Aug 18 2008
This is a new series called "If You Like" which will be hosted by various readers, authors and bloggers of Dear Author. The purpose of the post and the comments is to explore what we like about a particular iconic author and what other authors have books like the iconic author. If you would like to host an "If You Like" post, please email Jane at dearauthor.com.
Please be aware that the post below may contain some spoilers.
My first experience of Laura Kinsale was the riveting Seize the Fire. The story of the cynical, out-for-himself Sheridan Drake and the idealistic dreamer Princess Olympia of Oriens was so gut-wrenching that I was afraid to finish it. It was clear that Olympia’s idealism and Sheridan’s cynicism were on a collision course, and that things would get worse for them before they got better.
Yet, though I dreaded what might happen to Sheridan and Olympia with the turn of each page, I also could not put the book down. The ultimate shattering of Olympia’s innocence was painful — but it was one of the most powerful things I have read in any book, in any genre. The last few pages of the book, in which Sheridan opens up to Olympia about his past and wonders whether his words will make a difference are so potent and so visceral that though I’ve reread them many times, they have never lost their emotional power.
When I finished Seize the Fire, I was certain of three things: the book had affected me more deeply than any romance ever had, I would never be able to reread it in its entirety, and it would stay on my keeper shelf for years to come.
It took a long time for me to get up the nerve to try Kinsale again, but the second time I tried her, with Flowers from the Storm, I was relieved to find that it wasn’t quite as gut-wrenching as Seize the Fire… but it was just as fierce and potent in a different way, just as beautifully written, just as meaningful and thought-provoking, and even more romantic.
I went on to read Kinsale’s entire backlist, and I discovered that few books can match the romanticism of hers, and no other romance author has written as many books that have such a strong effect on my emotions. The Shadow and the Star is my second favorite book in the romance genre, and I’ve reread it, For My Lady’s Heart and The Dream Hunter more times than I can count. Flowers from the Storm is also a favorite, and has appeared in survey after survey as one of the most beloved romances. If you’ve never read her before, you are in for a spectacular experience.
Setting (era): A variety of historical eras
Kinsale’s settings are as diverse as the fourteenth century (For My Lady’s Heart and its sequel, Shadowheart), the late eighteenth century (Uncertain Magic and The Prince of Midnight), the early nineteenth century (My Sweet Folly), Regency England (Midsummer Moon and Flowers from the Storm), the 1820′s (Seize the Fire), the 1840′s (The Dream Hunter), and the Victorian era (The Hidden Heart and its sequel, The Shadow and the Star).
Setting (geographic): England and many other locales
Every single one of Kinsale’s novels takes place at least partly in England. But roughly two-thirds of them take place in one or two other locales as well. Thus, The Hidden Heart takes place partly on board ship, Uncertain Magic partly in Ireland, Seize the Fire partly in Madeira and the Falkland Islands, The Prince of Midnight partly in France, The Shadow and the Star partly in Hawaii, The Dream Hunter partly in the Arabian desert, and Shadowheart partly in Italy.
Heroine type: Varied
If Kinsale has a heroine type, I’m stumped as to what it is. Her heroines each have unique personalities and come from diverse backgrounds. Like her heroes, they are psychologically complex, but they range from innocent and sometimes painfully naive (Olympia from Seize the Fire or Leda from The Shadow and the Star) to experienced and bitterly cynical (Leigh from The Prince of Midnight and Melanthe from For My Lady’s Heart). Even when two have something in common — for example, Melanthe and Folie from My Sweet Folly are both widows first married at a young age; Leda and Zenia from The Dream Hunter are both born on the wrong side of the blanket — they have vastly different temperaments and attitudes toward their circumstances. If readers’ opinions on this differ from mine, I would welcome hearing them.
Hero type: Alone, tortured and determined
Kinsale has a knack for putting her characters through the wringer, but it makes her endings that much happier. Several of her heroes suffer from a physical or psychological malady or disability that they must overcome. Faelan from Uncertain Magic and Robert from My Sweet Folly are both wrongly thought to be mad, and suffer some symptoms that indicate they may be dangerous. S.T. Maitland from The Prince of Midnight is a former highwayman who has lost his sense of balance, while Samuel from The Shadow and the Star was sexually abused as a child and therefore represses his own sexuality. Christian, duke of Jervaulx from Flowers from the Storm is unable to communicate due to post-stroke aphasia and his troubles are compounded when his relatives believe him mad and have him put in a lunatic asylum. It would be a huge spoiler to reveal what it is that torments Sheridan in Seize the Fire.
Even when one of her heroes is relatively well adjusted, they frequently experience feelings of aloneness at some point in the story (aloneness as opposed to being part of a couple is a theme that recurs in Kinsale’s books), and are still tormented by something — often a need to prove themselves to someone, be it the heroine (The Prince of Midnight, The Dream Hunter), a mentor (The Shadow and the Star), society or a monarch (Flowers from the Storm, For My Lady’s Heart), or oneself (even if that means proving one doesn’t give a damn, as in Seize the Fire). Their determination to prove themselves, overcome the forces that hold them back, and attain their goal can reach epic proportions, and is one of the things that makes them so very heroic.
Kinsale’s heroes and heroines are psychologically complex and multidimensional. Some of them are wounded people and some are not, but all of them have acutely vulnerable interiors (though some hide them beneath a tough exterior).
Plot (action-oriented/character-driven): Character-driven
Kinsale’s plots are almost always driven by the intense internal conflicts that her characters are faced with. Even in a book like For My Lady’s Heart, which has a large cast of characters, everything that happens is the result of the emotions of those characters. To take an example from that book, when Princess Melanthe’s happiness with Ruck, the man she has fallen in love with, is threatened by Gian, a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to attain Melanthe’s hand and her lands, Melanthe must decide whether to place her trust in Gian’s son Allegreto, who is in a position to help her. Allegreto, however, is torn between the loyalty and fear he feels for his father, and his feelings for someone else, whom Melanthe can protect. It’s a beautifully intricate, complex plot, but everything in it stems from the characters’ emotions and personalities, and everything depends on their decisions. By the end of the novel, the characters are lined up like dominoes: if one falls they will all come down. But it never feels less than convincing because no one ever behaves uncharacteristically to accommodate a plot device.
Pace (slow/medium/fast): Medium
Kinsale’s books tend to run long (Shadowheart, the most recent, has 502 pages), but that is not the same as slow paced. Often they begin with a slow build up in, but by the end, events are coming fast and furious. So I would say medium.
Writing style (simple v. ornate): Intricate and lyrical
If forced to choose between these two descriptors, simple and ornate, I would have to say Kinsale’s style is ornate, but I think better words are intricate and lyrical.
Her sentences can be long and elaborate, but to me, their rhythms serve to accentuate the emotions that her characters, and by extension, I myself, feel when reading them. Her words also possess a sharp clarity. She can render her setting so vivid that the images that form in my mind’s eye when I read are breathtaking.
Take this example, from The Dream Hunter :
Something about the clear winter light and the deep ruddiness of the setting sun tinted everything with crimson and vermilion, like a twilight in the red sands — it brought the desert back vividly — just so had she sat, just so, in silence, looking a little down, singing softly in the vast emptiness… and strangely, as if the light revealed some lost aspect of reality or memory or vision — he saw her fully, for the first time, as the same companion who had sat beside him there. The same face, the same person, the same heart.
All his memories conformed at last — the free-striding youth had not vanished, had not died, but been different all along. It was not a boy; it had never been: it was this woman beside him who had mounted a camel by a graceful athletic swing upon its neck, who had slept close at his back; who had let him braid turquoise and pearl into her hair, it was this sober, beautiful, pensive young woman who had rationed his water and food for him in the sands and labored up the endless dunes and wept as he lifted her up onto a camel’s back, so thin and light she was nothing.
Kinsale is also not afraid to challenge her readers and has been known to take some risks with her prose. In For My Lady’s Heart some Middle English words are woven through some of the dialogue, while in some sections from Flowers from the Storm the hero’s POV thoughts mimic his aphasia. While these portions of the books demand a little extra effort, they are rewarding because they convey the characters’ mindset so well.
Dialogue (lots/little/balanced): Balanced
Kinsale doesn’t skimp on description, as the quote above shows, but her books also contain their share of wonderful dialogue. The conversation between the characters reveals their personalities and their emotions, and always moves the story forward.
Here’s an exchange between Samuel and Leda after she discovers that he, a man she barely knows, has been breaking into her rented room at night.
“Miss Etoile, I have been in this room every night for the past week and more. Have I hurt you? Have I touched one of your possessions?”
“What?” Her voice went up to an unladylike squeal. “You’ve been coming in my room for a week?”
“And you’ve known nothing of it, have you? Until you moved everything and bathed yourself and the whole room in that exceptionally odorous soap.”
“You are mad! What has soap to do with anything?”
“It reeks. That hampered me.”
“It does not reek,” she said indignantly. “Hudson’s has no smell.”
“It reeks,” he said. “But it’s my responsibility–my mistake–I was too impatient; I allowed my perceptions to become disordered.”
“Certainly it’s your responsibility. It isn’t mine! I’ve every right to clean my floor and move my furnishings if I please, without some housebreaker complaining of it! And–and hanging up in the eaves like a horrid vampire bat!” She felt herself flushing. “I will never forgive you for that, sir! Never! You could have spoken, when you saw I had called the police! You could have revealed yourself!”
Humor (Yes/No-serious/some): Some
Midsummer Moon is considered Kinsale’s lightest book. Most of her other novels are so emotionally intense that people sometimes forget that there is also some subtle humor in them. The section of dialogue I quoted above is one example. Here is another, from the epistolary opening of My Sweet Folly:
Cambourne House, Calcutta
15 October 1900
My dear Cousin Charles,
I disturb your peace at my father’s behest. He wishes me to investigate the progress of a lawsuit concerning the proper location of a hedgerow. Knowing and caring nothing of this hedgerow, except that it languishes, properly or improperly, in Shropshire, I beg you will do me the favor of not replying to this inquiry.
Emotional Angst (high/medium/low): High
The characters in Laura Kinsale’s books go through their share of heartbreak. It’s not so much that her characters suffer things characters in other books don’t, but rather that they seem so real, that Kinsale favors showing over telling, and that she reveals her heroes and heroines from inside, peeling back layers of determination and yearning and vulnerability. The result is that their longing for one another has is as acute and intense as it could be, and the pages of her books are saturated with emotion.
Conflict (externally driven/internally driven/both): Both, but with a stronger emphasis on internally-driven conflict
While the internal conflict is always more pronounced in Kinsale’s books, it is usually exacerbated by an external conflict. For example, in Flowers from the Storm, Maddy, a devout Quaker, and Christian, a rake, are brought together when she helps him escape from her uncle’s asylum after realizing he is perfectly sane.
The internal conflict is that in helping Christian escape, Maddy becomes separated from her Quaker community, and she fears that marriage to Christian will cut her off from them, and from a devout life, forever. She also disapproves of Christian’s rakish pre-stroke lifestyle, and is therefore unsure whether loving him is the right thing.
In addition to that central internal conflict, there are external obstacles which include a Quaker gentleman who is determined to return Maddy to the fold, Christian’s family members who seek to separate him from Maddy and return him to the asylum, and Christian’s former mistress who has recently given birth to his illegitimate daughter. Each of the external conflicts has an effect on the internal conflict.
Heat level: (kisses/warm/hot/scorching): Hot bordering on scorching
With the exception of Shadowheart which contains some pain play, Kinsale’s books don’t generally contain unusual sex acts. But they are some of the hottest scenes I’ve ever read nonetheless, and I would argue that their heat level stems from the way the characters’ intense emotions are woven through them. For example, this excerpt from The Dream Hunter comes as Arden and Zenia expect to be put to death the next morning and try to take comfort from one another.
“Am I like honey?” she asked, shyly, half beneath her breath.
“No,” he said. He leaned down and kissed her, his whole body pressed against her. He pushed his hands up into her hair and held her face between his palms. “You’re like water. Like bright water.” He bent his face to her throat. “Oh, God, so bright and cold that it hurts to drink.”
She felt him, his body ready to mount hers. He was heavy, lying atop her. She had never seen a man unclothed, though she had lived among them, for the Bedu were painfully modest even among their own. But she had seen animals, and boy children, and she knew. It frightened her a little, but the terror that lay beyond, outside this small circle of their bodies locked together, was so huge that her fright seemed like elation.
“Is that a stupid thing to say? I could live without honey,” he said, muffled against her throat. “I can’t live without water.”
Strangely, happily, she began to weep. She put her arms around his shoulders. “No. It is not stupid.”
There is a raw, almost shocking intimacy to this scene, something that is very much the case with Kinsale’s other love scenes as well.
If You Like Laura Kinsale, You’ll Like . . .
Ah, this is the toughest part here. I’ve never found another romance author whose books match Kinsale’s for pure emotional intensity. Truthfully, she is incomparable, and I think any romance reader who has not read her is missing out on greatness.
But there are other authors whose books have some similar qualities. Here (listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name) are my suggestions for other readers who, like me, adore Kinsale’s work and are looking for something to read between now and when her next book comes out.
Shana Abe’s drakon series (The Smoke Thief, The Dream Thief, and Queen of Dragons). I haven’t read most of Abe’s earlier backlist yet. Although the drakon books are paranormal historicals with shapeshifter heroes and heroines, Abe’s heroes possess a similar determination to Kinsale’s, and her heroines are reminsicent of some of Kinsale’s tougher ones. The books are set in Georgian England and have both internal and external conflict. Abe’s writing style is also lyrical and it reminds me of Kinsale’s at times.
Mary Balogh’s traditional regencies and early single titles. This choice may be a stretch since Balogh’s writing style and character types are quite different from Kinsale’s. But Balogh’s earlier books are filled with emotional angst. Set in Regency and Georgian England, these books have character-driven plots and lots of internal (as well as some external) conflict.
Joanna Bourne. Of Bourne’s two regency set historicals, I’ve only read The Spymaster’s Lady, and while it didn’t work so well for me, many other readers loved it and I do think Bourne’s writing style is lyrical and has a similar richness to Kinsale’s. Her two books have been set in England and France, had a good balance of dialogue and description, some humor as well as some angst, and both internal and external conflict. Also, my gut tells me that Bourne could appeal to Kinsale’s readers.
Elizabeth Chadwick’s medievals. Chadwick’s books, like Kinsale’s, are exceptionally well researched, and her heroes are both determined and vulnerable. Her settings are geographically varied and her writing style reminds me a bit of Kinsale’s.
Megan Chance’s romances, in particular, A Candle in the Dark, The Portrait, Fall from Grace, and The Way Home. It’s been a while since I’ve read most of these but I recall that Chance’s historical romances settings are historically and geographically varied (although her books are set in the Americas), as are her character types. Her plots are character-driven, though they can be slower paced. Chance’s writing style is a bit simpler than Kinsale’s, but still lyrical. The angst quotient in Chance’s books is quite high, and her characters are frequently emotionally wounded in some way.
Eileen Charbonneau. I confess that I have never read this author but from a glance through her books, her writing style was very reminiscent of Kinsale’s and I have heard other readers say that there are some similarities in their books.
Tom and Sharon Curtis. The Curtises, who have written both historical and contemporary romance, have a lyrical and intricate style of writing and character-driven plots, some with a fair amount of angst.
Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows. The hero of Duran’s book fits the “alone, tortured and determined” description to a tee, the characters suffer some psychological damage, the story is set partly in England and partly in India, has medium pacing, lyrical and sharp writing, both internal and external conflict, hot love scenes, and emotional angst.
Patricia Gaffney’s later historical romances, in particular, Sweet Everlasting, the Wyckerley trilogy (To Love and to Cherish, To Have and to Hold, Forever and Ever) and Wild at Heart. Gaffney’s books, like Kinsale’s, have varied settings (though all three of the Wyckerley books are set in the same village). Her heroines (as well as her heroes) are varied, with no single type. The characters in the last four of these books go through the wringer. Gaffney’s plots are character driven, her writing style is lyrical, there is plenty of angst and conflict, both external and internal, and Gaffney’s love scenes can be hot.
Megan Hart’s Dirty and Broken. Since they are contemporary erotic novels some might wonder what Dirty and Broken are doing on this list. I would argue that these two books have earned their place with character driven plots that are high on angst and internal conflict, and plenty of hot to scorching love scenes. Hart’s characters are psychologically complex and sometimes damaged, too.
Eva Ibbotson’s historical romances. Ibbotson’s romances have a lighter tone than Kinsale’s and the bedroom door remains closed in her books, but the diversity of her settings, the richness of her writing style and characterization, and her use of both internal and external conflicts are the reasons I think she might appeal to Kinsale’s readers.
Judith Ivory (also writing as Judy Cuevas). Judith Ivory’s books are also very different from Kinsale’s in tone but there is a big overlap between their readers — many Kinsale fans are also Ivory fans and vice versa. I count myself among that group. Ivory’s books are set in 19th century England and France, but I think the biggest reasons for the overlap are Ivory’s sumptuous prose style and her psychologically complex, varied and conflicted characters.
Judith McNaught’s historicals. When Loonigrrl hosted an “If You Like Judith McNaught” column, some of our readers suggested Laura Kinsale as an author fans of McNaught might like. I’m working on the theory that this could work in reverse, too, though I could be wrong about that. McNaught’s historicals are set mainly in Regency England (she also has one Medieval romance.) There are quite a few differences between McNaught’s historicals and Kinsale’s — the writing style is simpler, the character types are generally different, and McNaught’s books contain more humor, but they are similar in their pacing and length, their use of both internal and external conflict, in being character-driven, and especially in having a whole lot of emotional angst.
Mary Jo Putney’s earlier single titles, in particular, Uncommon Vows and the Fallen Angels series (Thunder and Roses, Dancing on the Wind, Petals on the Storm, Angel Rogue, Shattered Rainbows, River of Fire and One Perfect Rose). The Fallen Angels series takes place in Regency England and Uncommon Vows in the Medieval era. Putney’s writing style is somewhere between simple and ornate. Her books, like Kinsale’s, are well-researched and make good use of history. They are also character-driven. Putney’s characters also have psychological issues, deal with internal and external conflicts both, and her books can be quite emotional.
Barbara Samuel’s historical romances. Samuel’s historicals have varied settings and character types. They are written in a descriptive, though simpler, writing style. Her plots, too are character-driven. There is both internal and external conflict in her books, and some, like Lucien’s Fall and Bed of Spices, have their share of angst.
Sharon Shinn. Even though Shinn writes fantasy, I had to include her on the list, partly because she is one of the few authors to write books as romantic as I find Kinsale’s. Her fantasy settings have a historical feel to them, though her books are not set in our own world. Her character types are somewhat varied and her characters are psychologically complex. Her plots are character driven, with medium pacing, and she too has a lyrical writing style, though hers is a bit simpler than Kinsale’s. There is both internal and external conflict in Shinn’s books, though they are not as angsty as Kinsale’s. Though the heat level is often kisses only, Shinn writes some of the hottest kisses I’ve read.
Sherry Thomas. Private Arrangements and Delicious are both set in Late Victorian England. So far, Thomas’s heroines have been varied and her heroes filled with determination. The characters are complicated, the plots are character-driven, and though faster paced than Kinsale’s, both books have a flashback structure that is a bit reminiscent of the one Kinsale uses in The Shadow and the Star. They are also written in a lyrical writing style, have some humor as well as emotional angst, internal and to a lesser degree external conflict, and hot love scenes.
Sandra Schwab’s The Lily Brand. Schwab’s debut reminded me of some of Kinsale’s work, most especially because of Schwab’s writing style, the complex, three-dimensional character portrayal (that of the heroine especially), and the high emotional angst. The book was also set in Regency France and England, was character driven, and had both internal and external conflict.
Penelope Williamson’s historical romances. I haven’t read much of Williamson but The Passions of Emma, which I did read, was a medium-paced tearjerker with complex, conflicted characters. Some of my Kinsale-loving friends adore Williamson as well, so I’m including her on my list for that reason too.
What do you think? Which of my recommendations do you agree with? And which other authors or books would you recommend to a die hard Laura Kinsale fan yearning for this author’s next book?