Title: A Kiss at Midnight (Happily Ever Afters, Book #1)
Author: Eloisa James
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 370 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New – read for the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books RITA Reader Challenge
Rating: 3.5 stars
This book grew on me.
I started off rather skeptical about it, because I really do loathe books where the plot hinges on the heroine engaging in deliberate deception of some kind. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, so this whole business where Kate has to pretend to be her half-sister Victoria just did not sit right with me. And there were some issues with the historical setting that I found extremely distracting, which I’ll talk about later.
But damn if there wasn’t something addictive about this book anyway, and despite my reservations, once I got into it, I had trouble putting it down. The book is best when Kate and Gabriel are just being themselves, together, and since that’s most of what we read romance novels for, I’d deem the book a success.
The plot runs thusly: Kate is a beleaguered spinster-at-23 whose father died and married, as we learn early on, his mistress, who already had a daughter by him, Victoria. He promptly kicks as well, leaving the stepmother to spend his fortune on gowns and jewels for herself and her sweet-if-dim daughter, allowing the tenancies on his estate to fall into neglect and disrepair. Kate, old enough when the stepmother steps in to feel a sense of obligation, does what she can to stem the tide of frivolous expense, with only middling results. Meanwhile, Victoria proves herself to be a lightskirt and gets in the family way by a gentleman she has not yet married. The gentleman in question, Algie, is perfectly amenable to marrying her, but needs the permission of his uncle, who just so happens to be a foreign prince living in England. Said uncle (Gabriel, our hero) is meant to meet Victoria at his own betrothal ball, to a Russian Princess, but when one of Victoria’s lapdogs bites her, temporarily marring her face, Kate is forced to step in — in a plot point that really makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t know why anyone thought that would be plausible in the slightest, and to make matters worse, it doesn’t serve any ultimate point except to get Kate in Gabriel’s vicinity, which could just as easily have been accomplished by sending her along as chaperone or something. It’s an unnecessary plot complication with no payoff — there’s never any trouble caused by it, no conflict springs from it, and when Kate appears as herself at the end of the book, absolutely no one notices that she’s the same person who’s been pretending to go by a different name for the past few days.
Anyway, Kate and Gabriel meet and suffer irresistible attraction for each other. There’s quite a bit of good heat between them, and the scenes where they just get to banter and engage in love-sport are the best parts of the book. They’re quick and clever, and they tease each other in a very genuine way. James also does a very clever thing — though, again, if you stop and think about it for more than three seconds, you can’t help noticing that it has no plausibility whatsoever — with the big sex scene, dividing it up over several chapters. Circumstances force them to keep stopping and starting, and as a result, the reader has to keep pressing on to see where it’s all going. The end of the book ties up neatly and predictably, but no less joyously for all of that.
Another highlight of the book is Lady Wrothe, a delicious old dragon who turns out to be Kate’s godmother. I was thrown by how quickly canny Kate decided to trust this complete stranger, but I let it slide because Lady Wrothe (who prefers to be known as Henry) is just so much fun. She goes beyond being the stock character of the menopausal matron who’s reached the age where she can say whatever she damn well pleases — though there’s a lot of that in her, too — and displays a more detailed backstory than a character of her type usually receives. She’s an instigator and a meddler, and many of her comments are laugh-out-loud funny.
On the downside:
There’s trouble with historical accuracy, although not in the usual way. In an end-note, James states, quite clearly, that this is a fairy tale, not a historical novel, and that it would take place somewhere around 1813 if she had to guess. The trouble is that… the book itself doesn’t hold up that deliberate vagueness. James is, instead, overly-specific in a way that confuses the matter entirely. (I might also add that it’s all well and good to tell your reader not to worry about the time frame, but if you do it in an endnote, the reader has already, well, read, and so the damage is done). There are so many time-specifying details that conflict with each other, that she could have (and perhaps should have) just left out if she didn’t want to firmly date the thing. There’s talk of a Princess Charlotte at court, but they don’t mention which Princess Charlotte, so it’s either before 1800 or somewhere between 1810 and 1816. They talk about Napoleon like he’s the emperor, so after 1804 and before 1815. The Elgin Marbles are on display, so after 1816. The waltz is still scandalous, so probably not before 1815 but possibly as late as 1825. The picture on the cover, meanwhile, has a decidedly 1750s dress on it, and while I know you can’t trust cover art, James also talks about the dresses like they’re late-18th century rather than early-19th. The corsets she describes certainly strike me as pre-1795, not the short stays of the Empire/Regency period. Split skirts would not have been the thing after 1780 or so. Victoria’s wigs would have been laughable after the 1780s, but the few references to shorter crops fit in nicely from 1800-1810. And then there’s Gabriel tying his hair into a queue (out by 1790s), debating powder (out by 1795), and Victoria telling him he’ll be expected to don a wig (out by 1790s unless you were a barrister). And then everyone’s certainly acting as though it’s still the decadent 18th-century and not the mannered 19th. So, really, I didn’t know what to make of it in the slightest, and it frustrated me throughout the whole book. I kept wanting just to picture everything decadently Georgian, and then some reference to Napoleon would throw me completely off.
I’m not saying that this is a debilitating flaw or that it will bother everyone. I’m saying it bothers me because I have such acute historical awareness. The contradictions were a constant distraction. Perhaps I should brush it off — this is, after all, a fairy tale — but I like my historical romances to be, well, historical. And I just can’t understand going to the trouble of using so much detail if she specifically wanted it to be non-historical.
Right. Everyone whose eyes glazed over when I started talking about fashion can tune back in now.
There’s also a vagueness about Gabriel’s nature as a foreign prince. He doesn’t seem foreign in the least. I can understand not wanting to write an accent, but Gabriel uses an awful lot of English-specific slang — which I suppose you could excuse in that he went to Oxford, but still, it just seems… unnecessary for him to be Teutonic. He behaves, in every way, like any number of alpha male English heroes I’ve read. I certainly don’t mind that — I do love me an alpha male — but I don’t see the sense in going through the conceit of giving your hero a foreign background if you’re not going to make some use of it. It seems like it’s only there so that he can be a prince, so that James could see her Cinderella-story through “properly” — which is, of course, entirely unnecessary, as any number of authors who’ve treated on the fairy tale trope over the years could have told her. There’s absolutely no reason, story-wise, that Gabriel couldn’t have been the son of a Duke, with some wealthy heiress betrothed he’d never met standing in for the equally-vaguely-defined Russian princess, with an equally fanatic older brother. There’s no element of his story that couldn’t as easily have been English. The foreignness doesn’t add anything.
Overall, I enjoyed this book more than I would have guessed I would after the first few chapters. Like I said, it grew on me. I haven’t read any of the other books up for a RITA in the same category, so I can’t say how it compares or if I think it should win. I think the biggest problem with this book is that it needed tightening — there are so many plot elements that were just unnecessary, that could’ve been handled more deftly. I’m willing to suspend quite a bit of disbelief, but this book has plotholes you could drive carriages through. Still, it was a pleasant read, and worth picking up if you’re generally a fan of romances.