The Vivid, the Gothic, the Spiderporcine: Thief of Shadows

Winter Makepeace: what a name. I would object on the grounds of generic overexuberance (let's not forget that his sisters go by the similarly abstemious names Temperance and Silence, and one of them ran off with a semi-reformed ne'er-do-well named Lazarus), if I hadn't just come across three separate, apparently devout ancestors named "Love" (each after her grandmother) in my genealogical explorations.  Three Loves amidst a sea of Margarets.  That's my kind of naming.

In this fourth in Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, the ascetic Winter Makepeace, overseer of a foundling's home in down-at-the-heels St. Giles, is by night the Thief of Shadows, a super-hero avant la lettre called the Ghost of St. Giles, who wanders the streets defending the disenfranchised and forgotten.  Quite early in the novel he finds himself at the tender mercies of Lady Isabel Beckinhall, who is working very hard to convince the world of how scintillating her surface is, and how very little lies beneath it.  The romance that unfolds after she rescues the Ghost from a rampaging mob, all without ever removing his mask is nice enough - the lovers are likable, and the skepticism about the rapaciousness of an aristocratic economy is welcome in a historical romance - but nothing feels particularly wrenching or revelatory. Isabel in particular never really gets off the ground for me as a character: although she's kind and realistically self-questioning, her various characteristics don't ultimately congeal into a coherent personality.  Winter's does to a greater extent, because he is the more unusual persona, but the problems which lend conflict to the romance (having to do with his self-denying tendency to devote himself fully to any task he takes up, whether it be superheroic scurrying about on rooftops, running a children's home, or caring for a family) are all too easily solved when love (sweet clarifying love) helpfully reshuffles his priorities.  I wish that unusual characters like Winter would maintain their distinctiveness (in his case, his chilly austerity) when and after they fall in love, rather than thawing into a rather generic heroic suaveness and confidence.  My favorite scenes with both Winter and Isabel were those in which they were uncertain: it's their prickliness that drew me in, not how polished and dashing they could be.

The gothic genre (to which this book only lightly belongs) has developed a reputation for drawing its personalities in broad, bravura strokes, but I'm not sure a really skillful evocation of the genre should  should mean half-hearted characterization as much as it means dynamic environmental tension.  These characters were psychologized (and likable) but they weren't vivid.  And in the gothic mode, everything should be vivid.

Stray notes:
  • The editor in me feels honor-bound to point out that there are some infelicities (as they say) in the writing here: sporadic and awkward archaisms, unnecessary interjections of "telling," etc.  It's fairly rare, but I'd like to have seen these ironed out.  Know that this also isn't a piece of decorous realism: if you are seeking a painstaking evocation of historical social mores, go elsewhere.  Hoyt's more interested in building a warm affection between her characters (which she does deftly in all of her novels that I've read), and they routinely find themselves in situations that defy the period's standards of social decency. 
  • Speaking of which, there's one scene of rather explicit banter about how hard Winter and Isabel like their mattresses - all par for the course, except that they are having this conversation over the head of Isabel's young ward, who finally asks why they are speaking of riding their mattresses when they should be sleeping in them.  Honestly, now, I thought, thinning my lips schoolmarmishly: there's a time and a place, people. Innuendo is decreasingly sexy as you add children to its audience. Am I approaching withered old stick status, or is this icky?
  • For a time, it seemed like the plot was settling into a too-familiar, "Will she guess his secret identity?  Will she be torn between attraction to two men who are in fact the same person? What does it mean to be jealous of yourself?" territory, but Hoyt blessedly avoids getting too tangled in this (because her heroine isn't an idiot).  It's possible that in this section, I may have found myself repeatedly humming the "Spiderpig" theme. I admit nothing. 
  • A whole crowd of hurrahs (and some spoilers, for the wary) for a novel which contains both an unashamedly untouched hero and a portrayal of infertility that doesn't end with love as the magical cure. More like this, please.

Thief of Shadows (2012)
Elizabeth Hoyt 

[Note: This was my first experiment with reviewing a book from NetGalley, and I'm torn about how to negotiate the ethics (and legalities) of indicating the source of books I've received from publishers/authors rather than from libraries/purchase. I'd like just to be able to tag them as galleys, but tags in my blog template are only searchable, not always visible. In future, I'll mark these books as "Galley," "ARC," or "Publisher-provided" in the ratings section of a post, and do my utmost to ensure that the free nature of the text doesn't affect my the nature or tone of my reviews.]

Saturday, Septemeber 15, 2012

An Affection Altogether Ignorant of Our Faults: The Canine Romance

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Waikiki, HI

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
(Groucho Marx)

Often I find myself buying romances on the strength of a recommendation from someone I really trust.  As with all other genres and art forms, my taste doesn't run so much towards particular sub-genres, tropes, and tones as it does towards innovation, quality, and complexity within a particular form. (This is how I got looped into romance reading as a literary scholar at all, not to mention comics, horror films, anime, reality dance competitions, curling, etc.) So from time to time I just take the risk and buy while thinking that the less I know about what I am about to read the better.

And then I open up the ebook, and it has an adorable puppy on the cover, and I think, "Oh Jesus.  What have I done." (I can't even make this last a question, so heavy is the weight of dread upon my soul at the sight of that cheerful furball.)

Jean-Honore Fragonard "Girl with a Dog" (c. 1770)
Dogs and erotics
Seriously: what's this about?
I don't know why I have such an entrenched bias against dog-themed romances, but I encountered it again when I cracked (clicked?) the e-spine of Nikki and the Lone Wolf*.  I think it is the feeling that the text I'm reading has been so heavily engineered to fit within a marketable trope.  ("Banksia Bay," goes the tag-line for this series, "where lost dogs heal lonely hearts.")  I feel the burden of the commodification of literature particularly heavily when I see that I'm being manipulated by an adorable mammal.  But also, as an inveterate cat-person, I feel alienated by this creaky, ubiquitous association between dog ownership and romantic healing:  why dogs, I find myself asking?  Why associate dogs, of all creatures, with romantic (or, more unsettlingly, erotic) triumph?  Why not cats? Too on the nose?  I suppose the same must be true of snakes.  When are we going to see a rash of romances (a phrase that I should really put on my "never use again" list) about people brought together by their mutual love of ferrets?  Judith Ivory's already laid out the seminal text for that movement in The Proposition, a Pygmalion tale about a rat catcher and his linguist love. [And see Laura Vivanco's excellent note below on the continuing role ferrets have had to play in the scandals of romancelandia.]

I'm troubled by the idea that dogs have an entrenched role to play in a certain genre of romance because they set out a silent, adorable and adoring model for love as faith.  What the routinely skittish protagonists of a dog romance see in their canine companions is love that is patient and kind, love that does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud, love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking or easily angered, and that keep no record of wrongs.  Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Beautiful, Biblical stuff - the love of dog as a model for romantic love, which itself becomes a model for love of god.

But, curb the canine and call me Darcy, I myself prefer romantic love with a touch of pride about it. Not love as self-abnegating devotion.

There's a certain irony here: despite my initial stomach-churning sense of dread, I often quite enjoy a good dog-themed romance.  One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie, frequently features dogs in her  books, and they are fully-fledged characters, with as much personality and autonomy as any of the human players in the drama. And certainly I am a sucker for the sentimentalization of animal-owner relationships, and perhaps this is why I so resent being manipulated by them when they are in less skillful hands (or more blatantly mobilized by publishers) - I will snuffle into my drink about an ill-treated animal, but I'll also resent you for exploiting this empathy cheaply.

In Nikki and the Lone Wolf, Marion Lennox draws a vivid portrait of Horse, a massive and mistreated wolfhound who draws the hero and heroine from their homes one gothic night by howling inconsolably at the ocean.  His owner threw him overboard to drown, but still he's faithfully waiting for this abusive scoundrel, and will be until the hero can persuade the heroine to take a dominant tone with the poor misguided soul (and thereby provide a new home, a new bond of love).  Horse is a great character, as are his owners, but the resolution [SPOILER], which comes by way of a massive community-wide oceanic search for the beast, after he goes swimming off into the ocean like he's Edna Pontellier, desperate to find his mistress (who has herself, with irksome parallelism, stormed off in a fit of romantic pique), seems not just implausible but also exasperating.  Is this the model of love we're looking at, I found myself asking, suicidal, irrational devotion that takes a village to soothe?  If so, the hero and heroine are right to resist it.

*Is it piling on to talk about these silly titles?  Admittedly this one is less egregious than the previous two in the series, Misty and the Single Dad and Abby and the Bachelor Cop, but it's the formula that gets me.  Heroines get a name - a diminutive, early 90s identity - while heroes get a social role.


Sunday, July 31, 2011
Waikiki, HI

While we were in London, D found something like this Bookcase wallpaper the glorious Dorky Medievalist sent me. (I covet it.  Perhaps for the guest bathroom?)  When D discovered it, it was like a whole new realm of strategy opened up in his war on my library.  He became very excited: "How 'bout we just get rid of all the books and replace them with wallpaper that LOOKS like books?"

There followed an acid pause.

Then I said, "I've consulted with the books, and they think I should buy D wallpaper for every room and get rid of YOU."