Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Seduction of an Unknown Lady, by Samantha James - Review

I've been kind of cranky lately. I've been reading a lot of things that just feel all meh. I think it's probably mostly me, but I'm going to take a little of it out on Samantha James anyway.

The basic premise: Fionna Hawkes is living alone above the London bookshop that she runs, and writing gothic horror stories in serial format, a la Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle, to support herself and her beloved mother, who has cracked up a bit from the death of her husband and currently living in a Very Special Hospital. The year is 1852. Hero Aiden is just returned from the Punjab and a disastrous military event for which he feels responsible.

Fionna writes about creatures of the night, twisted and evil monsters and monstrous humans, and finds inspirations in walking around London alone at midnight. This strikes the hero -- and me-- as particularly foolish, which serves as the first conflict.

The very first thing that bugged me about SoaUL is the breathy overwrought-ingenue style of Fionna's internal dialog, frequently self-interrupted with why! s, and ah, but s, and no-- s, and liberally sprinkled with exclamation points and long strings of single-sentence paragraphs.

Which can of course be effective.
I've been known to use it myself.
It's a good way to build tension, control pace--
...and add emphasis.

But it gets tedious when it's used consistently in every chapter.

Here's a typical little snip, near the beginning where we're getting info on Fionna's background:
An empty ache spread in Fionna's breast. Her throat caught. Her mother... ah, but it hurt so to think of her! And her father... He had been her staunchest champion.

Rising, she went to the bookshelf next to her desk and pulled out a copy of
Satan's Path. How proud he'd been when she'd torn open the wrappings around that very novel. That moment was etched in her mind forever. Papa had been beaming, so very, very proud! And she'd been so happy, happier than she'd ever been in her life.

The second thing that bugged me was Aidan's pursuit of Fionna, and to an extent, her response. Maybe I'm just programmed to expect a certain morality from historical heroes. The notion of marriage doesn't seem to enter either of their minds until really late in the game. Aidan becomes disturbingly set on "having" Fionna, irritated when she doesn't fall at his feet-- and neither one of them ever show any sign of considering what consequences Fionna might face as a single woman alone. I'm OK with this general pattern in a contemporary, where a woman might be on birth control and isn't ostracized for having a sexual affair outside of marriage, but it doesn't work for me in historicals. The hero's intentions need to be clear: is he after a mistress or a wife? It matters far more in the historical genre.

I mean, he falls hard for her, as romance heroes must do:
She enticed him. She intrigued him. By heaven, she entranced him. {snip}....

... there was no denying the desire that scalded his veins like fire. He wanted her, the lovely Miss Fionna Hawkes. Around him. Beneath him. Atop him... he didn't care how.

But at this point, they've crossed paths three times and spent a total of less than an hour in each others' company. It's too much, too soon. Overall, Aidan is just a little flat. He's a decent character, but he doesn't grow much in this story: he sees her, he wants her, he gets her.

The villain is 98% predictable. I did pause for a moment over the red herring, wondering which was which, but not for long.

This is small and perhaps overly snarky, but I can't let it go without, well, snarking: The heroine is Fionna Hawkes. Her penname is Sparrow. Her character's name is Raven. Which is all very well and clearly intentional... but the fact that during the love scenes, the author keeps referring to Fionna's nest and Aidan's nest (of pubic hair) makes it a little weird. Just sayin.

Which brings me to the love scenes in general. They're OK. But James cranks up the chili-pepper ranking pretty high, and the language is pretty earthy, which doesn't seem to fit quite right with the afore-mentioned breathy ingenue. It's possible that the scenes would've worked better with a different, less innocent heroine; or it's possible that by the time we got to them I was already not that thrilled with Fionna and Aidan. If the things that bugged me up to this point don't bug you, the love scenes will probably be fine. Does that make sense?

In some ways, you might say this is almost a pure romance, in that there are very few secondary characters and little in the way of side plot or action. It is the story of two people falling in love, with one stumbling block to overcome and a very small dash of dangerous-villain to keep it from being too bland. The romance IS the story. Fionna's sensual awakening and acceptance pretty much IS the story arc.

Overall, I'd call this novel below-average but not a wall-banger. I won't go out of my way for more Samantha James, though I would go so far as to say "never again."

Around the blogosphere, I'm proving to be in the minority, although most of the reviews I found are not much more than a synopysis + "loved it" (see, still with the snark...)

Genre Go Round Reviews
Kimberly Luke
eHarlequin forum (it looks like this was offered as a free ebook at one time.)

Romance Vagabond Cliche Score: 4
Title: 1 (Seduction)
Cover: 1 (Ladyback)
Plot: 2 (Military man, Bookish heroine)


Stacy~ said...

I've not read Samantha James, but I know what you mean about historicals. I adore them, but ask me to describe what stands out from some of the last 15 or so I've read, and I couldn't really find much that set them apart. Yet I still love them. Go figure.

I don't think I'll be picking up this one though.

kimberlyluke said...

I have read every Samantha James novel. She is actually the first person I look for when I have not been in the book store for a while. Another favorite of mine is Patricia Rice. It fascinates me how people relate to stories in different ways. I am a writer myself, I would love some honest critical review of my Blog at http://www.kimberlyluke.com.

Joanna Chambers said...

I love your reviews. The breathy thing - yes. And then with the weird earthiness.

Jill Sorenson said...

When you say earthy, I get a little shiver. That is one of my YES buttons. Oh, earthy language, how I love thee.

That mushroom image is so disturing! I'm frightened.

Or you against "nest" because of the tangled twigs visual, or is it just the bird thing? "Cloud" is that way for me. Big, puffy, perfectly coiffed dos are a don't, down there.

Nicola O. said...

Stacy, that's kind of it exactly. This one was one in a crowd, and OK if you like the crowd. But not a standout.

Kimberly, thanks for stopping by! I just had a quick peek at your blog the other day; I'll spend a little more time there.

Tump, back atcha.

Jill, yeah, I'm good with earthy in general, but it seemed like a weird juxtaposition with the Little Women characterization, you know? As for the nest, LOL, no I don't think of tangled twigs and brambles and it's a perfectly fine word but here it was a)overused b)used for the hero's goods, which was a little unusual, and then with the whole bird theme going on, it got up to a point where it pulled me out of the story because hey, there's that word again!, you know?

Nicola O. said...

oh, and the mushroom thing, hee hee -- I just went on an image hunt for a nest, and when I saw that one I couldn't resist.

It was far more disturbing before I cropped off the bruised and ragged end where the stem was broken off. :o


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