The Promise in a Kiss
In her debut hardcover Stephanie Laurens plumbs the family history she created in her Cynster series to tell the story of Sebastian, the Duke of St. Ives and Helena, Comtesse d’Lisle. Writing a prequel to an already existing series can be a challenge. Facts about the characters that may have been simply backstory in the chronologically later books suddenly become the story and cannot be changed. Laurens meets this challenge with mixed results.
Helena has become known to Laurens’ readers as the widowed matriarch of the Cynster clan, first appearing in Devil’s Bride and thereafter making frequent appearances in the other five books in the series. In The Promise of a Kiss Helena is reintroduced as a sixteen-year-old living in a convent in France. Late one night she’s returning to her quarters and is startled when a man drops over the wall in front of her. He’s an attractive Englishman who kisses her and disappears.
Seven years later Helena sees him again at a party in London where she’s scouting for a husband. Sebastian is the Duke of St. Ives and is dangereux, according to Helena’s chaperone. Furthermore, he’s vowed to never marry. So, although Helena finds him as attractive as she did at sixteen, or more accurately, because of this fact, Sebastian must be avoided. Of course he has a different perspective on the matter and is determined to win Helena.
Helena plots to avoid Sebastian, while he plots to be around her as much as possible. Sounds basic and trite but Ms. Laurens infuses each scene between the two with a tension that can only come from deeply held feelings. Much as Helena tries to remain practical and keep away from Sebastian, she finds herself inexorably attracted to him again and again. Her complex feelings are so well drawn that it can sometimes seem as though you’re inside her head. She doesn’t want to be attracted to a man who’s as powerful as her corrupt guardian, but the simple truth is, she can’t quite help herself.
Sebastian is similar to many of Laurens’ heroes. He’s strong, dominant, and even ruthless when he wants something. Though this may sound like same old, same old, the author hasn’t just plopped in a Cynster prototype. Sebastian is written with restraint and in a funny kind of way comes across as more mature than any of Laurens’ other heroes. Perhaps this is simply a by-product of knowing that he’s the father of future protagonists, but the subtlety of his characterization goes a long way in keeping the readers’ attention.
The plotting has the opposite effect. Helena is in London searching for a husband to escape her rotten guardian, Fabian. He, though a master strategist amongst the French aristocracy, has allowed this to happen for reasons that are unbelievable and damaging to his own cause. The far from compelling machinations of Fabian lead him into farfetched behavior that seems to spread like a fungus from character to character. Soon even level-headed Helena is planning to get what happiness she can with Sebastian before having to make a grand sacrifice.
The thinness of the plot was doubly disappointing because the author had already written a compelling conflict into this couple’s backstory. Sebastian’s illegitimate child Richard was raised by Helena who, family history says, took him in without a qualm. Did she? How did she feel? How did Sebastian feel about the whole thing? I suspect that this one would have been a DIK if the author had used the already available conflict rather than a stock villain who’s motivation veers all over the place (and who causes everyone else’s to do so as well) in order to sustain the dramatic tension.
That said, the emotion that comes through in the scenes, especially the early ones, between Helena and Sebastian. Some of them are written with such understated elegance that even now I feel the urge go back and reread them. Though this doesn’t negate the thinly drawn plot, I do think this is worth the introductory hardcover price, even if you’re not a Cynster series reader.