Wherein Kinsale makes me cry. Again.
My take in brief: Another great from the great. In intensity and sense of rollicking adventure, it reminded me of Outlander.
Setting: 1820s England, Madeira (Portugal), Falkland Islands, Saudi Arabia
Series?: I don’t think so.
Heroine and Hero: Sir Sheridan Drake, recently retired Royal Navy captain. Although celebrated for his heroic service to the King, Sheridan is a selfish — and quite destitute — lout who suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome. Her Serene Highness Olympia St. Ledger of Oriens (a tiny country between France and Savoy) is a naive, sometimes foolish, but goodhearted princess, raised in exile in England, who hopes to enlist Sir Sheridan’s help to return to Oriens to lead a revolution, paving the way for democratic rule.
Plot: Like a wolf asked to guard a sheep, Sheridan agrees to help Olympia travel to Oriens, all the while hoping to gain something for himself — either through theft or ransom — in the process. Things go awry, and the book follows the pair on a series of incredible high seas adventures.
Fun facts: Originally published in 1989, this is one of three Kinsale reissues from Sourcebooks Casablanca, a small independent publisher who sent me this copy. Initial hopes that the reissues signaled a new Kinsale (her most recent work, Shadowheart, was published in 2004) appear to have been unfounded. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about Laura Kinsale, read Janine’s “If You Like” article at Dear Author or Keishon’s retrospective at Avid Book Reader.
Seize the Fire was a finalist for the Golden Choice Award for Best Romance of 1989, Romance Writers of America, and a Finalist for the 1990 Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Historical (the latter award went to Silver Noose by Patricia Gardner).
Word on the Web (How can there be so few reviews of this book??)
Musings of a Blbiophile (Brie), A
Amazon.com: 4.5 stars after 18 reviews
The Racy Romance Review:
Seize the Fire is my fourth Kinsale. I began with Flowers From the Storm, which still ranks as my most memorably intense romance reading experience. FFTS fixed my impression, still unshaken, that Kinsale is among the best writers in the genre. I then read The Shadow and the Star and The Hidden Heart, both terrific, although I enjoyed STF even more than either of those.
I almost hate having to let readers know that Sheridan suffers from PTSD, because so many romance readers are sick unto death of that “trope”. But wait. Have you ever liked a song or a movie, and then found out it’s a cover or a remake? And then experienced the original? And then wondered how you could ever have been satisfied with the copy? That’s how I feel about Sheridan. I don’t know whether Sheridan was the first romance hero with PTSD, but I would bet he was one of the first, and he’s a true original.
Some romance authors seem to think, falsely, that experiencing war automatically causes PTSD. With Sheridan, Kinsale gives us a convincing combination of temperament (self-interested, wry, charming, and witty, yet wise, honorable, and deeply sensitive), childhood neglect, truly horrific wartime atrocities for which he bears responsibility, and undeserved lionization, that together serve to explain why this character acquires PTSD.
The scene when Olympia and Sheridan meet — she arrives as a humble supplicant at his crumbling manor home with a dying potted plant and a copy of Rousseau (The Social Contract, I’m guessing) — sets up the dynamic of the first half of the book: Olympia’s naive but noble determination to save her countrymen from tyranny, and her admiration and puppy love for Sheridan, butting up against the reality that he’s a dissolute cynical rake who plans to take full advantage of her.
There’s something very Rousseauian in the whole text, actually, and someone ought to write a paper on it. Olympia is described as having “the kind of face that looked out of burrows and tree-knots and hedgerows, unblinking innocent and as old as time.” From the start, Kinsale signals that while Olympia may be dangerously hopeful, there’s a wisdom and necessity in her optimistic view of human nature.
Sheridan, corrupted by the horrors of civilization, has a visceral response (and this is classic dreamy-psychological Kinsale, a style I love. But then, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books):
As he observed her in musing silence, a novel thought occurred to him. It slipped through his mind so subtly that it seemed to mingle like smoke with his physical perceptions, with the way the dim light through the stained-glass window fell across her hair in little iridescent rainbows, and the scent of old tobacco and dust lingered in the room. He wondered — absurdly — if this was what she had come for — simply to sit in the stillness and be alive and share it with him.
Something inside, something tiny he hadn’t even known was there, seemed to unfold, to spread tentative petals open like a desert flower sensing rain.
She turned and looked up at him, her great unblinking eyes full of forest wisdom. He thought foolishly: Let me stay here. I need this.
The first half of the book is a lot like other rake/virgin dynamics, only way better, and is almost light in comparison to the second. Here’s a typical Sheridan reflection from the first half of the book:
It was the first and last occasion, Sheridan thought, that he would attempt to be a felon. Being a natural-born bastard was quite stimulating enough. He didn’t need this kind of excitement.
And here’s Sheridan sizing up the competition, another captain with an eye for Olympia:
Captain Fitzhugh was hardly older than Princess Olympia herself — not a complete fool but managing to conceal the fact, torn between the dignity of his first command and eagerness to impress Captain Sir Sheridan Drake and his sister. He talked too loud and gave his opinion on every possible subject. His only redeeming quality was a modicum of sense: his opinions weren’t hopelessly stupid as long as he kept off religion, which he generally didn’t.
As their adventures unfold, they both change and grow. Olympia becomes stronger, wiser, and more pragmatic as she begins to see the real Sheridan, warts and all, and, through him, the harsh truths of the world. Sheridan, who is, like all romance rakes, truly good underneath it all, slowly begins to make himself vulnerable to Olympia, revealing his deepest, most shameful secrets.
Much of their reassessment of each other and themselves takes place when they are stranded on an island in the middle of the book. Their interlude on the island is probably the best 100 pages of romance I have ever read, with one of the most loving, adult, and frank virginal seductions and one of the most heartbreaking unrequited declarations of love in all of romance.
Because this is a Kinsale, just when you think things are as bad as they could possibly be, they get much much worse. Thus, in the last 2/5 of the book, Olympia and Sheridan find themselves at odds again, and Sheridan descends into a bitter, distant, suicidal funk.
I loved this book, but I don’t think it’s perfect. Here are a few things that didn’t work for me:
1. Frequent references to Olympia as pudgy or plump. Her weight was used as a shorthand for her character in a way I found appalling.
2. The back stories of Olympia as a princess and Sheridan as a frustrated musician.
3. Sheridan pushes Olympia away late in the novel, and she buys it.
4. The reversal at the end.
Seize the Fire asks us to think about some very difficult questions, as you might expect with a book that begins with Rousseau and ends with Plato (the Laches of all things!). The meaning of loyalty, courage, love and war. The purpose of life in the face of tragic contingency. Sheridan and Olympia both come to see that there was no fork in the road where they could have chosen to live life unscathed, without the crushing burden of responsibility for their fellow humans. “We’re dominoes” Sheridan says, “We fall one way or we fall another.”
When I read Kinsale, I’m deeply moved — and not just by negative emotions, like fear or sadness or heartbreak, but by positive ones, like relief and happiness and joy.
It’s a paradox that fictional characters can move us in this way. We know they are not real. Yet the emotions we feel for them are. Professionally, paradoxes like this bother me. But personally, they make me glad to be a human being who can experience the gift of literature. And that probably sums up my review of this book.