Why I read it: This book has my favourite section in it from any Kinsale book ever and I have been waiting with bated breath for its release on audio. Nicholas Boulton’s narrations are superb. So as soon as I knew it was available, I bought it.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) Olympia St. Leger is a princess in desperate need of a knight in shining armor. Sheridan Drake, amused by Olympia’s innocence and magnificent beauty, but also intrigued by her considerable wealth, accepts the position of white knight. Unaware that Sheridan is a notorious scoundrel, Olympia willingly allows herself to submit to his protection and his potent embrace. Theirs is a love born in deception. But as they weather storms on the high seas and flee from nefarious villains, the love sparked by lies begins to burn uncontrollably. Taking shelter on a desert island paradise*, the princess and the dark knight battle overwhelming odds to keep their adoration burning bright.
(*honey, that aint no paradise)
What worked for me (and what didn’t): It’s been years since I read Seize the Fire in print. My recollection was that Sheridan was not always heroic, the scenes on the Falkland Islands were AWESOME and I thought the ending was underwhelming. I don’t really remember why I thought it was underwhelming but I remember being dissatisfied with it. On revisiting it, this time on audio, my reaction was different (in some ways).
Oh, Spoilers ahoy. You have been warned. The scenes on the Falklands were still AWESOME (even better with Nick Boulton saying them in my ears) and Sheridan was definitely not always heroic. The ending was more satisfying to me this time – partly because of the audio performance, partly because I was waiting for the shoe to drop (where is the bit I didn’t like? I asked myself) and was then surprised when it…didn’t. I would still have liked a little more, perhaps an epilogue with the two of them happy in Vienna or a conversation where he explicitly states that what he said to her in Stamboul was a lie – but the fact is; she already knows and even if it wasn’t a lie, she has very clearly decided it doesn’t matter. The reader knows they will be okay from a material/physical perspective because of the turnaround in Drake’s finances and they have already said (many times) “I love you” to each other – but they do say it again at the end. So, yes, the ending is a little abrupt but it wasn’t dissatisfying. What, I wonder, was my former self thinking?
I think possibly one of the things at play was the different way I read to the way I listen. When I read, I inevitably skim some sections. I expect I did it here and missed something important. When I listen, I hear every word and don’t miss a thing (this is sometimes a bug not a feature, although not in this case). I wonder if I was just still angry with Sheridan for actually stealing her jewels? I think it was more likely that I did not read the text closely enough to read the clues and nuance that I found on audio. Ultimately, Olympia decides she loves him regardless of how much of a blackguard Sheridan may be; she just can’t help it. And, she has some of the polish rubbed off her after her experience in Oriens following the aborted wedding.
In many romance novels, the hero has to be “redeemed” to be worthy of the heroine. In Seize the Fire, it’s a little of the reverse – the heroine has to be “tarnished” in order to match the hero better. Actually this was very realistic to me and made me believe in their HEA even more. The bonus of course, for the reader and for Olympia, is that Sheridan does actually love her and, at least, where it comes to Olympia, he won’t be doing anything nefarious or untoward. In fact, I expect he won’t have needed to do anything nefarious anyway because he has the means to sustain himself as he wills, so there is no need to be beholden to anyone for his wellbeing. Other than Olympia of course, but theirs is a mutual “beholden-ing” and it was well and truly tested when they were in the Falklands so no-one, not Olympia, not Sheridan, not the reader, needs to doubt that they will be anything other than happy together.
The narration is stellar. Nicholas Boulton is a narrating god. Just insert all the superlatives here. There is a thing which happens every time I listen to one of his narrations. The first time he speaks as the lead female character, I think to myself: “he doesn’t exactly sound female, but it’s enough that I can go with it” but as the story progresses, he inhabits the character so much that by the end (well before the end actually) I’ve fully accepted his portrayal as authentic. I’m not sure that counts as a criticism but that’s the best I can do. He’s just that good. Every time I listen to him perform, I am so grateful for the author’s care and concern in finding the right narrator for her books. The narrator makes all the difference and her choice could not have been better.
That’s really it for the review portion of this post. It’s great, I love it, the narration is awesome, I recommend.
What else? But I wanted to talk about some other things which occurred to me and, given the book is fairly old in publishing terms (1989) and many people have already read it, I thought it might be fun to talk about the interesting ways Sheridan is a very different kind of romance protagonist. Again, with the spoilers.
I’m a very hero-centric reader so I tend to focus on the hero’s journey regardless. I think maybe when I first read the book, I was a little younger and a little inexperienced with the genre and so Sheridan was a bit of a challenge for me. He didn’t always act as a hero should. How do I reconcile that? This time around, with the added bonus of Nick Boulton performing the character (and I’m sure his interpretation played a part in my response) I found him much more sympathetic. He’s by no means perfect of course.
Sheridan’s backstory is gleaned over the course of the whole book. Gradually I was able to put a clear picture together and make my mind up about him. He is a man who has been, repeatedly and cruelly, let down by those who were supposed to care for him. Sheridan’s father isn’t particularly well characterised – we don’t know all that much about him. Was he just a prankster with a weird and harmful sense of humour? Or was he deliberately cruel? Sheridan thinks the former but I’m not so sure. We do find out that Sheridan was effectively indentured into the Navy by his own father at the age of 10. Sheridan dreamed of studying music in Vienna. He dreamed of school and learning and music but he was sold into war. There was no mother to mitigate his father’s cruelty. He learned not to trust the evidence of his eyes even while he was repeatedly taken in by his father (eg, the railroad investment, which of course, unexpectedly gains Sheridan his fortune and his way out of debt. Can this be reinterpreted in that light as being the act of a loving and wise father? Or was it mere serendipity? – I can’t help but think it is more likely to be the latter.)
In the Navy, he found camararderie and a kind of home but life was brutal. In order to survive, he had to participate in acts of war which resulted in people dying. He watched his own shipmates suffer and die for various reasons – an uncaring or incompetent captain, uncaring or incompetent orders, the acts of the “enemy”. It is very clear that Sheridan has what would now be called PTSD. It is something which he manages relatively well until he meets Olympia and the softer emotions she inspires force him to open the locked room where he keeps those traumas and to confront them. By the end of the book he hasn’t “recovered”. Rather, Olympia has been made broken too. But, together, they can care for each other, in empathy and understanding and in some ways that is better.
The greatest naval trauma for Sheridan was what happened when he was tasked to harry slavers around the coast of Algiers. Faced with the choice of letting all the men under his command die, or, bomb the gun battery where the very slaves he hoped to rescue were being used as human shields, he chooses the latter. He has a kind of out of body/fugue experience afterwards when he hunts down every gunner hiding in the town, ruthlessly and without mercy. He lost 200 out of his 300 men and he felt their loss on his soul. He felt the loss of the slaves and the bitter choice he made on his soul also. He pushed it down so far and told a story about a lucky shot from a slave ship instead and, over time, that story became his truth because it was easier to bear.
Still, when he first meets Olympia, he is perhaps having an occasional nightmare but he is functioning quite well. He has managed, by serendipity alone to earn a knighthood instead of a court martial and he hopes to live on his inheritance from his now deceased father. Sheridan is not a victim at this point, or at least we don’t know he is. He is a survivor. He puts himself first (and second, perhaps third) because his experience is that no-one else will. It is not so much that he is uncaring of others, but he is not likely to sacrifice his skin for anyone else, and certainly not for their naivete or stupidity.
When he meets Olympia, he is attracted to her immediately (one of the things I liked is that he always thought she was beautiful. He found her form (described as “plump”) to be womanly perfection and he never wavered from that). When Julia explains that she is the trustee for the his father’s wealth – wealth that is Sheridan’s but only at Julia’s whim (so not funny, how could this be a joke??) and then tells him he must marry Olympia to gain enough money to pay off his debt (400,000 GBP is a ridiculous amount of money even now), he is initially resigned. But when he finds out that this could well be a death sentence because of Uncle Claude Nicolas’ desired to gain the throne of Oriens, he’s out. When he’s told in no uncertain terms that he has no choice, with self-interest and survival his prevailing thought, he writes letters to everyone involved, playing the ends against the middle and giving him every opportunity to choose the best side later on.
He doesn’t like to think of himself as a thief and salves his conscience at first by only stealing one of her jewels. But in the end, he steals all of them because self-interest is his prime directive. He does protect her and he does see to her safety. He directs her to FitzHugh in Madeira and then steals her jewels. He thinks she will go back to England and be someone else’s problem but will be likely unharmed. This is not a new thing – as Mustafa tells Olympia, Sheridan has abandoned him many times.
Still, he is more protective of Olympia than anyone else. He makes a deal with the convicts for Olympia’s safety and suffers a beating and water-boarding for her sake (I’m sure there was a little self-interest at play but my sense was this was mostly to protect Olympia and, in any event, he certainly suffered for it. Sheridan is not a coward despite what he may say about himself.) But he’s not perfect – note that he didn’t include the maidservant in his bargain. He was content enough for Buckhorse to use the maid how he would and consent didn’t cross his mind. That the woman made her own deal was her good fortune, not any work of Sheridan’s.
When they are on the island together, Sheridan protects Olympia. Together they survive. What is excellent about this section is that Olympia is skilled and capable too and she more than holds her own with him. He doesn’t have actual intercourse with her on the island because he doesn’t know how long they will be there – he doesn’t want to risk her getting pregnant. Complications in pregnancy or childbirth would be disastrous and even if everything went swimmingly, babies are fragile. He’s not noble enough to leave her alone (sexually) altogether of course. (And would I want him to be? NO!) He does however always obtain her consent and does nothing she is not completely eager to do. I’m sure there’s some self-interest in all that. Olympia was not entirely wrong when she reframed her memories of the island as him keeping her around because she was company, warmth and help with finding food but it is also more than that of course. He does have a soft spot for the very vulnerable – I think the penguin Napoleon reminds him of himself when he was little and had no-one to protect him. (You might be able to tell, I have pondered this book, and Sheridan in particular, at some length).
Sheridan Drake is definitely a flawed hero. When they are first rescued from the island, his intention is for he and Olympia to find a HEA but it is an intention to be wrought by deceit and connivance. He thinks she will be brought in on his con – there is little by way of nobility in it. Still, their relationship is complicated and far more than betrayal is between them. Olympia’s recognition that he could lie and steal and hurt her but she would still love him regardless and would still want the best for him, well, it’s the epitome of unconditional love isn’t it? For his part, Sheridan, even upset with Olympia’s own “betrayal” (by her agreement to marry FitzHugh) still protects her against the corsairs who seek to do her harm.
And here’s another way that Olympia is “corrupted”. She doesn’t go along with Sheridan’s con, but she does pull one of her own. Initially she intends to go through with the wedding but it is all about her manipulating FitzHugh to take her to Rome so she can further her goals of revolution for Oriens. (It is also around this time (shortly before) where she reveals some very unfortunate racism which, while it may have been historically accurate, wasn’t particularly noble or heroic on her part either. She became, again, a little less perfect. I hesitate to attribute this as a deliberate move by the author but it may have been I guess. It had that effect in any event.)
It is also around this time that Sheridan’s PTSD manifests itself far more strongly than previously in his life and he has hallucinations, violent mood swings, nightmares and crying jags (not all at once, but over the course of the rest of the book). I think the exploration of PTSD sounded careful and authentic but from a traditional “hero” perspective, this too is unusual. Heroes are rarely vulnerable (except perhaps to the love of the heroine) and a crying, sobbing, hero? How many of them were around in 1989? I’d say they’re not all that common even now (even as I realise that I am making a wild speculation because I haven’t read all the romance books ever written) (Also, I’m going to be inundated with lists of books where the heroes cry now aren’t I?). But in this, Sheridan actually shows himself to be more of a hero than before. Because he, slowly, reveals what has traumatised him. His angst about it is genuine and is evidence of him being a “good” man. He is unable to cause harm without paying a price for it. In the world of romance novels, only evil people can shrug off evil acts. But even with a more modern view, Sheridan’s trauma makes him a more relatable hero and he also fits the “tortured hero” trope. I’d argue that he does so in a slightly different way – he’s open about his “weakness” (he’s ashamed of it but he is unable to hide it by the end) whereas the bulk of the tortured heroes I’ve read tend to be stoic and brave in the face of adversity and only cry on the inside.
His trauma ends up making him the perfect match for Olympia because he understands in a way many others would not, how she feels after the events at Oriens. Even so, I think it is more the case that she is again brought to his level (ie off the pedestal of perfection).
In the end, I came to an overall view of Sheridan Drake as a flawed man who had been shaped by the events of his early life. And, as I listened to the book, my appreciation of the nuance and the light and shade in his character was far greater than the first time, when I read the book. Ultimately, it is much easier to love a truly noble hero. It is more challenging to love a real man; one who makes mistakes and just plain bad choices, who can hurt the one he loves. And it is probably easy to criticise Olympia because we romance fans do tend to love to criticise heroines, but she, too, is flawed by the end of the book. And Sheridan, in his perhaps most noble act yet, loves her regardless. He does not and never did require from her, perfection. When Olympia let’s go of her own ideal she finds a richer reward but one which is not without its pains.
In the end, that made Seize the Fire a more realistic romance than most – notwithstanding the coincidences and fortunes (good and ill) in the book and romance novel-ish manipulations of the genre. And, it ended up making my listening experience very satisfying indeed.