The Winding Stairby Jane Aiken Hodge
When the invitation came, Juana Brett was delighted. A chance to escape from the grey darkness of England. A chance to visit her happy childhood home at the Castle of the Rock, and above all the opportunity to escape the petty tyranny of her stepmother and reconnect with other family members. However, her visit to Portugal became unexpectedly dangerous-- and unexpectedly romantic...
Despite a tedious start (the part set in England, which I found dull), the bulk of this novel was enjoyable. The pace picks up a bit once the heroine relocates to Portugal, and though I'd have thought the subject (Portugal during the Napoleonic wars) unlikely to enthrall me, the historical/political aspects were handled more deftly than expected. I wound up liking the book much more than I'd have thought, judging only from the first few pages.
If I have any complaint, it would be that my interest flagged, ever so slightly, once the romance was more or less "settled", though there was still a good deal of story to go. Also, I was rather disappointed that we never got a fuller explanation of one character in particular (see spoiler section below).
For an old-fashioned historical romance/gothic suspense, I found this pretty good. Don't expect brilliance or mold-breaking-- and you just might learn a thing or two about the history of Portugal (especially if, like me, you go in with an appalling ignorance of the country).
If half-stars were possible, I'd give this 3.5, but I'm unwilling to round up, this time.
Specifics with SPOILERS:
--The misogyny of the Sons of the Star was so over the top! Combined with the clunky ceremonial flourishes, it made them seem ridiculous. Still deadly, of course, but also just silly.
--If the Sons of the Star as a group are ridiculously anti-woman, Vasco is even more cartoonish. It's one thing for a powerful (and egomaniacal) man of the past to think women are of inferior understanding and ability-- that I can readily believe-- but Vasco takes it to such an insane level-- far beyond the slightly amused (albeit infuriating) indifference you might expect from someone whose views have never been challenged.
His lack of respect for women is coupled with an apparent physical abhorrence for women. It's not just Juana whom he finds repellent; he seems to have a pathological disgust of all women: "We'll need a pompous wedding ... and an heir, of course, or, better still, a couple of brats, but after that... Well, you know what I think-- what we all think of women, Brothers." Yeah, it's safe to say that Vasco has Issues...
Strange that Vasco was able to mask his disgust for Juana until he had abducted her... Prior to the abduction, though she knew she didn't love him, she was still affected by his rather violent embraces to the point that she seriously considered the possibility of marrying him. Afterwards, he's still playing the role of a besotted lover, but for some reason it's no longer effective. I guess we're meant to chalk it up to Juana's inexperience with men-- but his abrupt inability to play the obsessed suitor is weak. He's the consummate actor until he's suddenly not.
--The author tantalizes the reader with the mystery surrounding Aunt Elvira. First, what happened to her? Second, though she usually seems slightly mad (or at least very eccentric), she has moments of clarity that lead one to question whether the madness is an act. I was certain there was more to her backstory that would be revealed in the end, but that all came to nothing. A bit disappointing.