REVIEW: Midsummer Moon by Laura Kinsale
I *think* this might be the third book Laura Kinsale published. The Hidden Heart was first, in 1986, and both Uncertain Magic and Midsummer Moon are listed as 1987 releases (that’s a lot of books in two years!). I didn’t start reading romance in earnest until around 1992, and I don’t think Kinsale was one of the first authors I read, nor do I think Midsummer Moon is one of the first of her titles that I read. Let’s just estimate that I first read it sometime between 27 (?!!!!) and 24 (????!!!!!) years ago.
So it works out because even though I know I’ve read Midsummer Moon, and enjoyed it (it wasn’t my favorite Kinsale, but even a less-than-favorite-Kinsale is still a Kinsale), I didn’t necessarily approach this as a reread, after all this time. I remembered general details from the book, as well as some specific ones, but there was a lot I didn’t remember.
Ransom Falconer, Duke of Damerell and agent for the Crown, comes to a dilapidated country estate seeking an elderly inventor named Merlin Lambourne. Lord Castlereagh wants Ransom to track down Lambourne due to rumors about an invention that the French are eager to get their hands on (the book is set in the Napoleonic era). Ransom’s charge is to find out what the invention is, keep it from falling into French hands, and see if it will be helpful in the British war efforts.
Ransom encounters a distracted, and to his mind, impudent maid (she keeps calling him “Mr. Duke”) when he knocks on the door and introduces himself. It eventually becomes clear that the strange young lady is herself Merlin Lambourne, living in isolation with only a couple of elderly retainers on staff. Merlin is…different. She’s sheltered, uncultured, and incredibly easily distracted, especially when she’s working on (or thinking about) her raison d’etre – a flying machine.
Oddly, perhaps, the flying machine is *not* the invention that Ransom has come for. At least he concludes immediately that it’s not, in part because he thinks it’s ridiculous and of no potential help to the war effort (he has another reason, which I’ll get to in a minute). Instead, he realizes that Merlin has invented a kind of rudimentary telephone, which she uses to communicate with Theo and Thaddeus, the twins who are Merlin’s only protectors and companions on the estate.
Within hours of meeting, through a series of zany mishaps, Ransom accidentally ingests an aphrodisiac (it’s mistaken for salt) and proceeds, under its influence, to seduce the very innocent and vulnerable Merlin. When he comes to his senses, he’s aghast – Ransom is always correct in his behavior, and despoiling a virgin is utterly beyond the pale. He resolves to marry Merlin, which goes hand in hand with his plan to remove her from her home to someplace safe (and get her to work on improving her telegraph, not incidentally). Merlin has no enthusiasm for either the marriage proposal or the idea of leaving the only home she’s known and her vital work on the flying machine.
(As an aside, I have to laugh recalling that unintentionally consumed aphrodisiacs were quite in vogue in historical romances at one time. It seems like such an unlikely scenario, but I remember reading a Susan Johnson book and a Johanna Lindsey book that featured this plot device, so there must have been others. It seems to have been used as an excuse to say, “We now MUST have sexy times!”)
Ransom more or less kidnaps Merlin (in the process of saving her from a French kidnapper, but still) and takes her to his palatial ducal estate, Mount Falcon. There we meet a motley cast of characters, including Ransom’s family: his younger brother Shelby, Shelby’s ex-wife Jacqueline, their three children, Ransom’s mother and his starchy sister. There are also a couple of suitors for the starchy sister hanging about: a nervous cleric and an Irish officer who is ostensibly there due to a gambling debt from Shelby but really a secret agent of the crown sent to protect Merlin (and her invention).
Merlin possesses qualities that are reminiscent of what used to sometimes be called an autistic savant. I don’t know how accurate the depiction of Merlin on the autism spectrum is. She lacks emotional intelligence, to be sure, and is very literal-minded. But some of that seems to be due to her isolated upbringing, since she makes strides in connecting with people and understanding their emotions during her time on Ransom’s estate.
In retrospect, I wonder if the stereotype of the eccentric inventor/inventress is at least mildly offensive, but I realize I’m judging it by standards that are 30 years ahead of where they were when Midsummer Moon was written. A lot has changed, and to be fair, Merlin is not a figure of fun, though there’s gentle humor mined from her foibles.
Ransom has his own issues; his devotion to duty and responsibility weigh heavily on him and he feels genuine grief over his lapse with Merlin. He has a deathly fear of heights that he hides from everyone, and this largely informs his resistance to Merlin’s flying machine. Unfortunately, because he can’t just be honest about how much the flying machine absolutely wigs him out, he often comes off as autocratic and bossy (well, he *is* autocratic and bossy), and his dismissal of Merlin’s dream is a major block in their relationship and reason that she continues to refuse to marry him.
Ransom’s relationship with Shelby is also a source of stress for him (well, probably for both of them). Ransom was raised to be a duke and has never been anything less than the model of moral rectitude (before his lapse with Merlin, at least). Shelby is a gambling-addicted screw-up who caused a scandal with his divorce from Jacqueline (and now, while they’re under one roof, the two seem determined to torture each other by relitigating the past). Ransom loves Shelby but he doesn’t know what to do with him, how to get him to live the life that Ransom thinks he should live (and to be fair Shelby’s lifestyle is genuinely self-destructive, so it’s not like Ransom is entirely wrong).
One tiny subplot that I felt could have been left out entirely, because I thought it was kind of yucky:
There are a lot of tropes that mark Midsummer Moon as one of those big melodramatic ‘80s romances – amnesia even makes an appearance late in the book – but Laura Kinsale somehow manages to elevate material that would elicit eye-rolls from me in the hands of another author. Merlin, for all her eccentricity, is the more static and less interesting of the two lovers, at least for a good deal of the book. She’s likable, and sometimes funny, but she doesn’t have the issues to resolve that Ransom does and she’s somewhat less accessible and thus, to me, less sympathetic. She did eventually have a moment where she evinced some grief over her lonely, unconventional upbringing, and that made me feel for her.
Ransom is very sympathetic, even though late in the book he does a couple of genuinely bone-headed things: one in anger (driven by fear) and the other when he sees a way to get what he wants by being manipulative and dishonest. Neither presents him in the best light. He clearly needs to learn to be less the Duke of Damerell, thinking he’s always right and moving people around like pieces on a chessboard.
Finally, what’s a good Laura Kinsale book without an animal mascot? Midsummer Moon has one of the best, IMO – Merlin’s unnamed pet, a hedgehog often found in her apron pocket but wont to turn up in the oddest places. I love that hedgehog.
My grade is a high B+.
P.S. This marks my fourth DA review in my Laura Kinsale rereadapallooza; I’m thus 1/3 through her oeuvre. Up next: probably Flowers from the Storm, since it’s the only one that I have digitally that I haven’t reread and reviewed yet. FFTS used to hold the distinction of being my FAVORITE ROMANCE EVER, so we’ll see how that goes.