I finally read a book for TBR Challenge that I feel motivated to talk about. It even fits this month’s theme!
The Prince of Midnight won the RITA for Best Romance in 1991. Isn’t the Fabio cover wonderful? It has a lot of the hallmarks of “old school” romance (not that these have left us, really): the hero is a dashing highwayman; the heroine is an orphan deprived of her family and estate by a thoroughly two-dimensional villain; she dresses as a boy so that she can travel alone in safety, which works fine all across England and France, but the hero recognizes her as a woman in their first encounter. He has insta-lust, while she spends a little longer in denial of her feelings for him.
S.T. has been wounded, and is in retirement/hiding in France; Leigh comes to find him in hopes that the infamous “Signeur Minuit” will teach her sword-fighting skills that will help her to kill the man she hates. She tracks him down without too much difficulty, but he cannot teach her much because his last brush with the law in England left him deaf in one ear and with his balance impaired. But he wants her, so he doesn’t just send her away; she figures out that he’s not very likely to be able to help her, but she is drawn to him and unable to come up with another plan for revenge. So they stumble along, getting to know each other and eventually agreeing to pursue her revenge together in England.
Leigh considers herself unsentimental — she thinks that her experiences have hardened her, and she has no interest in loving another person or needing them for her happiness. She’s willing to have sex with S.T., but not to love him — he gives in to that once and then resists it, because while he isn’t looking for a long-term commitment, he is used to falling in love as part of seduction in his temporary liasons. This bit of role-reversal, combined with their verbal sparring and repartée, are what worked for me in this book. While some of their emotional reverses and mis-cues felt a bit contrived to me, and the overall length was a bit much, overall I enjoyed their encounters and the development of the relationship. As with some of Kinsale’s other books, I found individual scenes really entertaining, more than I enjoyed to overall story arc.
S.T. overcomes his disability shortly after they arrive in England, so he has the fighting skills and dexterity to play the role of rescuer and vigilante. By then he and Leigh have fallen out, so he goes on alone to prove to her that he is worth her regard. After his own encounter with, and escape from, the villain of the piece, he wants the man dead and discredited on his own account. Meanwhile Leigh realizes that she has come to care about S.T. in spite of herself, so she asks him to give up on revenge rather than risk himself; he refuses, of course, and she is angry that his so-called love for her doesn’t make him willing to put her need to have him safe ahead of everything else.
Our villain is an evil cult leader, who is using unspecified drugs and tricks to keep a community in his thrall in an extremely patriarchal “ideal community” that turns out to be a front for some pretty sick shenanigans. So of course S.T. needs to rescue all the damsels, not just Leigh, and of course she sees that as a sign that he doesn’t really love her. When he won’t stop, she takes it on herself to kill the minister — naturally she almost succeeds but then is captured and imprisoned, so he can rescue her. Only in doing so he exposes himself as a wanted criminal, so there’s some more delay while he gets a pardon. Then the external obstacles are gone, but he still think he doesn’t deserve her, and she thinks his lack of pursuit means that he doesn’t really love her, they eventually sort that out, with time for an epilogue that I really could have done without.
On balance, I’m glad I read this — the dialogue and many of the characters are engaging, and I was entertained even when rolling my eyes. Kinsale writes horses and dogs particularly well, and the scenes involving animals are great. Sometimes I felt like I was being smacked in the face with evidence of historical accuracy, which can be as annoying as inaccuracy. Mostly I just felt that the time it took the characters to actually get together was too drawn-out; the epilogue, showing how this unconventional couple would move to England and become conventional, was disappointing.