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-.