DUELING REVIEW: The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale, Part III
Note: I asked Janine to join me for this review and it turns out we had Thoughts. Many, many Thoughts. So many that we’ve split this review into three parts. You can find the earlier parts of our discussion below. –Jennie
Janine: Did the first time they have sex read as consensual to you?
Jennie: It’s interesting that you ask that because I did not see that scene as non-consensual. But I did feel that way about the “up against the wall” sex scene in the house in Hawaii.
Jennie: Leda falls in love with Samuel quickly; not surprising, perhaps, considering that he has the looks of Adonis and he rescues her from a life that was becoming untenable.
Janine: That’s enough to justify a crush, but I didn’t understand why her feelings went beyond that. He wasn’t sensitive to her needs. And maybe it was also because he didn’t appeal to me that I didn’t understand his appeal to Leda. I thought she could do better.
Jennie: I read some reviews that suggested that some readers don’t understand why Samuel came to love Leda, but I find Leda *so* lovable, personally. I don’t know if she’s really a faithful depiction of a sheltered Victorian lady, but she certainly felt like one to me.
Janine: A lot of people were sheltered or repressed in Victorian England so I found that aspect of her character believable. Like you, I thought she was lovable and worthy of being cherished. My gripe is more with Samuel for not appreciating her enough.
Janine: The book read like the author was more interested in the hero’s healing process than in the heroine’s happiness.
Jennie: I feel like that’s true of possibly the majority of romances I’ve read! (I mean, that doesn’t make it okay, but it certainly feels common, particularly in some older romances.)
Janine: That’s fair. Well, I disagree that it’s true of the majority, but it is true of a sizable swath. But (and this comes out not just out of my dissatisfaction with my recent experience of The Shadow and the Star but also out of other experiences of books that haven’t worked for me), I feel that in a romance, for the book to be effective, we have to be convinced that the heroine has triumphed. If we are disappointed in what she has won, if the promise of her future doesn’t seem as happy as we feel she deserves, then the romance aspect of the book has failed, wouldn’t you say?
Jennie: In most cases, yes. But there’s a substantial overlap between “romances that I have admired/liked” and “romances with ambiguous HEAs”, especially going back to my earlier days of romance reading. Kinsale, Judith Cuevas/Ivory and especially Megan Chance all have romances where I could say that the promise of a happy future is less than solid (especially for the heroine, though not exclusively).
Janine: On an unrelated topic, there was one way in which I found Leda unconvincing and that was in some of the language Kinsale employed to convey her dialogue or her POV thoughts. Characters in historical romances set in 19th Century England sometimes come across to me as Anglophile rather than English. That’s because speech or thoughts are embellished to such a degree that they stop reading as English or Victorian and start reading overwritten. It can even seem twee. I felt that way about Leda a few times. Here are a couple of examples:
“I take leave to doubt he is right about anything whatsoever.”
Decidedly, matrimony was a risky thing. A most painful, joyful, perplexing institution.
Jennie: I confess, I liked Leda’s tweeness! But I see your point. It’s kind of Disney-Victorian-lady, but it amused me.
Janine: Disney-Victorian-lady is a great term for it. I am going to borrow that!
There were also places where the writing was just gorgeous:
Jennie: Despite my concerns about the believability of the HEA and Samuel’s emotional stability, I really did love The Shadow and the Star on this reread. Leda is one of my favorite Kinsale heroines, and Samuel is a complex and moving hero. The language is exquisite; the imagery describing Hawaii through Leda’s eyes was evocative.
Janine: I loved Leda but Samuel didn’t seem complex to me, just all over the map. And I wasn’t all that moved by him or by their relationship. I think the fact that his adult POV was withheld for so long was a factor in that. We haven’t gotten into the pacing, but the book moved slowly; I was mostly bored until 62% in. The language *can be* exquisite, but isn’t consistently so.
For example, there’s this piece of pivotal dialogue between Tess and Leda:
I also noticed awkward and unclear constructions, two or three run-on sentences, a continuity error (Leda’s hair switches from down to up in the same scene), and the racist pidgin as well as Dojun’s Japanese-English dialect (his command on the English language shifts back and forth according to the needs of the story). If I hadn’t been bored, I might not have noticed all that.
Jennie: I could sort of retcon Dojun’s changing dialect as being deliberate (he definitely laid it on thick with Leda, for instance). The pidgin bothered me more.
I went into the book with some concerns about my memories of the Hawaiian portion of the story. Because I had issues with what felt like, at the very least, racial insensitivity in both Seize the Fire and The Hidden Heart, I felt some trepidation about the “white ninja” aspect of this story.
I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Dojun is portrayed as having an almost superhuman perception (upon seeing Samuel the first time he returns to Hawaii, Dojun correctly perceives that Samuel is no longer a virgin). In general, the Japanese and Hawaiian characters are “othered” in a way that sticks out a bit for me now (I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t have when I first read the books).
Janine: I don’t think it struck me in my earlier readings either. Othering and stereotyping were so prevalent in the genre at the time this book was published and I think that much of the time they either flew over my head or I just compartmentalized them to the best of my abilities.
Jennie: To be fair, I don’t think that the depictions are necessarily negative, but they do lean into stereotypes. (One of the main Hawaiian characters is a large and charming scamp; the Japanese characters are all obsessed with honor and duty.) I think I may need to accept that when Kinsale wrote about other cultures in the 1990s, sensibilities were somewhat different than they are today.
Janine: I would argue that the depictions are negative given what happens near the end of the book. But even if that’s debatable, it’s racist regardless. To give a general example rather than one from this book, if I, a Jewish reader, come across a Jewish character who is a banker, very intelligent and marvelously good with money, it can still strikes an antisemitic note, particularly if the character has no arc of their own and are only there to serve the needs of the arcs of the white, Christian characters. Sensibilities were different in the early 1990s, true, but not all books published then were as insensitive as this one.
Jennie: True. And yet…this book still worked really well for me. I tend to be an emotional grader, and with Kinsale and some of my other old favorites that’s especially true. My grade for The Shadow and the Star is a straight A.
Janine: There were some sections I loved that, as long as this review is, we didn’t get much into in this discussion. The vulnerable child Samuel’s arrival in Hawaii, the early incident with the shark, Leda’s struggle to survive and yet keep her integrity, the scenes with the two policemen, the scenes with Tess, and all the fallout from the loss of Leda’s virginity. And toward the end there, when things finally got romantic, there were a few scenes I liked so much that I read them over and over.
But the book was offensive on multiple fronts, and there is also the slow-as-molasses pacing. I still have some attachment to my memories of the book—to the book I thought it was, or read it as, back in 1992. Taking all this into account, I am going to give The Shadow and the Star a grade of C/C-.
It’s been a long time since I read this book, and I don’t remember it in great detail, but two things about it bothered me that haven’t come up in this review:
First, I don’t see why Tess (and maybe her husband, too?) is so set on Leda marrying Samuel. Leda is not embedded in a deep web of familial and social connections; she doesn’t really have much to lose, and it’s a big world. Samuel could set her up with an annuity and she could go live in Manchester, or Paris, or New York and pass herself off as a widow. That seems like a much better solution than forcing her to marry someone who doesn’t love her.
Related to that, while I don’t need to feel the heroine has “triumphed,” there are so many social and economic forces ranged against women that I do want to feel that the hero loves her at least as much (preferably more) as she loves him.
Which brings me to the second thing that really bothered me, which is that even near the end, Samuel is keeping secrets from Leda, in a way that kept them from being true equals (let alone heroine slightly more powerful) in their relationship. I had a similar problem with Flowers from the Storm, where Maddy seems to be incapable of understanding what Christian needs to do to keep the whole financial house of cards from falling. I like a couple at the end of a book to be genuine allies and a source of support for each other, and I didn’t get that sense from the ending of either The Shadow and the Star or Flowers from the Storm.
I thought about the first one too. I felt that Tess was overeager to hand Samuel off to Leda. I could only think of two reasons for that, but neither of them seemed strong enough to me. The first is that the Ashlands had taken Leda into the bosom of their family and viewed her with great affection. But that in itself is also hard to swallow.
The second is that Tess was desperate to salvage Samuel from further attempts to pursue Kai, since that would only have hurt him. I could buy this second reason better, but it still wasn’t quite enough justification. I ended up concluding that it was a necessary contrivance because Tess and Gryf were the heroine and hero of a prior book. For them to send Leda on her way, even with money, would have made them look bad.
As for your second comment. By triumphed I don’t mean the heroine is set above the hero, but rather that she is no less loved than he is. Love has equalized them by the end of the book. If I feel that the heroine loves the hero more than he loves her, it is usually a fail for me.
You make a great point about secret-keeping vs. working together and supporting each other. I want that too, at least by the last quarter of a book if not earlier.
Thanks so much Jennie and Janine for this marvellous in depth review of The Shadow and the Star, which I only caught up with although you have done it in three parts. This and For My Lady’s Heart remain my favourite Kinsale books. I was triggered to re-read TSATS recently as we were on a trip to Hawaii, and visited the Iolani Palace. I agree with the many points brought up by both of you, but I am more on Jennie’s side, with an A grade, despite all the problems with the book. Like Janine, I first read it in the 90s, and I do believe that how we perceive and enjoy a book really depends on our life experiences then, and also by contemporary influences. This time I re-read it, I bought into Tess’ significant role in wanting to help both Leda and Samuel, and having them get married. It’s the 1800s, so match-making, especially under the circumstances, was very much the norm. Some of the sex scenes would be termed rape nowadays, but I think it worked within the context of the story. We can wish it was written in a different way, but scenes and conversations in many books written in the past can be offensive to the present mindset, as societal norms change. And this book was only written a generation ago. I agree with Janine too that there are some very lovely favourite scenes which didn’t get mentioned like the early incident with the shark, and I liked the scene with the necklace and the cherry brandy too.
@etv13: Interesting points. I’ll confess that I saw Tess as sort of a deus ex machina figure – she had some sort of supernatural knowledge that Leda was what Samuel needed, which was why she pushed the pairing so much.
On a more prosaic level, I think it’s fair to say that the conventional moral response to the situation was that Samuel needed to marry Leda to “make it right.”
I do remember being frustrated reading FFtS, because Maddy just *couldn’t* understand Christian’s perspective at all. I get why it was crazy to her, but they were so far apart and not on the same wavelength at all and it was anxiety-producing.
@msaggie: Part of me wishes that I could have a reaction more like yours on this reread because I was so attached to this book for so many years and losing a favorite book feels a bit like losing a friend.
I haven’t talked much in the review about how the slow pacing affected me, but all that waiting for something to happen was what allowed me to see the flaws. Even the cherry brandy and the necklace scenes, which I do remember to have loved on many previous reads, felt like too little too late because of having waited for them for so long and that was why they largely bored me.
It is interesting to compare this book with some of Mary Balogh’s. I remember favoring Kinsale over Balogh in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I preferred Kinsale’s style of language and her books had a greater emotional impact on me. Now I can think of several older Balogh novels that hold up better.
Partly it’s that Balogh doesn’t write about a variety of cultures (this can be seen as a weakness too, of course, but I would rather have no diversity if the diversity in the book is based on racist stereotypes). But another big part of it is the pacing. Balogh’s books move faster, so even when one of her books doesn’t work for me, it’s not usually because of a sluggishness that leads to boredom. Her books have a much greater emotional impact on me these days than this book did. I still don’t find gems of language in her writing as I do here and there with Kinsale’s, but overall I prefer her books by a lot.
i was talking to a friend about my reading experience with The Shadow and the Star and she said that there used to be a greater dearth of good and inoffensive books in the 1990s and for that reason we compartmentalized the parts that did not work and loved the parts that did. Now that we have more choice of books, we don’t have to look for good parts in books that offend us. I don’t know how true that is, but I do remember that I used to find the good parts of The Shadow and the Star and read them over and over.
Thank you for the fascinating and in-depth review! It almost… ALMOST… makes me want to read it, so I can appreciate the good bits you mentioned, but I know I would really dislike the sluggish pacing and racism. I’ve had my fill of problematic 1990s romances, so I think I need to read different things (hopefully less problematic things) for the time being.
For the record, I did read Flowers from the Storm, and even back in the ’90s I was not convinced by the HEA. I remember reading and re-reading (and re-re-reading) the ending, trying to convince myself there were no issues at all, that it was all marvelous, and that I found this book as heart-warming and wonderful as everyone else did.
Anyway, I’m so glad I don’t do that anymore! Getting older does have some perks…
It’s been over a decade since I read this one so I don’t recall how accurately Kinsale actually wrote the language, but Hawaiian Pidgin English is a true Creole, linguistically speaking, with its own distinct, stable grammar. At this point in history, the pidgin Hawaiian used by the first foreign travelers and immigrants in the 1700s has shifted to a more English-based pidgin, due to the rise of plantation agriculture and the associated labor immigration boom coming from multiple countries. And 1870s pidgin is already beginning the creolization process as second generation immigrant children born in the islands or arriving with their families at a young age are growing up with pidgin as a necessary lingua franca of communication in the schoolyard, workplace, and broader island community beyond their immediate family or specific ethnic community.
I’m sure there are flaws in Kinsale’s pidgin use no matter how carefully she tried to research it, both because the plantation-era pidgin of the 1870s is different from modern Pidgin, and it is somewhat notoriously difficult for someone who didn’t grow up speaking it to use it convincingly. But this pidgin/creole, with grammar, spelling, and vocabulary that may look like “bad/broken English” to Standard English speakers, is absolutely what many of these characters should be using whenever they are communicating with someone they don’t have a shared first or fluent-second language in common with, or the default in many non-elite group settings where people from an immense number of different first languages need to communicate with each other.
@Miss Smilla: Thanks for all that! One of the things that bothered me was that Tess and Gryf’s daughter was shown to speak Pidgin with Samuel at least once when she was teasing him, even though the rest of the time they both spoke English.
@Janine: I’d need to reread to see the full context of the scene as I don’t remember it, but just going on what you describe it’s not implausible to me. I seem to recall Kai was born in the islands, and the Ashlands brought Samuel there while he was still quite young (correct me if my hazy memories are wrong!). Pidgin is just beginning the creolization process into a language of its own, it’s not yet a marker of “local” cultural identity but it is an essential communication tool for everyday life in a broadly multilingual population. For native-speaker Anglophones like the Ashlands, they could communicate easily with the Hawaiian royals (who are highly educated and fluent English speakers), and with the very small population of wealthy American expats, but for the rest of the populace, they’d potentially need to be able to get by in Hawaiian, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Okinawan, Ilocano, Tagalog, Spanish, Portuguese, and more…or just be able to meet in the middle with pidgin.
This is also the era where you start to see the earliest generations to grow up essentially bilingual with pidgin as one of their first languages, so there’s potentially an aspect of generational bonding for Kai and Samuel there — they’d quite possibly have grown up learning and using the language in a more familiar, natural way with playmates, neighbours, household staff, shopkeepers, etc. where Tess and Gryf only encountered it as adults.
Even more than a century later, it’s not uncommon for local kids who grew up in the era when many teachers and parents denigrated pidgin as “bad English” to still code-switch right back when speaking casually between friends. The scene you describe sounds like it might be similar — quasi-siblings affectionately teasing each other in a way that echoes warm childhood memories of shared experiences.
@Miss Smilla: This is so interesting – thanks for sharing!
@Miss Smilla: Thank you, that sounds plausible and I appreciate all the background on it.
I’m just reading this one again many, many years after the first time I read it. I’m really enjoying your discussion I went into it this thinking Of it as a modern day classic and though I haven’t read the whole book, I still see it as a modern day classic romance.
Keeping in mind when I first read this book I wasn’t far removed from Kathleen Woodiwess and Rosemary Rogers and Brenda Coulter where rape and viscous, painful rape of the heroine by the “hero” was a real and celebrated thing. So for me, it was never a consideration between Simon and Leda.
I love Leda and her innocence and I have a much ‘softer’ opinion ofSimon than Janine does. To me Simon suffers from depression and I know from experiencing it myself that depression is such a self absorbed kind of thing. I don’t mean this in a bad way but one of the symptoms of some kinds of depression is being so deep in self loathing that that is all you can feel. Yet at the same time have a seemingly completely successful life. By all outward appearances, every thing seems fine so it would be no surprise that Simon could have a highly successful career. And that he could seemingly not compute or really see such things as Tessa and Gryph as happy or Kai wanting children and how one goes about actually getting them.
I see Simons flaws as a result of hating that part of himself that’s sexual, for example not the prostitute herself, but what she represents in himself. And while in the real world he would need a lot of therapy to get past his self loathing, in a romance, the love and acceptance of someone he learns to love most in the world leads to enough self acceptance for them to be happy.
Either that or I’m still reading a book I loved so much through such thick rose coloured glasses I still can’t see any flaws in it decades later
@KristieJ: I get the rose colored glasses. I still like Kinsale’s writing so much that it makes up for a lot of problems.
@KristieJ: That is an interesting thought about Samuel being depressed. He didn’t read that way to me, but I agree that he felt some self-loathing, and had a hard time accepting the sexual side of himself.