GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Sourcebooks, 2008
WHY THIS NOVEL: It’s Laura Kinsale.
The back blurb:
“Intent on revenge, she is seeking only to learn how to kill…
Lady Leigh Strachan has dressed as a boy and crossed all of France in search of her family’s killer. Her only wish is to be trained to kill so she can avenge their deaths at the hands of a demented cult leader.
Nobleman and highwayman, he’s in hiding now, and desperately lonely…
The reclusive S. T. Maitland, nobleman and highwayman, was once known as the Prince of Midnight. Now he’s hiding out in a crumbling castle in France with a tame wolf as his pet. He is deaf in one ear, suffers from vertigo, and is desperately longing for a woman’s company. He seems revoltingly sentimental to the stoic Lady Leigh…
But when they’re forced onto a quest together, she discovers the dangerous and vital man behind the reputation, and he finds a way to touch her ice cold heart.”
I look at my copy of The Prince of Midnight and I think it is probably the book that has the most slips of paper stuck in it ever. Every time I read something that I wanted to quote, I marked it with a slip of paper. Then I realized I can’t very well quote the whole novel and reserved it only for very special occasions.
Of course this is my roundabout way to say I liked this novel A LOT. Which is weird actually, since I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read it when I picked it up. I knew it had a cross-dressing heroine which is a plot device I’m not exactly looking for (this is where the “it’s Kinsale” comes in) and so I had some difficulty staying with the story in the beginning. Once I caught up to the fact that The Prince of Midnight reads in large parts like a reversal of hero and heroine behavior in romance novels, I was hooked. By the time their first time together comes around (~ page 100), I was sold. At the end, I saw The Prince of Midnight as a beautifully written story where theme and plot elements work together to make a well-formed whole.
The Prince of Midnight is the hero’s story. S.T. has the most POV scenes, the page count for Leigh’s POV probably is around 150 pages (the novel has 521), and his believes are questioned the most. Because of the behavior reversal, it’s the hero who’s full of romantic notions in this novel. He keeps on loving and trying to win the heroine’s love again and again, making him look like one of the heroines who take one abuse after another by the hero. Even though S.T. knows women are his weakness, he can’t help himself:
His reason told him to leave it alone, that he’d had enough of damsels in distress to last any man ten lifetimes. But his spirit filled him with visions of that nighttime highway, of scandalous glory…erotic, heady pleasure, joy that burned through all his veins, in the saddle or in a woman’s arms.
Love had never lasted; it had all come to naught more times than he could remember. He gave himself to the dream, and it vanished in his hands. It had ruined him.
He ought to keep his wits.
But she was like none of the others.
Maybe, this time, it would be different.
Bouffon! He always thought it would be different. He always thought: this time…
Ah but this time, this time, this time…
He’s a fool for love. So meeting Leigh, he has no choice but to try and help her and fall in love with her.
But there’s more to this reversal. From the look of things, S.T. Maitland is an anti-hero. His reasons for his highwayman exploits were far from pure:
Truth. They’d supposed him on the side of truth. What if he should tell her that he’d chosen which supplicant to champion as much by the subtle shape of a hip and the charming curl of an eyelash as for the justice of the cause? […] there had always been a woman in it. A woman…and the sweet, stinging flame of a gamble. (106/107)
and because of his accident, he’s severely handicapped at what he can do. Fighting? Riding a horse? – He often has trouble keeping his balance and walking straight. It’s sometimes heartbreaking to read how he tries again and again because being able to do that is what won him women in the past.
This reversal of roles is one reason why I liked this novel so much, especially since it also questions the notion about what a hero (and a heroine) is. So: Is S.T. Maitland really an anti-hero?
Leigh thinks him an “[i]mplausible, romantical, air-dreaming idiot” (136). She constantly puts him down and she’s cold. She also delivers one of the most humiliating dressing-downs I’ve ever read in a romance novel:
“You’re deaf, cocksure dolt—deaf—and bungling, and trying to be what you aren’t any longer! Do you think you impress me with this?” She flung up her chin. “Do you think I want your help or your horse or your bloody bribes to make me sleep with you?”
He felt himself growing cold.
“I’m just waiting for you to fall flat on your face,” she cried. “You’re so proud of yourself because you can stand up and walk instead of reeling like a drunkard. But you’ll never know if it’s to last, will you?” she sneered. “And neither will I. I can’t trust you. I can’t depend on you. You’ve run entirely mad and useless.” (271)
Leigh says this “[i]n full view and hearing of a crowd of fascinated bumpkins” (271). It’s her way to protect herself. The slow cracking of her icy wall is convincingly done, IMO, and most of it has to be deduced because it’s the hero’s POV. But Leigh’s so afraid of being hurt by love, she doesn’t show it even after she admits to herself that she loves S.T.:
The truth came upon her with a simple, horrible clarity:
I love this man.
I love him, I hate him…oh God.
She wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. Instead she only stared stonily. (277)
Leigh and S.T. are opposites. S.T. is given to flights of fancy, loves the gamble element of highway robbery and courting women, and likes to go for the grand gestures. He also desperately wants to be loved. His notion of what love is differs greatly from Leigh’s and is tightly linked with his ability to help women. According to his world view, being able to help a woman would win him the woman. Since he’s no longer what he once was, he’s desperate about never winning Leigh, and it’s sometimes heartbreaking to read. Leigh on the other hand is practical. She doesn’t want love, least of all a love that was used again and again as some kind of game. She lost her ability to feel with the death of her family and now she hurts. At the beginning of the story she doesn’t even care if she lives or not. She has one goal: to kill the man responsible for her hurt. She wants revenge.
After Leigh found S.T. in France, they make their way to England, and after the public humiliation quoted above, S.T. leaves Leigh behind in Rye and goes on alone. He’s hurt but there it is again: “It was like a quest: kill the dragon—win the lady” (280).
Leigh’s dragon is the Reverend Chilton who has taken over Leigh’s hometown Felchester with his distortion of religion, either driving away the former inhabitants or bringing them to his flock. What follows at Felchester, now renamed “Heavenly Sanctuary,” is a chilling look at what a charismatic leader can do to a group of people who are feeling weak and alone and are therefore willing to follow. It’s a portrayal of how peer pressure works, how good things and religious believes can be twisted into evil, and how easy it is to use this to make people do your biding and even to degrade them.
S.T.’s desperate longing to be loved, his admitted weakness for women – especially when they need help and he has an opportunity for grand gestures and daring rescues – and his wish to win Leigh even though she constantly pushes him away questions if it is really love that motivates S.T. It’s here that the main characters different world views and notions of love clash the most. Maybe it’s just the gamble that draws him? Is it really different this time? And if so, what makes it different?
S.T. asks himself these question. More importantly, Leigh asks these question. And most importantly, these questions lead to what I see as the heart of the novel, the question: What is love?
“Give me your joy, Seigneur.” She pressed her forehead against their clasped hands. “Oh, give me your joy. I can go on alone if I must. I’ll endure, oh yes–I’m too strong to break. And I’ll grow old and turn into stone if you leave me. I’ll never look up and see you play with the wolf; I’ll never hear you call me sweet names in French; I’ll never learn to beat you at chess.” She shook her head violently. “Please…dance with me. Take me to Italy. Paint me in the ruins at midnight. Give me all your mad notions and your crazy heroics and your impossible romantical follies. And I’ll be your anchor. I’ll be your balance. I’ll be your family. I won’t let you fall.”
Laura Kinsale’s The Prince of Midnight is one of the more special novels I read this year, probably even my most favorite so far.
Would I recommend this novel? Yes.
Would I read this novel again? Yes.
Grade: 5 / 5