Miranda (1996)

By Susan Wiggs

From the back flap: "In Regency London, a woman escapes from a burning warehouse only to realize she doesn't know her own identity. Although the locket around her neck says that her name is Miranda, she has absolutely no recollection of her past. Nor does she know why two very different men want her. Ian MacVane and Lord Lucas Chesney both pursue her - but for very different reasons.

"In a race against time to discover who she is and which man she can trust, Miranda embarks on a soul-stirring journey that takes her from the dazzling salons of London to the craggy Highlands of Scotland. All of her beliefs - about herself, her world, and the nature of love - are tested to their limits as she seeks the truth about her past, and reveals unexpected passion that ignites the hidden fires within."

I have been trying to read this novel for about two months, but I simply could not bear the distraction while I finished the first draft of my book. Then, book finished - voila! I read this in two days, thereby proving that it was neither difficult nor tedious, which was my previous (distracted) opinion.

Among one of Wiggs' early attempts at straight historical romance, Miranda demonstrates how even published authors refine their craft over time. This is not an excellent novel like some of my favorite works by Wiggs. The plot is a little choppy, and the writing is not silky smooth. But those minor refinements aside, Miranda is vastly more readable and entertaining than about 90% of the genre.

As an example of her relatively rough technique, I will use her two primary villains. One, a lackey, was not introduced until page 229 and had approximately three pages to make a negative impression before being offed. The main badguy had such a small speaking part as to be almost nonexistent outside of other characters' assessments. Where is the threat? By way of contrast, the badass in Only with Your Love was really, really nasty because Kleypas occasionally allowed us into his head. For reality's sake, Wiggs' choice was probably more accurate in that, when dealing with villainous people, how often are we allowed to understand their true motives or how their minds work? Kleypas's approach, however, gave her story more menace and, ultimately, more satisfaction when the dude inevitably bit it.

And speaking of James Bond and his noted inability to survive a picture with a stable, happy, living, equal, non-slutty partner, Miranda featured hero Ian MacVane - apparently the 19th century Scottish equivalent of a Bond-style secret agent. First, he was no James Bond. Because of the story arc, Ian and Miranda had to fall in love very quickly and as such - because he was mooning over her from day one - I never got the impression that Ian was the efficient, suave, heartless, super-cool spy guy that Wiggs' intended. When the time came for him to take on the villain and Miranda insisted that Ian was no murderer, I had to agree. He was not hard enough. Second, because he was none of the things that Bond is, a happy ending was a given. That he settled in Scotland and gave up his life of intrigue was just... well... obvious.

Wiggs' forte has never been sex scenes - she remains a bit old school with flowers and hearts - but the passion here was just flat even for her restrained style. A man does not reminisce about the first time he saw his honey while shagging said honey. I should not like to learn that my husband's mind wanders so aimlessly during The Big Deal. But I did like one line, when Ian and Miranda are making love by the light of a single candle: "Everything began with the woman in his arms and ended at the edge of light." Nice.

Ah, but this review is sounding negative and I really had no intention of it being so. Miranda - aside from the full-on amnesia thing, which is a novel-killer for some people - is a sound read. Not many romances feature a genuine love triangle, which was a nice change of pace here. I would have preferred a few more dark clouds in her past once she regained her memory, but apparently I can't have everything.

Aside from Wiggs' progression as an author, I was also intrigued to consider the industry shift that has occurred over the last ten years. In the mid-1990s, romances featured a huge number of cowboys and pirates (although, sadly, not in the same book), and today's revival of Austen/Heyer style Regencies had not started. In the current glut of such books, readers of historical romance do not need to be tutored on the ton, the beau monde or Napoleon's whereabouts in 1814. These references and historical tidbits are so over-used now that they have become part of readers' standard vocabulary.

When Wiggs' wrote Miranda, authors must not have assumed the existence of this common vocabulary or else she would not have spent as much time defining and explaining what she did. By contrast, she apparently felt no need to out-Austen her competition by explaining every nuance of table wear and gown fabric. She provided a good balance of historical detail with readability, never straying into the "see how much I know about Regency" trap that catches some authors.

Oh, and a note to authors of historical fiction: the farther back in time you set your novel, the fewer scientific analogies you will have at your disposal to describe emotion. Chase did it in Captives of the Night and Wiggs did it here: cell theory was not released into the public realm until 1839, therefore characters set before 1839 should not be described as feeling love or passion into their very cells. That is as anachronistic as love hitting a character with the force of a rocket blasting into the stratosphere.

Vocab: gentian, hetman, m├ętier (I love learning new from romances, especially ones that have nothing to do with sex!)


Annie Dean said...

I love her books, but none touch The Horsemaster's Daughter in my opinion. I've not read her contemporaries, however, so I can't address their quality.

A lot of people swear by McNaught, Devereaux, Kleypas and Kinsale, but for me, the historical romance authors that never fail to please are Susan Wiggs and Liz Carlyle.

PS - I blog rolled you!

carrie_lofty said...

See, I totally could not stomach The Horsemaster's Daughter because of that whole "raised in the wild" and "untamed sexuality" thing. I just could not relate to her character. I loved The Drifter, the first of hers I read - morphine addict! - and The Charm School. As for the contemporaries, I would recommend Home Before Dark or An Ocean Between Us - both very unusual storylines.

I've just started my third Kleypas this afternoon, and if she doesn't impress the socks off of me this time I'm gonna have to be done with her. Just so hit and miss!

And yay blogrole!

Fang Bastardson said...

Did I mention... Susan Wiggs, personal friend of mine?

I'm new around these parts - can you link me to a description of what your book's about?


carrie_lofty said...

If Ms Wiggs is a friend, hook me up! Sweet!

Fang Bastardson said...

Well, I'm more of a former student. I was embarrassed I hadn't read any of her work (when I took the class), but the fact that I'm a guy probably smoothed over the fact that I'd never once so much as cracked open a romance novel. I'm not exactly her target demographic, but I still should have made the effort.

You can see a photo of her standing in front of a hideous collage I made here:

She was quite the good sport.

Anyhow, I just checked out the Secret Serenade site. I'd be happy to be one of your online reviewers, but one thing I learned in Susan's class is that my critical skills are not up to the standards of my peers... I saw continuity glitches and typos, everybody else talked subtext, nuance, themes, etc.

If that caveat doesn't scare you off, bring it on! Having recently finished my own period opus, I'm curious to check yours out. And no, you won't be expected to reciprocate. Mine is insanely long and in screenplay format!

You can drop me a line any time at admin@fooforah.org


Fang Bastardson said...

Sorry, I guess I messed up that link. Here: