DUELING REVIEW: The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale, Part III

Trigger warnings:

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childhood sexual abuse, orientalism, rape, racism.

Note: I asked Janine to join me for this review and it turns out we had Thoughts. Many, many Thoughts. So many that we’ve split this review into three parts. You can find the earlier parts of our discussion below. –Jennie



Janine: Did the first time they have sex read as consensual to you?

Jennie: It’s interesting that you ask that because I did not see that scene as non-consensual. But I did feel that way about the “up against the wall” sex scene in the house in Hawaii.

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The first sex scene *didn’t* read as rape to me because I didn’t feel that Leda perceived it that way; obviously both she and Samuel were operating under misconceptions; she thought that literally sleeping together was all that was supposed to happen, and he thought she was experienced.

Janine: I used to view that scene that way, at least on Samuel’s part—that since he believed he had her consent, he couldn’t possibly be raping her. But then I discussed it with past DA contributors Sunita and Robin, and they pointed out that Leda couldn’t possibly give consent if she didn’t know what it was that she was consenting to (Leda later tells Samuel that she didn’t know such a thing was even possible).

One of them (I wish I could remember who) said that a lot of college rapes play out in this way, with the guy believing that he’s been given consent and the woman unable to give it (in that case because of being under the influence).

Jennie: That’s a good point. Though I’m not the sort of person who delineates between “rape” and “rape-rape”, the outer limits of what’s sometimes considered rape can seem esoteric to me. (The example that comes to mind is a situation where two drunk people have sex; since neither can consent, both are guilty of rape).

In the case of Samuel, because he wasn’t a 21st century American college student, with presumably the attendant education in the meaning of consent, I think the equivalency is a little shaky. Any number of historical romance heroines would be considered rape victims by that definition.

Janine: I have to disagree here. Samuel was considerably older than a college student (twenty-nine or thirty). And if anyone should have known what rape was, it was Samuel. He himself had been raped as a child.

Jennie: That’s not to say that the experience wasn’t traumatic for Leda (especially considering the consequences it led to).

Janine: I was unclear as to whether the later “up against the wall” scene in Hawaii that you brought up involved the best-case scenario of dubious consent or whether it was a clear-cut refusal, because we’re in Samuel’s POV for it. Samuel is afraid Leda will push him away and so he doesn’t give her the time to do so. Leda thinks of it afterward as “a coarse assault” but in the same breath she also thinks that he wants to drive her away and that this is why he “touched her roughly.” Later still she indicates later that it didn’t make her think less of Samuel because “I know it would grieve you to hurt me.” And her statement that his sexual desire for her doesn’t repel her “because I am half-French” may have been an allusion to what she viewed as wantonness on her part.

But with all that said, I too lean in favor of labeling it as rape. The previous scene in England stood out to me even more on this reread because Leda is hysterical and she weeps afterward.

Jennie: Sigh. Thinking about this is kind of twisting my mind in knots. I’m aware that neither Samuel or Leda probably would have thought of it as rape *regardless*, because the concept that a man can even be guilty of rape upon his wife seems like a more modern one.

Janine: But our view of it is at least as relevant as theirs, isn’t it? In the early 1990s, when the book was published, the concept of marital rape existed. And we’re reading it in 2020. It’s fair to bring that into the equation.

And to the question of how Leda might have viewed it, it’s relevant that even now, many survivors minimize their assaults or even take on blame for them. And we have Samuel displaying similarly muddled thinking in this very book—seeing his childhood experiences of rape as something that has tainted him. So if we can recognize that his thinking may be distorted when it comes to having survived rape, surely we can acknowledge the possibility of an equally distorted—and equally unreliable—assessment of rape in Leda’s POV as well.

Jennie: I felt like the sex scene in Hawaii could more closely be described as rape because Leda knew what sex was at that point, and definitely didn’t consent, didn’t enjoy it and didn’t want it. And Samuel knew that.

Janine: As that scene was from Samuel’s POV, I wasn’t sure if he was correct in assessing it that way or if that was just more of his distorted thinking. But even if he only thinks she’s not consenting, he should stop. So he can’t be let off the hook.

Jennie: Leda falls in love with Samuel quickly; not surprising, perhaps, considering that he has the looks of Adonis and he rescues her from a life that was becoming untenable.

Janine: That’s enough to justify a crush, but I didn’t understand why her feelings went beyond that. He wasn’t sensitive to her needs. And maybe it was also because he didn’t appeal to me that I didn’t understand his appeal to Leda. I thought she could do better.

Jennie: I read some reviews that suggested that some readers don’t understand why Samuel came to love Leda, but I find Leda *so* lovable, personally. I don’t know if she’s really a faithful depiction of a sheltered Victorian lady, but she certainly felt like one to me.

Janine: A lot of people were sheltered or repressed in Victorian England so I found that aspect of her character believable. Like you, I thought she was lovable and worthy of being cherished. My gripe is more with Samuel for not appreciating her enough.

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He didn’t seem to love Leda for much of the book. His physical desire for her becomes apparent halfway though, when we finally get his adult POV. But his attraction doesn’t seem romantic until around 75% in. Sexual attraction is a great thing, but I wanted to see some selflessness, insight or admiration for her in his thoughts and actions. I needed that to believe it was more than lust. When he declared his love for her, at the 88% mark, I felt it came a bit out of nowhere. What about you?

Jennie: I thought that like a lot of romance heroes, particularly of a certain era, Samuel was fighting his feelings quite a bit. He had better reason than most. He showed his consideration and love by trying to send her away, though of course he did it in a pretty dickish way.

Janine: Yes, but he doesn’t ask her to leave until 85% in. Did you see any earlier signs that what he felt for her was romantic?

Jennie: I think a couple of times, at least, he evinces a desire to be near Leda, and to find her presence soothing. Maybe that’s not romantic to you, but it indicated to me a connection that was not solely sexual.

Janine: Yes, that was there. I think that because he was so focused on marrying Kai, I felt that the counterweight to all his actions in service of his goal should have been heavier.

There’s a moment when Tess says to Leda that no one forced Samuel to take Leda’s virginity or to stay asleep in her bed until Tess caught him there. Years ago, I read a lot into that statement—that all of that had come about because he secretly loved Leda but couldn’t acknowledge it to himself. This time around, though, I didn’t see enough evidence elsewhere to back that notion. I felt instead that the author was intruding on the story in that moment, planting a signpost to tell the reader how the events of that night should be viewed.

Jennie: I agree that Samuel is a frustrating hero; the problem with him as I see it is that he has so little self-knowledge. He can’t accept himself, so he can’t understand or know himself. I didn’t feel like his love for Leda came out of nowhere; it seemed to come out of everything that happened with Dojun and with him coming to accept himself, specifically the sexual part of himself.

Janine: By “everything that happened with Dojun” I assume you mean when the sword came into his and Dojun’s relationship, not the childhood stuff. That happens 84% in. And I don’t see Samuel as accepting his sexual side until even later. At 88% in, he tells Leda that since she knows of his past, it isn’t possible for her to love him. He doesn’t think anyone can love him, and that’s a strong sign of self-rejection.

Jennie: Fair enough. I was just happy they were in accord in the end. I recall that in Seize the Fire, Olympia and Sheridan don’t really reach that point until the last page (maybe the last couple of lines?). Though I know you have problems with StF, as well.

Janine: Yeah, it’s better than Seize the Fire on that count. I think maybe our readings are so different because your reading of the novel is situated more in the context in which it was published and my reading of it is situated more in the context of the present time. My expectations of books aren’t what they were in the mid-1990s when I adored it.

Jennie: It is very hard for me to let go of books I loved once. And Kinsale’s writing is still magical for me, which makes me forgive a lot (obviously).

Janine: The book read like the author was more interested in the hero’s healing process than in the heroine’s happiness.

Jennie: I feel like that’s true of possibly the majority of romances I’ve read! (I mean, that doesn’t make it okay, but it certainly feels common, particularly in some older romances.)

Janine: That’s fair. Well, I disagree that it’s true of the majority, but it is true of a sizable swath. But (and this comes out not just out of my dissatisfaction with my recent experience of The Shadow and the Star but also out of other experiences of books that haven’t worked for me), I feel that in a romance, for the book to be effective, we have to be convinced that the heroine has triumphed. If we are disappointed in what she has won, if the promise of her future doesn’t seem as happy as we feel she deserves, then the romance aspect of the book has failed, wouldn’t you say?

Jennie: In most cases, yes. But there’s a substantial overlap between “romances that I have admired/liked” and “romances with ambiguous HEAs”, especially going back to my earlier days of romance reading. Kinsale, Judith Cuevas/Ivory and especially Megan Chance all have romances where I could say that the promise of a happy future is less than solid (especially for the heroine, though not exclusively).

Janine: On an unrelated topic, there was one way in which I found Leda unconvincing and that was in some of the language Kinsale employed to convey her dialogue or her POV thoughts. Characters in historical romances set in 19th Century England sometimes come across to me as Anglophile rather than English. That’s because speech or thoughts are embellished to such a degree that they stop reading as English or Victorian and start reading overwritten. It can even seem twee. I felt that way about Leda a few times. Here are a couple of examples:

“I take leave to doubt he is right about anything whatsoever.”

Decidedly, matrimony was a risky thing. A most painful, joyful, perplexing institution.

Jennie: I confess, I liked Leda’s tweeness! But I see your point. It’s kind of Disney-Victorian-lady, but it amused me.

Janine: Disney-Victorian-lady is a great term for it. I am going to borrow that!

There were also places where the writing was just gorgeous:

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They stood together with the late-afternoon light drifting down over them, a woman with the sheen of tears on her face, a man quiet and constant, not offering anything of hopes or solutions, but just standing solid at her back, holding her close.


He wanted to tell her, but he had no words for it. He wanted to say warm, delicate, soft; your hair, your beautiful hair falling free, your hands, your waist… do you understand? I won’t hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you. I’m dying.

Jennie: Despite my concerns about the believability of the HEA and Samuel’s emotional stability, I really did love The Shadow and the Star on this reread. Leda is one of my favorite Kinsale heroines, and Samuel is a complex and moving hero. The language is exquisite; the imagery describing Hawaii through Leda’s eyes was evocative.

Janine: I loved Leda but Samuel didn’t seem complex to me, just all over the map. And I wasn’t all that moved by him or by their relationship. I think the fact that his adult POV was withheld for so long was a factor in that. We haven’t gotten into the pacing, but the book moved slowly; I was mostly bored until 62% in. The language *can be* exquisite, but isn’t consistently so.

For example, there’s this piece of pivotal dialogue between Tess and Leda:

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“I don’t wish you to go, although you may if that’s what you decide.” She looked at Leda very directly, her dark hair smooth and her eyes intense. “If you care what I wish… I wish you to be brave, Leda, dear, and stay here and face them.”

It’s important that Tess is looking directly at Leda and that her eyes are intense. But why is the smoothness of her hair mentioned here? How is that relevant?

I also noticed awkward and unclear constructions, two or three run-on sentences, a continuity error (Leda’s hair switches from down to up in the same scene), and the racist pidgin as well as Dojun’s Japanese-English dialect (his command on the English language shifts back and forth according to the needs of the story). If I hadn’t been bored, I might not have noticed all that.

Jennie: I could sort of retcon Dojun’s changing dialect as being deliberate (he definitely laid it on thick with Leda, for instance). The pidgin bothered me more.

I went into the book with some concerns about my memories of the Hawaiian portion of the story. Because I had issues with what felt like, at the very least, racial insensitivity in both Seize the Fire and The Hidden Heart, I felt some trepidation about the “white ninja” aspect of this story.

I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Dojun is portrayed as having an almost superhuman perception (upon seeing Samuel the first time he returns to Hawaii, Dojun correctly perceives that Samuel is no longer a virgin). In general, the Japanese and Hawaiian characters are “othered” in a way that sticks out a bit for me now (I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t have when I first read the books).

Janine: I don’t think it struck me in my earlier readings either. Othering and stereotyping were so prevalent in the genre at the time this book was published and I think that much of the time they either flew over my head or I just compartmentalized them to the best of my abilities.

Jennie: To be fair, I don’t think that the depictions are necessarily negative, but they do lean into stereotypes. (One of the main Hawaiian characters is a large and charming scamp; the Japanese characters are all obsessed with honor and duty.) I think I may need to accept that when Kinsale wrote about other cultures in the 1990s, sensibilities were somewhat different than they are today.

Janine: I would argue that the depictions are negative given what happens near the end of the book. But even if that’s debatable, it’s racist regardless. To give a general example rather than one from this book, if I, a Jewish reader, come across a Jewish character who is a banker, very intelligent and marvelously good with money, it can still strikes an antisemitic note, particularly if the character has no arc of their own and are only there to serve the needs of the arcs of the white, Christian characters. Sensibilities were different in the early 1990s, true, but not all books published then were as insensitive as this one.

Jennie: True. And yet…this book still worked really well for me. I tend to be an emotional grader, and with Kinsale and some of my other old favorites that’s especially true. My grade for The Shadow and the Star is a straight A.

Janine: There were some sections I loved that, as long as this review is, we didn’t get much into in this discussion. The vulnerable child Samuel’s arrival in Hawaii, the early incident with the shark, Leda’s struggle to survive and yet keep her integrity, the scenes with the two policemen, the scenes with Tess, and all the fallout from the loss of Leda’s virginity. And toward the end there, when things finally got romantic, there were a few scenes I liked so much that I read them over and over.

But the book was offensive on multiple fronts, and there is also the slow-as-molasses pacing. I still have some attachment to my memories of the book—to the book I thought it was, or read it as, back in 1992. Taking all this into account, I am going to give The Shadow and the Star a grade of C.

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