When I read Laura Kinsale's unique and startling first novel, I remember thinking either it was a fluke or I had just come across one of the best writers in the history of the romance genre. Her subsequent works proved that she was no fluke, but in my opinion it wasn't until The Shadow and the Star that she came to full maturity, finding the perfect balance in story and characters. Laura Kinsale has a gift for expressing powerful emotions with incredible subtlety. Her writing is clean and easy to read, but her simplicity is deceptive - she chooses words with the sensitivity of a poet.
Reading Kinsale is always an emotional experience. The danger is when her trademark angst-ridden heroes are a little too tormented. Some of them teeter close to the edge of insanity, which makes me uncomfortable. I don't like my fantasies too dark. But when this tendency is under control, as in The Shadow and the Star, the hero's deep need to love and be loved, and the heroine's ability to redeem him, all make for a transforming experience.
Samuel Gerard, the story's hero, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and has been rescued and brought to Hawaii by a well-to-do family, the Ashlands. Their Japanese butler, Dojun, helps the boy to heal his inner wounds by training him in the techniques and philosophy of the martial arts. Samuel eventually becomes a formidable warrior, but he is always on guard against the sexual side of himself, which he regards as dangerous, something to fight against and conquer.
Making the acquaintance of a prim and proper London shopgirl, Miss Leda Etoile, Samuel enlists her help in his secret campaign against the city's child prostitution houses, and eventually hires her as his private secretary. Leda is a lovely character, naive but intelligent, never daring to believe that a man as handsome and wealthy as Samuel would want her, but loving him with all the sweetness and generosity in her soul.
Their unfolding relationship, infused with the emotional yearning and impetuous desires of two innocents, is a joy to behold. After a prolonged struggle with his chaste love for the Ashlands' daughter Kai, and his desire for Leda, Samuel seduces Leda in one of the most erotically charged love scenes I've ever read. It's quite a trick to make a male virgin so sexually appealing while believably depicting his lack of experience, but Kinsale carries it off in a way that makes your toes curl.
At the prodding of the Ashlands and his own conscience, Samuel reluctantly does the right thing by Leda and marries her, surrendering all his dreams of a noble and chaste love with Kai. He believes that he has lost all chance of personal salvation, but instead he finds it with Leda.
Patiently, gently, Leda helps him to reconcile the two halves of his divided self, to let go of the ugliness of his past and learn how to love a woman body and soul.
I reread this book occasionally to remind myself of a few things . . . that a romance writer needs to push the boundaries of a story beyond what is comfortable, and to give the hero a necessary streak of vulnerability that will emphasize his strength. Exotic locations, colorful characters, expert writing, a tender love story . . . The Shadow and the Star has it all.
You can always tell when someone is great by how easy he or she makes it look. I can't think of any writer who has the amount of sheer talent Laura Kinsale does. She's just amazing. The Shadow and the Star is Laura Kinsale's best novel, and anyone who doesn't read it is missing out on a writer at the top of her form.
Buy it at Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes and Noble/Kobo
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