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REVIEW: The Dark Knight by Elizabeth Elliott

Dear Ms. Elliott,

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than fifteen years since your popular medieval romance Betrothed was released. That book featured a secondary character, the brother of the heroine, who caught the attention of many readers. Dante Chiavari was a dangerous and deadly assassin who had been living by his wits ever since his parents were betrayed and murdered in Venice. A planned sequel to Betrothed, featuring Dante as the hero and titled Assassin was announced. Readers waited…and waited…and waited some more for Assassin to come out. I had long given up on expecting another Elizabeth Elliott book when I happened to be perusing NetGalley and came across this book, the long-awaited sequel, now renamed The Dark Knight (which just makes me think of the Batman movie franchise, but whatever).

The Dark Knight by Elizabeth ElliottThe year is 1293, and Dante Chiavari is an assassin for King Edward of England. He’s given an assignment to maybe kill or maybe not kill (it’s kind of complicated and I really didn’t understand it when I first read it; I felt like the beginning of the book was weirdly organized and thus a bit confusing) a young Welsh noblewoman named Avalene de Forshay. (This struck me as an odd name for a Welsh woman, being both too French-sounding and vowel-laden to be Welsh.) The assignment is given to Dante by his mentor (or spy boss? I don’t know; it wasn’t clear) Mordecai. Mordecai’s instructions to Dante are somewhat opaque, and involve his reading of Tarot cards, which had me rolling my eyes more than a bit. Mordecai’s reading of the cards indicates that Dante must prevent a marriage between Avalene and a Welsh baron named Falke Segrave; preventing this marriage happens to be King Edward’s will as well, but the cards tell Mordecai that allowing it to go forward will result in Dante’s death, so that’s an added motivation. The cards, which are strangely specific on certain points, get hazier after that and Dante is essentially told: kidnap Avalene, and the rest is up to you.

As I mentioned above, the beginning of the book was strangely organized, with what felt like too much information dumped on the reader via Mordecai in the first pages, and then an interlude where Dante goes to Venice to finally avenge his dead parents. Since Dante’s revenge on these enemies seemed to be his raison d’etre, it felt odd to have that scene almost shoehorned in; at the very least I think it would’ve made more sense to open the book with it, and then go onto the scene in London with Mordecai. As it was, something that should have been very important to Dante felt like an afterthought.

Avalene lives with her aunt and uncle at their castle Coleway, where she is supposed to be learning how to run a large estate but where she mostly seems to act as an unpaid (and unappreciated) servant. She is constantly undermined by the oily steward John, who is a cousin of her uncle Lord Brunor. Avalene has been largely ignored by her father since her mother died and he remarried and started a new family with his second wife, but her marriage will be advantageous to him and his (possibly treasonous) political plans, so she is willing to do her duty, as well as eager to escape her dreary life at Coleway. When a mysterious knight, Sir Percival, shows up in the middle of a feast and declares that he has come to bring Avalene home in preparation for her marriage, she is happy to go. Less happy are her aunt, Lady Margaret, and the steward John, who covets Avalene and wants to marry her, in spite of the fact that she is far too well-born for him.

Anyway, sinister plots form and are conveniently overheard, and Avalene and Percival (who is really Dante, in case you hadn’t figured that out) are forced to flee Coleway. Of course, since Percival is really Dante and has no intention of taking Avalene to her father, this dovetails with his plans nicely.

Avalene is, not to put too fine a point on it, a ninny. She is somewhat inconsistently characterized, actually, in that she’s portrayed as being competent in running a castle, contrary to her aunt’s claims, but in every other way she shows herself to be oblivious and dull-witted. I think the obliviousness is supposed to come off as innocence, but really she just seems dumb. It doesn’t occur to her until Dante mentions it that their flight from the castle and long road trip, sans appropriate chaperone, will be disastrous to her reputation. (Incidentally, this seemed more like a notion from other eras; in the age of courtly love would a noblewoman traveling alone with a knight be assumed to be ruined? I don’t know.) Avalene’s perception of the people around her is often quite off (she doesn’t seem to realize that it’s not her personality that drives men away from her; it’s strongly implied that John-the-evil-steward scares them off). She’s childlike at times, peppering Dante with questions of the “Are we there yet? How about now? How about now?” variety. Dante observes her as being “kittenish” at one point. I like kittens more than the next person, but I was not charmed by the comparison.

Avalene’s lack of sophistication stands in stark contrast to Dante’s dark alpha uber-competence. Though Dante is also kind of boring – he is a collection of traits that never really came alive for me. He’s also, like many a dark, dangerous hero, much less menacing than he’s advertised to be. Only in the revenge scene in Venice does he come off as truly ruthless. There are several situations in which one would think he would practice his profession, in order to prevent pursuit and/or protect himself and Avalene from enemies, but there is always some reason that Dante chooses not to pull the trigger, as it were. I feel the same way about dangerous assassin heroes as I do about sexually experienced heroines: I don’t require them in my reading but if a hero is presented that way, I expect him to live up to his reputation, at least a little. Dante ultimately seemed sort of toothless.

The bulk of The Dark Knight is a road romance. Dante and Avalene, accompanied by two associates of his and a little boy he rescued in Venice, journey towards London, growing closer even while the secret of Dante’s identity and true motives stands between them.

I wonder if I would’ve felt differently about the contrast between Dante and Avalene if I’d read this book in 1997 instead of 2012. I do think I had a greater tolerance for “old-style” romance at one point, even if they weren’t always my favorite. My expectations for The Dark Knight were probably unavoidably high, given that I’d quite liked Betrothed, even if at this point I don’t really remember why (I remember almost nothing about it). I do think that The Dark Knight reads rather like a book from the late 90s (at least the alpha-hero-innocent-heroine dynamic does), and I think I would’ve been easier on it had I read it then. Read now, at a time when I’m a pickier and more critical romance reader, lacking much to recommend it in the way of plot, prose or characterization, and with a dynamic between the h/h that simply bugs me, my grade for this book is a C-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

18 Comments

  1. Janine
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 12:36:00

    I’ve been curious to try this author because there has been so much excitement around her in the past, but I like to start series in the beginning and her backlist isn’t available electronically. Since we’re often on the same page about books, I won’t be starting with this one now that you’ve given it a C-. I don’t feel motivated to hunt down a paper copy of the first book in the series, either.

  2. Jayne
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 12:39:38

    I’m with Janine. I’ve never read any of her books but have heard the past excitement about what she’d written and the bemoaning when she stopped. When I heard that she’d finally written The Book That Everyone Has Been Waiting For, I crossed my fingers that fans would get a book worthy of their years of waiting. So sad that it didn’t live up to your expectations.

  3. Maili
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 13:19:15

    a young Welsh noblewoman named Avalene de Forshay. (This struck me as an odd name for a Welsh woman, being both too French-sounding and vowel-laden to be Welsh.)

    Well, as far as I know, a very large percentage of Welsh nobility had Norman ancestry. Still does now, I think. Ditto with English and Scottish nobilities. All due to the Norman invasion. So, a Welsh noble with a French-sounding name doesn’t come as a surprise to me.

    Shame that The Dark Knight isn’t as good as hoped, though. Boo. But fifteen years? That’s not possible. Cannot be that long ago. I refuse to believe.

  4. Kati
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 13:55:55

    Huh. I’ve only heard good things about this book, and have downloaded it. I’m bummed to see that it didn’t really work for you, Jennie.

  5. Mandi
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 15:07:58

    I loved this book. I never felt like Avalene was dumb…maybe naieve because she has been sheltered living with uncle…

    I love that Dante was so…ruthless at times with the bad guys. I wish there had been more action scenes in it. I also thought this book was so romantic. I went back and purchased her previous three books but haven’t started them yet.

  6. Janine
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 16:52:20

    It doesn’t occur to her until Dante mentions it that their flight from the castle and long road trip, sans appropriate chaperone, will be disastrous to her reputation. (Incidentally, this seemed more like a notion from other eras; in the age of courtly love would a noblewoman traveling alone with a knight be assumed to be ruined? I don’t know.)

    I asked Dhympna, a historian who has studied the Middle Ages, about this. She said she needs to research it further, but likely the answer to this would not be a clear cut yes or no, and would depend on the context.

  7. Jennie
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 18:10:09

    @Maili – thanks for the info; that makes sense. I didn’t think about the Normans!

    @Mandi – I’m glad it worked for you better than it did for me. A lot of my reaction probably has to do with where I am as a romance reader now – there are just some tropes that I have little tolerance for at this point. Though I’m not sure why Avalene would be sheltered since she lived in a large, bustling community and interacted with a number of people while performing her duties. I think she was just supposed to be naturally that way, and the naive/innocent heroine is one of those tropes that I mentioned.

  8. Jennie
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 18:22:08

    Thanks, Janine!

    I hate seeming like I’m picking on little things – whether that aspect of the story or Avalene’s name. Usually that’s a sign that I’m not engaged in a book and/or I don’t really “trust” the voice. I can read a wallpaper historical but it usually only works for me if I don’t *know* that it’s a wallpaper historical (that, or it’s outrageously entertaining in other ways). Once I start questioning details it’s pretty much all over for me.

    Another example, one that goes not so much to the issue of factual accuracy but to my point about Dante not being nearly as ruthless as he was supposed to be: at one point Dante’s party encounters a group of soldiers intent on stealing Avalene back. Dante is able to overpower and tie them up. There is a semi-believable explanation for why he doesn’t just kill them. But he takes their horses with him, so that the soldiers won’t have access to them when they are freed. Why doesn’t he just kill the horses?

    Now, I understand why – an author can’t have her hero murdering animals, or even hurting them to prevent them from being rideable. That would be a total no-go. But at the same time, the Dante who is SUCH a cold, ruthless assassin really can’t kill a few horses? In an era when I’m guessing that people had much less interest in animal rights?

    I’m not advocating for horse slaughter, and I’m not even saying the author handled it wrong – I’m saying that for me, as a reader, because the story had kind of lost me at that point, these were the things I was pondering.

  9. Jane
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 21:20:12

    I really, really don’t understand why the previous book in this series (along with the author’s other two books) were not released in digital. Same publisher. Author under contract. What is the hold up/problem?

  10. KT Grant
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 05:15:13

    I read this one and I enjoyed it but it didn’t wow me like The Warlord did, one of my all time favorite romances. I wonder why it took 15 years to publish? I had assumed Elizabeth finished writing it way before that.

  11. Isobel Carr
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 09:42:07

    @Jennie: I’m still stuck on the tarot card thing. I did a bunch of research on cards (and card games) in my 16thC re-enactor mode and based on everything I’ve read, the setting of this book is way to early for divination tarot.

  12. Danielle
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 13:32:32

    It sounds as if the Forshays are meant to be Marcher Lords, i.e. not Welsh (although they intermarried with them for political reasons) but English (Norman) border aristocracy whose frontier territories had served as a buffer against the Welsh before the 1282-3 conquest. The powerful Mortimers of Wigmore are an (in)famous example.

  13. Dhympna
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 20:36:20

    @Isobel, you are right about tarot. I think the earliest ones I have come across are late 14th /early 15th century and they were used as a game (I would have to check this).

    The 13th century can get a little complicated, especially in respect to gender roles.

    @Jennie, I would have been surprised if he didn’t take the horses since they were a status symbol and were quite valuable in the Middle Ages. There were some pretty hefty fines attached to killing animals like horses (not that it didn’t happen). I haven’t read the book, so would have to see the entire context.

  14. Jennie
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 23:34:13

    @Isobel Carr: See, I didn’t even catch that.

    @Danielle – yes, there were mentions of Marcher Lords, so that makes sense. I withdraw my objection to Forshay (though I never really objected; I just didn’t get the French-names-in-Wales thing). Avalene still sounds like a totally made up name to me, though a cursory internet search is inconclusive on the subject. The closest I could get to any history on the name was the suggestion that the alternate spelling Aveline is an English variation on Evelyn. But it’s not a big issue for me. I tend to like frou frou names IRL but unfamiliar frou frou names in historical romance always stick out for me. One of the first romances I read featured a heroine named Melisandre, which the internet is suggesting may be a real old-timey name, but at the time I was like “what is this bullshit?” Yes, I know writers hate to hear about readers denigrating the accuracy of actual historical facts. Me, I’d be just as happy if all historical heroines were named Elizabeth or Anne.

    @Dhympna – thanks for the info. FWIW, he didn’t intend to keep the horses – he let them loose further on down the road. He just didn’t want his enemy to have them. Again, it’s not a big deal; I just wanted to illustrate how my mind gets all picayune about details when a book has lost me (and also how I want a ruthless hero to be ruthless, damnit!). It did occur to me that in that era, without shotguns or whatever it is people use, killing a number of horses might be messy and difficult work.

  15. Danielle
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 09:48:23

    @Jennie: The names in medieval romances are often made up, which irritates me endlessly. I usually take it as a sign that the history, too, will be fantasy more than fact. As you speculate, though, Avalene is probably a version of Aveline, which was a known name in 13th-century England. Aveline de Forz (note the similarity with Avalene de Forshay), for example, heiress to the earldoms of Aumale and Devon, was married to King Edward I’s son Edmund.

  16. Isobel Carr
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 09:57:38

    @Dhympna: Card games like Tarocchi predate divination by a good patch. It’s also worth noting that cards took a long time to come to England. For some reason, it took almost a hundred years for them to make the leap from France to England. Boggles the mind, really. They spread from Italy to the rest of Europe pretty quickly, but he channel held them at bay. So England also wouldn’t have been a likely candidate for early adoption of anything card related.

  17. Dhympna
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 11:14:35

    @Isobel Carr:

    I am well aware. ;)

  18. Annie
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 19:20:50

    I so agree with ur review Jeannie!

    I was so excited about this book because the Hero was an assassin. But all my hopes were squashed when the author kept giving justifications for Dantes killings. The first scene was the only exciting scene. I wanted a bit more action; the road romance just read like any other novel…nothing extrodinary.

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