Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review- House of Clouds by K.I. Thompson

House of Clouds
By K.I. Thomson
October 2007
Lesbian/ Historical Civil War/Romance
Pgs 384
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
A sweeping saga of an impassioned romance set amidst the upheaval of a nation under siege and a way of life threatened with destruction.
The American Civil War creates enemies of lifelong friends and allies of strangers, but no relationship is more unlikely than that of a passionate Northern Unionist and a loyal Virginia sympathizer. Actress and Northerner Jordan Colfax is hired by Allan Pinkerton to spy on behalf of the Union. When she meets Confederate sympathizer, Laura St. Clair, whose father is military aide to Jefferson Davis, the perfect opportunity presents itself. But when the truth about Jordan's real intentions are discovered, their growing love is put to the ultimate test - the result of which could mean the difference between life and death. Can a Southern belle and a Yankee spy overcome their differences or will divided loyalties keep them apart?

From Tidewater Virginia to Washington, D.C., passion and betrayal converge in Civil War Richmond.

I don’t exactly know where to start in expressing my feelings about this book. I enjoyed much of it and yet there were lots of moments in which I felt conflicted. I think the main problem for me is that this book didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. It wants to be a romance, however, the romance was so drawn out with too many separations, misunderstandings, and focus on external events that it lost its steam many times. It also tries to be a Civil War drama with the author spending a lot of book time on the specifics of the social/political issues of that time. This part suffers due to returning the focus on the romance towards the end, with things left unsaid or not finished.

The romance: the two main protagonists, Jordan and Laura, meet through both their brothers being best friends and classmates at West Point. Right away both Jordan and Laura notice each other, but are initially put off by each other’s opposing viewpoints on the current political situation. Jordan has no qualms about dissing the Southern way of life as far as owing slaves, which of course puts Laura’s back up. Laura feels defensive of her family’s heritage and Southern culture. So while they feel an attraction and want to be around each other, they are leery of getting too close.

Due to a series of events: Jordan working as an actress near Laura’s home, plus the fact that she’s been recruited to spy and gather information to help the Union—urged to get closer to Laura’s family who are in contact with Jefferson Davis-- and Laura getting very sick needing some help, she and Laura end up spending a few weeks together. Of course, while this is going on the attraction between them grows despite differences.

On this point I really liked how the author slowly built up their attraction. Internally, neither women know what to call what they feel; it’s alien to them because it goes beyond what friends should feel. This is done very realistically for the time period I felt.  Unfortunately, just as they reach a point where an acknowledgment that this is something more that each have been afraid to say out loud, they are kept apart for various reasons, only meeting briefly in what are acrimonious moments until the last part of the book when the focus starts in again on the romance.

One thing that stuck in my mind, and I don’t know how women would have really interacted then, is that I felt it strange that no one, not Jordan’s father, nor Laura’s family who hated Jordan, questioned why each of them would go to such lengths and act in questionable ways where the other was involved. They both explain it away all the time as “she’s my friend.” Maybe female friendships were such in those days that it was normal for friends to act in ways that today would cause someone to wonder what’s actually going on between them.

Laura: Out of all the characters in this story Laura has the most growth and she’s the most complex character even though on the surface she doesn’t stand out as strongly as Jordan does. And she, out of all, has the most malleable mindset, learning and changing her viewpoint from events that happen as life goes on. She starts out of course angry, as most of the South, that the North wants to impose its ideology on them. She defends her family’s ownership of slaves saying they treat their slaves well even if she has a niggling suspicion they are not. However, when she learns about and opens her eyes to the truth of many things she’s been conveniently ignoring to keep the status quo, she does change her mindset even if begrudgingly at times.  And she stays steadfastly loyal to Jordan even after being betrayed.

Jordan: Initially Jordan seems to be the stronger, more dynamic character. She’s not shy, expresses her beliefs to anyone and has guts to be an independent woman, not living the typical social norms that women were expected to live. She’s appalled by slavery and can’t understand how Laura can even think it’s OK to own people. Yet her attraction to Laura is such that she’s willing to look beyond that and try to form a close relationship. She risks her life to spy for the Union so she’s initially portrayed as an honorable and upright person.

The issue I had about Jordan is that ultimately she’s not that honorable. She feels bad on some level that she has all these strong feelings for Laura while she’s using Laura and her family’s hospitality to gather info on Confederate activity. But then disses Laura, mistakenly thinking that Laura betrayed her and not believing her when she states otherwise. Finding out that Laura didn’t betray her she then risks her own life, Laura’s life, friends’ lives, and so many people working for the Underground Railroad for what I felt were utterly selfish reasons.

And this is where I talk about the bigger picture. If the author hadn’t spent so much time on the social/political issues of the civil war, maybe what Jordan did wouldn’t have bothered me as much; it would have had a different context. But what was going on during this time period is expressed in intricate detail from many viewpoints through characters’ actions and words: slaves, free black people, leaders, Southern plantation owners, abolitionists, Lincoln, etc. giving a fairly realistic overall view, or so I felt. This increased my investment into what’s going on with the secondary characters as much as the main characters and how Laura and Jordan’s actions affected and are affected by them. They don’t live in a bubble.

Since the author didn't spare anything on how slaves were actually treated, it showed that even though Jordan is progressive in her thinking and therefore “good” vs the "evil" South, her privilege in doing what she did was glaringly clear comparatively, adding to my discomfort about her.

I’m not saying this was a completely problematic book. I enjoyed it overall. It’s a long book and the fact that I read it in a fairly short amount of time for me- slowest reader ever-- says a lot. It is engaging, the storytelling well done, and I liked that the author included many interesting characters as well as some action and history. However, as a romance it suffered. And the ending was very weird. What happened? We only get Laura’s perspective from the prologue, and it’s all about her and visiting her family home 10 years after she set up life in the north. There’s nothing about her and Jordan, or what happened to pretty much everyone else in the book that got a lot of book time.

Heat level: 2- one sex scene, not graphically written

Grade: Liked it.


Paisley Smith said...

I read House of Clouds last Spring and had similar feelings about the story. I agree, the scope was too broad. I think the thing that was missing for me (besides erotic love scenes lol) was the fact that I couldn't feel the emotions of either lead character. While this story wasn't billed as romance, it could have used more. I wanted more instead of the Victorian era misnomer that women weren't at all interested in sex and didn't know why they were attracted to one another. After all, they were both adults. I identified most with the secondary character, Ruby, and found her story the most compelling of all.

LVLM(Leah) said...

Yes, I agree- I don't even know why anything romantic was put in there since they were kept apart through most of the story. And I hear you on the "besides erotic love scenes" LOL I wished there was more of something between them.

And totally agree on Ruby. Both her and Martha. Would liked to have had more of their perspective since they were in some ways a big part of the story.