RITA: Kinsale, Kinsale, and Chase

I've been going strong on my RITA reading, but somehow or other (wedding, honeymoon) have fallen behind on the actual writing-up of my thoughts. So this post is going to tackle two RITA winners -- plus, a bonus book! -- for reasons that should become obvious. Ultimately, what I've taken away from these three books is: location, location, location.

First up: The Sandalwood Princess, by Loretta Chase. Brief admission: Loretta Chase is currently my number-one favorite romance author, and for the past year and a half I've been reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. This one was a new one, and unlike many of her others it moved around a lot from place to place: India, onboard ship, a country manor house, and India again.

From a writers' craft standpoint, each of these locations provided a framework for a different part of the story:

  • India holds the initial moment of contact, where the thief-hero steals the titular princess statue from our heroine. But it is also the home of the sly, elderly whose failed long-ago romance is the impetus for the plot, and a foil to our hero and heroine.
  • On the ship back to England, our hero masquerades as a servant, a deception which succeeds but which does not prevent the heroine from stealing the statue back from the false master she believes to be the real thief. It is also a space where neither the hero or heroine is entirely at home, and being jarred out of a familiar setting leads to more intimate conversation than each might otherwise have permitted.
  • Once in England, the heroine realizes the statue is missing and follows the heroine north to find an opportunity of stealing it back -- which means convincing the heroine he was fired by his master once the statue disappeared from the ship. She hires him as a secretary/butler, which allows them to spend hours together in a cozy domestic setting, enjoying one another's company and falling even more deeply in love.
  • The thief ultimately has to steal the statue back, for some reason, and everybody goes back to India, where the final twist is revealed and both romance plotlines find a resolution.

Ultimately, the locations are a shorthand for the developing relationship, as often happens in romances (I'm looking at you, Pemberley, and every manor house descriptive passage you've inspired in two hundred years). It's usually a pretty good trick, even when the seams show.

But it has a downside: it can make your hero and heroine seem like they are an entirely different person when they are in a different location. Sometimes this is important, and can shake up a complacent character -- again, PEMBERLEY -- but sometimes it just starts to feel a bit whiplash-y for the reader. "Wait -- who the hell is this person with the same name as that person I was just getting to know? That person would never do this. What's going on?"

Unfortunately, this is what happened in The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale, which was absolutely jam-packed full of things. Anything that could be made interesting was interest-ified within an inch of its life.

The hero is a half-deaf hermit and former highwayman still wanted in England, whose best friend is a tame wolf. The heroine is the only survivor of a family wiped out by a malicious pastor's oppressive cult in her home village. (No, really.) They meet the totally squicky Marquis de Sade, and later a group of aristocratic snuff enthusiasts -- and, to clarify, not the "Oh look at my tiny dandyish habit" snuff. The "Oh look at me choke a woman to death during sex" snuff.

But I'm getting off-track.

I stumbled upon another Kinsale romance, An Uncertain Magic, which had the same rampant busyness. (Psychics! Repressed memories! Revolution in Ireland! The Sidhe! An adorable brandy-drinking pig!) What's more, it had the same unconcern with locations as the first one. Kinsale's places feel ephemeral, as though the characters are only tangentially rooted there. Perhaps this is because the couples in both novels are somewhat unrooted themselves: there's a lot of things that happen on the road, or in houses being falling down or being rebuilt, or in inns and waystations and the like. And I have to admit to being really, really fond of the hero from Prince of Midnight, mostly on account of how different he is from the usual alpha hero. (Very broken, and more than a little sad, and very aware that his desperation is not attractive, which paradoxically makes him quite attractive as a character.)

And maybe it's something about the way the two authors (Chase and Kinsale) think of characters. Chase's style is a much more invisible thing, a mostly realistic narrative voice. Kinsale, though, is a little more fluid and suggestive, a little more poetic, which can be very effective but which always kind of reminds me of Terry Pratchett's description of reading the human mind as "trying to nail fog to the wall." You get all these rich and evocative phrases, but the thread of a specific character's personality tends to wax and wane, disappear and reappear.

Frankly, much as I love an evocative phrase, I want to keep my writing as rooted as possible. Maybe when I make it through all the relevant RITAs I'll start by taking apart a particularly admirable scene or two from some of my favorite novels. Hey, who ever said a comparative literature degree couldn't be useful?

RITA: Mary Jo Putney's 'The Rake and the Reformer' (and 'The Rake' Again)

Another week, another RITA Award-winner to analyze. Reminds me a little of the ghost waltz from the animated Anastasia movie.

Today's book is Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and the Reformer, the winner of Best Regency Romance in 1990. I hadn't read this one before, which means it's harder to pick out the details of technique. One thing, however, leapt right out at me: these characters felt like adults.

It's hard, in the world of the Regency romance, to get characters that feel like grown-ups. Luckily, the trend of the youthful, untouched 18-year-old who enlivens the older, jaded man is fading into the background --  hearts, Madame Heyer godsavethequeen -- but it still lurks in a lot of the structure.

I'm not the only one who noticed this aspect of the book. The notorious Mrs. Giggles said as much in her review: "oh, those days when heroines don't behave like ten-year olds!" But it's a thing that is very hard to pinpoint and emulate, much as I would like to. How do you quantify such a thing? The impression must be made in a series of tiny moments, well-placed words, and vividly well-drawn scenes. It requires a prodigious imagination, an astonishing amount of work, or -- this is the most likely -- both. It is a great achievement.

Mrs. Giggles' review brought something else to light: there are two editions of this book. I've read the earliest -- the Signet edition depicted to the right there -- but La Giggles has obviously read the re-release, and has this criticism to offer: "Reggie doesn't act like a jerk. But isn't he supposed to be a jerk?. . . Reggie is portrayed too nicely and too sympathetically."

Um -- really?

Because about halfway through the book, Reggie -- our hero, who is a full-on alcoholic with blackouts and health troubles -- lapses from his planned sobriety, gets roaring drunk, and tries to rape our heroine, whom he's already on mutually-consented-to-kissing terms with. Some choice phrases he uses during this scene: "Coyness don't suit you, Allie. I know what you want, and be m-more than happy to give it to you . . . Don't you think I know why you're always twitching around me? Underneath that proper face you're as hot as they come, and we both know it." And Allie is horrified and ashamed and fearful but not so fearful that it prevents her from hitting him with any number of heavy objects and yelling and fighting him off. And remember, this is halfway through our romance.

Reading this scene, I felt it was pushing the envelope -- or else it was harkening back to the not-so-long-ago days of Sweet, Savage Love and that one romance novel I read where the heroine was raped by Wagner. (Yes, THE Wagner. It was strange.) And because it was scary, and dangerous, and unprovoked, and mean, it raised the stakes like they rarely get raised for rakes these days. Every frequent romance reader knows that the dangerous rake with the dastardly reputation is not really that bad, deep down. A heroine's reputation may be ruined in the course of the book by her association with the hero, but usually instances of actual, honest-to-goodness abuse are limited to emotional distance and a slight coolness soon shattered by the Sexy Sexy Times the hero and heroine insist on having at intervals convenient to the narrative.

Reggie, on the other hand, is actually, physically, emotionally dangerous. He may well be a terrible choice as a lover, and not simply because Allie's reputation may suffer. She has a strong incentive to not want to spend time with Reggie ever again, after this incident. Of course, they end up happily -- but Ms. Putney makes it a plausible ending, which Reggie has to earn and work toward. Which means, naturally, that this scene's location in the exact center of the novel is no coincidence, but rather a canny bit of planning on the author's part.

Yes, there are plenty of moments where Reggie is otherwise proved not as bad as reputation would have it, but it does matter that we have this particular scene played out with no other witnesses, just Allie and Reggie -- and the reader.

At least, the reader who gets the Signet edition. When romances are reissued, it is not uncommon for the author to also take the opportunity to rewrite them, just a little bit. A book is never really finished, not even for novice aspirants like myself. And these are people Ms. Putney spent a lot of time with when she created them, which the reissue allowed her to revisit and relearn. Mrs. Giggles' opinion that Reggie was too sympathetic either indicates that her standards of villainy are far more demanding than mine -- or else quite a bit of the book was revised when it was put out under the shortened title, The Rake.

What I want to know is this: did she change anything about the near-rape in the reissue? The cheap copy I found on the interwebs should tell me: further bulletins as events warrant.