Review: Seize The Fire, Laura Kinsale

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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.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 10:49 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. This is the book that drew me into Kinsale (it was the lacy cover on the original with the peekaboo sex behind it), and OMG, I fell in love. I adore Sheridan and love the ending–although I’m an epilogue whore and wanted just the slightest bit beyond what we see.

    As for PTSD, Susan Elizabeth’s Phillips’ new re-release, Glitter Baby, has a hero with PTSD. It was originally published in the early 80s, I think (checks: nope. 1987). The hero’s amazing. The heroine is usually TSTL and does NOT deserve him. It’s more her book than his, done in the Judith Krantz style from the 80s Glitz and Glamour style. But totally worth reading for the hero. So brilliantly done. Not sure how much she revised with re-issue. It’ll be interesting to read it.

  2. I have been wanting to read this book since i read the blurb on the Source books site. Great review.

  3. This is probably my favorite Kinsale, even though I cannot read it all the way through in one shot. Unlike you, Jessica, Olympia’s weight worked for me, especially in the way Sheridan associates her body with the gracious plenty he so needs. Unlike Crusie, where I sometimes feel the rounded heroines are mother substitutes, I never felt that with Sheridan and Olympia, and I adored it when Sheridan got angry that Olympia had lost weight (and when that idiot captain wants her to be thinner).

    In any case, there are scenes in this book that will stay with me forever: the moment in the study where Sheridan looks into Olympia’s green eyes and recognizes his own freedom; Olympia’s goodbye letter; Sheridan and the penguin; the moment at the end of the novel where Sheridan simply sits in the rain, defeated and yet settled in some way.

    And although I usually HATE epilogues, for a long time I wanted to see Olympia and Sheridan in Vienna (oh, yeah, that’s another one of those unforgettable moments). Now I accept that the novel had to end where it did, but I would not have been averse to an epilogue offered elsewhere well after the novel’s publication, lol. I think Judith Ivory did that with some of her books, IIRC, although who knows now that her website has disappeared (excuse me while I go weep at the absence of any new Ivory novels).

  4. SPOILERS in my post

    What a thoughtful review. For me it highlights the differences between the way different people read.

    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.

    It’s been a long, long time since I read this book in its entirety, but I don’t remember any part of it feeling light. Though a brilliant, brilliant book, it’s also quite possibly the heaviest romance I’ve ever read, and for that reason it’s not my favorite Kinsale (My favorites are The Shadow and the Star, For My Lady’s Heart, and The Dream Hunter).

    As in many rake and virgin romances, the gap between Olympia’s idealism and Sheridan’s cynicism is the engine of the story, but what I’ve always loved in this book is that unlike most rake and virgin stories, where the heroine’s idealism is upheld as the virtue by which she awakens the hero’s dormant goodness, strips away his cynical veneer and heals him, so that they then meet on equal ground, in Seize the Fire the heroine’s innocence is shattered by the hero, and it is her disillusionment that brings them together.

    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.

    I didn’t feel that Olympia became stronger. I suppose one could say she became wiser in the sense that she became less blindly naive, and was forced to wake up to a brutal reality. That’s a lot of what I admire about the book, actually — that it doesn’t sugarcoat the passage from blind naivete to awareness, doesn’t try to make it anything less than a rude awakening, and doesn’t portray idealism as a virtue.

    But I feel that at the end of the book Olympia is broken, as broken as Sheridan is, which is where she would have ended up with or without him, and where he needed her to end up in order to be able to open up to her as he does. Before that, she is not that trustworthy — her idealism is dangerous.

    But even though I see her that way, I felt an awful lot of empathy for Olympia when I read this book. I could see where the story was heading from very early on, that her idealism and his cynicism were on a collision course, and I dreaded what would happen with each page I turned. This was why the first half was nowhere near light for me.

    I feel that what makes the book so wonderful and memorable is the character of Sheridan. I loved his sarcastic perspective, as well as his selfishness — the way that he was always watching out for his own skin first. I’ve never come across another hero like him in the romance genre, someone who is always looking out for number one.

    When I saw that Olympia was in his path, and that she looked up to him and trusted him — well, my stomach was clenched the entire time I read.

    As much as I love the book, I think I would have loved even more to see Sheridan paired up with someone who was more his equal, someone more sophisticated and pragmatic. I don’t think the book would have been as potent then, but it also would not have been as painful and gut-wrenching to read. I consider it Kinsale’s darkest work, by far.

    The only respite for me, the lightest portion of the story, was the time on the island. That was the only place where Sheridan and Olympia were free while she still had her title.

    Which brings me to the backstory. I think Olympia had to be a princess for the book to work, because the revolution had to happen. I don’t think she would have been free to love Sheridan without that, nor do I think he would have opened up to her completely otherwise. Also, had she not been a princess, he would have treated her differently, and we’d have had a different relationship all along the way.

    The ending is my favorite part of the book. I’ve read it over and over umpteen times, and it makes me cry every time. It’s probably Kinsale’s most powerful ending, and she is a writer who writes incredible endings. I would never, ever, want to see an epilogue or any kind of change made to it.

    Also, I don’t think I would buy a happier ending — not even if Kinsale wrote it. To me, it’s a very bittersweet ending, and I can’t really picture Olympia and Sheridan having a blissful life with two kids and the proverbial white picket fence. These characters have been through too much — if they can wake up the next morning and go through the motions of the day without contemplating suicide, that’s the best I can hope for for them.

    The book leaves me glad they have each other, but worried for them (esp. Olympia). But I also feel that that’s as it should be, because it’s a book about war, and if war doesn’t leave heroes shattered, what does? The characters can’t be heroes in the idealized sense of that word; the only heroism that is left to them in a disordered world is to put one foot in front of the other, one word in front of another, to hold each other knowing that that is all they have and all they can offer one another. And that is absolutely fitting, because that is truth.

  5. Sarah,

    I have read most SEPs, or rather, my uncontrollable id has — my conscious self refuses to take responsibility for it — but not Glitter Baby. I will have to get hold of it. I wonder if editing is common in re-issues? I know McNaught did it, and Putney. Anyway, I’m glad we agree on this book.

    Violet — you will not regret read this one.

    Robin — I love that Olympia is heavy, and I would have had no problem with the weight signifying “gracious plenty”, but he uses it when he wants to pity her and belittle her (telling her to “toddle up on deck”, for example), and, just on a literary level, it is overused.

    Janine — I agree, it is not “light”, but I think I qualified it with “almost” in my review. Maybe I should have said, “comparatively”. Think of Olympia’s wet feathers covering her face, for example, when she is in Sheridan’s doorway. To me that was an almost light moment.

    I do think Olympia becomes stronger — not strong, but stronger. Think of her decision to go after Sheridan when he steals her jewels. Or her catching the goose on the island. Or her dangling from a rope to rescue their lost knife. Or her kicking that guy off the camel. I don’t think the Olympia who stammered in Sheridan’s drawing room would have been able to do those things.

    I agree with both sides on the epilogue. I wanted it, but I know it’s not right.

    And I love how you put this:

    I’ve always loved in this book is that unlike most rake and virgin stories, where the heroine’s idealism is upheld as the virtue by which she awakens the hero’s dormant goodness, strips away his cynical veneer and heals him, so that they then meet on equal ground, in Seize the Fire the heroine’s innocence is shattered by the hero, and it is her disillusionment that brings them together.

    I hate having to use stock romance terms to describe this book because I feel it doesn’t give a sense of how unique it is. I feel very not up to the challenge in reviewing a book like this.

    I still don’t agree with you on this [SPOILER below]:

    Which brings me to the backstory. I think Olympia had to be a princess for the book to work, because the revolution had to happen. I don’t think she would have been free to love Sheridan without that, nor do I think he would have opened up to her completely otherwise. Also, had she not been a princess, he would have treated her differently, and we’d have had a different relationship all along the way.

    I guess I feel that Olympia had her trust in her hero and her mentor shattered, survived near starvation and freezing to death on a desert island, shipwrecks, near murder, near slavery, bloody battles, in which she killed a man, you name it. Why did she need more?

  6. If I could be like any other romance writer, it would be Laura Kinsale. I adore her books beyond all imagining.

  7. Oh, wow, there are some great comments to this post.

    *is filled with love for fellow Kinsale fans*


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