REVIEW: Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale
Dear Laura Kinsale:
I want to say I began reading romance around 1992. I’d read romances in my teens, here and there, though I was mostly on an extended horror binge through those years. Circa 1992 I read Outlander, and though it’s still a matter of debate in some circles as to whether that book or series qualify as “romance”, I was hooked.
Alas, I was also, in that era, internet-less and very much at sea*. That means I read a lot of bad books that I didn’t care for at all (Coulter and the at-the-time seemingly universally beloved Woodiwiss), and a few bad books that I did kind of like (I mean, Brenda Joyce was not the pinnacle of literature, but I made it through her entire oeuvre speedily – her books were entertaining and HOT). Of course the word “bad” in this context is entirely subjective, but from my perspective, I kissed a lot of frogs while encountering only the occasional prince.
* The trade-off for a complete lack of online resources was the existence of actual brick-and-mortar bookstores. I spent a lot of time at those stores sampling and considering and buying books. I longed for romances that were both (subjectively) good – well-written, with depth of characterization – and actually romantic.
I don’t remember where I first heard of Laura Kinsale, but one day I pulled Seize the Fire from the bookshelf at Barnes & Noble, and started reading. The opening passage shocked me (in a good way!) in its depiction the hero in the middle of a naval battle; the reader knows by his own internal monologue that Sheridan Drake is feeling anything but heroic and is only interested in saving his own skin.
Now *this* was something different. Through all the brutal “heroes” I’d encountered in my year or so of reading romance steadily – through the rapists and the adulterers and the just plain assholes – I hadn’t ever encountered one who was anything less than traditionally brave and manly. I was immediately drawn in.
Retirement from the British Navy and internment in his father’s dilapidated and trap-filled home in the English Fens brings Sheridan to the attention of Olympia St. Leger, a sheltered and anxious neighbor who daringly calls on Sheridan without her chaperone one afternoon. Olympia has been following Sheridan’s naval exploits from afar, and she imagines him as just the sort of person who can help her. You see, Olympia is more rightfully addressed as Princess Olympia of Oriens (Oriens being a small country located near the French Alps).
Olympia has never been to Oriens, it’s true, but she knows enough (or thinks she does) about her ancestral homeland to be concerned about the political direction it’s taking. Her grandfather, the king, is old. Her parents are dead, murdered (it’s rumored) by the second son, Olympia’s uncle Claude Nicolas. Now there are rumblings that her grandfather might choose Olympia as his successor rather than Claude. Olympia has a few concerns, not the least of which the rumor that Claude is trying to get the Vatican to grant a dispensation to allow him to marry his own niece (that would be Olympia) in order to take control of Oriens.
Then there’s the matter of Olympia’s political leanings, which are a tad revolutionary. Revolutionary in that she literally wants to lead Oriens in a democratic revolution.
When presented with Olympia’s plea for help, Sheridan is torn between lust, greed and wariness. He eventually gives into the greed and the two set off on quite an unlikely adventure, with twists and turns aplenty. (It’s weird for me to call this book an adventure, because it’s so dark and angsty and character-driven, but rereading it reminded me that the plot really is full of action.)
Seize the Fire may be the most stark example of the cynical hero meets innocent heroine trope I’ve read. But rather than have the contrast between the characters’ worldviews simply be a vehicle that allows the hero to learn to love with the help of a pure woman, the story treads a different, darker path. Olympia has to change too, because her naiveté is dangerous; it can (and does) get people killed.
Seize the Fire was published almost 30 years ago, and there were a few issues that I ascribe to “it was a different time.” The first is simply technical – there are numerous POV shifts in the middle of scenes, which I found confusing and offputting. Perhaps others don’t see that as an era issue but a stylistic choice of the author. I would say that it’s definitely something I saw more of in the 1990s and rarely see today. YMMV.
The others are a little thornier.
First, there’s at least one love scene where Sheridan ignores Olympia’s struggling physically against him and thinks, essentially, that he knows how to get around the objections of a woman. Now, this behavior was nothing compared to that of the heroes of countless older romances, who, as we’ve established, were actual rapists. I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye reading the scene in 1993. Further, I may not have batted an eye reading the scene a couple of years ago. But the current zeitgeist is such that it stuck out for me. Of course, Sheridan is something of a villain already, but it’s odd, in a way, that even relatively recently, this particularly would not be remotely seen as a sign of his villainy. Today it makes a reader (well, this reader) go, “hmm” and possibly “ugh.” I guess this isn’t so much a criticism of Seize the Fire as it is a question about how we reconcile modern reading and modern writing with characters from other eras. When the reading, writing and setting are each in three different eras, it becomes even more complicated.
Perhaps even more troubling is the depiction of Sheridan’s Arab manservant, Mustafa. Sheridan is verbally and mildly physically abusive towards Mustafa, though those behaviors could be seen as simply in line with Sheridan’s general misanthropy. What’s more uncomfortable to read of is Mustafa’s cringing servility, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Stepin Fetchit stereotype. He’s referred to as “the little servant” four times in the course of the book; he’s also described as moving “like a monkey up a palm tree” at one point. He’s not a finely drawn character, to be sure. Of course, none of the characters are very finely drawn in Seize the Fire, save Sheridan and Olympia. The Brits are clueless, entitled stuffed shirts and the Indian and Arabic characters are brutish and violent. But having Mustafa portrayed as a comic character (alternately lazy and deceptive or showily submissive) felt different and borderline offensive.
I mention this because while it is something that I can get over/put in context because of my love for the book and the characters, other readers may feel differently. I almost feel like I can’t talk intelligently about it because I certainly don’t want to come off as defensive of racist depictions. I don’t know. Maybe both above examples are just positive signs that times are changing quickly, and readers expect a defter handling of issues of consent and cultural sensitivity.
Sheridan is not merely a cynical character or a world-weary one; he suffers from such severe PTSD that he has episodes where he questions his own sanity. Much of his façade – and it is a façade, though a very solid one – is simply a protective layer he has built up in order to bear the things he’s seen and done. He has enormous survivor’s guilt.
I loved Sheridan’s sarcastic sense of humor, even if it’s often directed at Olympia and her high-minded notions (though it usually goes over her head; Olympia is very literal). It’s another weapon he employs to protect himself. In general he is almost reflexively smart-ass, as when he and Olympia are aboard a ship under the control of (incompetent) pirates:
“What’s wrong?” she hissed.
“Democracy at work,” he said sourly. “We’re voting on whether or not to break off our anchor and drift onto those rocks.”
So. I love this book. I don’t know that I can fairly rank Kinsales when the only ones I’ve read with any recency are this and The Prince of Midnight. But if I were going by old rankings, I’m pretty sure it would be Flowers from the Storm, Seize the Fire and The Shadow and the Star in the top three spots (I am also AWFULLY fond of The Dream Hunter; maybe I should re-read that one next?).
My grade for Seize the Fire is an A.