has the first book in the series for 8.99, and that’s the lowest price of any of them. Fictionwise is at 23.95 less a whopping 15% discount.

  11. FanLit
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 13:54:02

    I like the series, but I agree that the mystery can be a bit convoluted. Also, I don’t care for the new turn it’s taken. I find Hero and Sebastian’s relationship a bit contrived. I liked the pairing of Sebastian with Kat and their star-crossed relationship. You can feel their love and I don’t find he has that chemistry with Hero. I keep hoping Hero gets paired up with the good doctor and Kat and Sebastian find their way back together.

  12. Michelle
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 18:21:53

    I have read both series, I really enjoyed Deanna Raybourn’s series more. You should really read Silent in the Grave.

  13. Susan/DC
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 18:29:55

    As I wrote on another board, after WSS I’m going against the majority and prefer Hero. Kat is the one who is something of a stereotypical character to me. Although she is well written and I do like and sympathize with her, she’s another in a long line of beautiful “tarts with a heart”. Her character appears fully formed from the beginning of the series. In WSS it is Hero who struggles and grows and must examine who and what she is.

    Hero is one of the rare Regency bluestockings whose internal struggles I find believable. She’s not always likeable. She’s lived a life of the mind, far more intellectual than emotional, in her effort to not “dwindle into a wife” and to maintain some control over her fortune, her body, and her soul. In WSS both Sebastian and Hero come alive after their harrowing adventures. As Sebastian says, “He knew a strange sense of wonder, like a man awaking from a long drugged sleep.” Hero, however, is frightened by that sense of wonder, because she’s still afraid of losing control of who and what she is. She’s afraid that if she lets herself feel as well as think, she will make choices that will lead her to lose whatever control she had.

    I’ve no idea where Harris will take Hero’s character, but I do hope she lets Hero continue to grow. Hero’s security, both physical and psychological, were threatened in WSS, and she now truly understands compassion, not as merely a mental concept but as an ability to truly put herself in someone else’s shoes. I’m a bit afraid, however, that Harris will let Hero’s fears overwhelm her and she will dwindle into the stock bluestocking personality she so skillfully overcame in WSS. I’m too much of a romantic to want any of the characters to be alone, no matter how fulfilling their good works or travel to faroff places might be.

  14. Sora
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 23:04:22

    I’ve been following this series since What Angels Fear was published and I’ve been a fan since her Candice Proctor romance days.

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    Personally (and in my humble opinion since I’m not the author), lots of things need ‘to be worked on’ – for lack of better way to explain – before Sebastian finally ends up with either Kat or Hero.

    If Sebastian is going to end up with Hero, well, I don’t want Hero to keep on snapping “Don’t be ridiculous” to him for the rest of their lives! (unless, of course, he likes it that way :-( And I doubt it )

    I read on CS Harris’s blog that she planned many books in the series. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see (and keep on speculating!).

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    I have read both series, I really enjoyed Deanna Raybourn's series more. You should really read Silent in the Grave.

    Not Jennie but I’ve tried the first Raybourn book as well as Tasha Alexander’s and I have to say they’re not my cup of tea. If anyone is looking for books in the same vein as the Sebastian St Cyr series, I’d recommend the Julian Kestrel books by Kate Ross. Sadly they’re only four of them available since Kate Ross passed away in 1998.

  15. Elle
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 23:36:15

    As I wrote on another board, after WSS I'm going against the majority and prefer Hero.

    I guess that means that I am in the minority as well, since I also find Hero the more interesting character at this point in the series. I have liked her since she appeared in the first book, and have been wondering whether Harris meant to present her at some point as a romantic alternative to Kat.

    Kat is the one who is something of a stereotypical character to me. Although she is well written and I do like and sympathize with her, she's another in a long line of beautiful “tarts with a heart”. Her character appears fully formed from the beginning of the series. In WSS it is Hero who struggles and grows and must examine who and what she is.

    Yes, I agree with this completely. I also like Kat a lot, and I like the fact that she has made quite a few mistakes in her life. But with each book in the series, her character does seem to engage my interest less and less. Kat seems more like a typical romance heroine to me since Harris presents her so sympathetically, despite all the baggage that she is carrying around. She is so lovely and tragic and self-sacrificing that she is getting a little bit boring by the third book in the series, IMO.

    Hero, on the other hand, is portrayed unsympathetically in many ways. Yes, she is a bluestocking and a believer in women’s rights, but she is no bleeding heart romantic heroine who is BFFs with her maid. Her initial interest in the fallen women of London is more intellectual than empathetic. IMO, the development of Hero’s character (and through her, Sebastian’s character) was the best part of the book.

    In WSS both Sebastian and Hero come alive after their harrowing adventures. As Sebastian says, “He knew a strange sense of wonder, like a man awaking from a long drugged sleep.” Hero, however, is frightened by that sense of wonder, because she's still afraid of losing control of who and what she is. She's afraid that if she lets herself feel as well as think, she will make choices that will lead her to lose whatever control she had.

    Very well said! I loved Hero’s reaction to their traumatic adventure in the cellar.

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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    Classic Hero that she cut off Sebastian’s honor-motivated proposal with a curt “Don’t be ridiculous.”

    I'm a bit afraid, however, that Harris will let Hero's fears overwhelm her and she will dwindle into the stock bluestocking personality she so skillfully overcame in WSS. I'm too much of a romantic to want any of the characters to be alone, no matter how fulfilling their good works or travel to faroff places might be.

    Oh, I hope not. I suppose that we shall see. I cannot see Hero ending up with the good doctor, though. She terrifies him. I suspect actually that Harris will up the ante on the romantic triangle in the next book.

  16. Elle
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 23:50:51

    I have read both series, I really enjoyed Deanna Raybourn's series more. You should really read Silent in the Grave.

    Not Jennie but I've tried the first Raybourn book as well as Tasha Alexander's and I have to say they're not my cup of tea.

    I vote with Sora here. While I like both the Raybourn series and the series by Tasha Alexander (“And Only to Deceive”, etc.), I prefer Sebastian St. Cyr and his adventures.

  17. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 02:00:26

    I’m really in the middle on Kat v. Hero. Each has her virtues. In some ways, I feel that Hero is the better mate for Sebastian, but then I feel like poor Kat is not being given the HEA she deserves (which I guess speaks for how *real* the characters feel to me). I also feel a little sheepish about choosing the bluestocking society miss over the flawed, experienced actress. I do see what some of you say about Kat being in some ways a stereotypical romance heroine, but I’ve whined for experienced, flawed heroines for so long that I hate to throw one over when I get her.

    I do like the doctor and wouldn’t mind him being given a bit of an expanded storyline, even a love interest.

  18. nolasteve
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 10:26:58

    While all of the character discussions above are valid in their individual views, a couple of points in context of the period and character’s ledgend.
    Kat has spent YEARS rejecting offers of marriage, realizing the impact their union would have on Sebastian’s social standing and his family. He is the only son and heir to the title. Then too, there is her career. She would give up being the star of the London stage, her own person, to live in his shadow.
    Then there is Hero. From her first appearance, she has vowed that she would not become a wife while the laws make her little more than chattle. She is growing stronger, but again can anyone see her giving up her freedom for social convention that she has rejected from the first moment she stepped on a page. This is going to be a very interesting story to watch as it unfolds.

  19. votermom
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 11:59:09

    I didn’t realize this was out — I’ve read the previous 3 books and am curious as to how the romance is going. I’m glad Hero has a big role here — she’s frankly more intriguing than Kat to me, so far.

    I’m a bookworm who used to read almost only fantasy & sf, and am a new convert to romance and historical (Victorian & Regency) mysteries.

    (orannia — I also like the Deanna Raybourn series and the Tasha Alexander ones. Right now I am newly addicted to Anne Perry’s William Monk)

    Thanks for all the great recs — I love the grading system.

  20. Heidi Croft
    Nov 28, 2010 @ 18:19:11

    I would gladly pay $25 for this one. I live in Canada and it seems the publisher won’t release this one in an ebook format anywhere in Canada. It makes me so angry. The first three and all the rest are available. Just not this one … grrrr

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