REVIEW: For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale
It’s Not Easy Being Green – For My Lady’s Heart
This review might be a little shorter than usual, because all I really have to say about For My Lady’s Heart is “it’s awesome.”
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Okay, I should probably say a little bit more than that, but this will be a little short because FMLH is a really dense, complex book and so I had to choose to either talk about it literally for ever, or to focus on the few things I thought I could discuss within a reasonable wordcount. FMLH tells the story of the wandering knight Ruck and the enigmatic Princess Melanthe. The book opens with Ruck escorting his probably-mentally-ill wife Isabelle to Avignon, where she intends to pledge herself to a nunnery. There he sees a mysterious woman in green (Melanthe) who later bails him out after Isabelle gives Ruck’s armour, horse, and money to an evil Bishop. The story picks up thirteen years later, when Ruck has remodelled himself into a nameless Green Knight in memory of Melanthe, who he has considered his liege ever since their meeting over a decade ago. Melanthe, meanwhile, has been widowed and is now returning to England – fleeing the murderous politics of whichever bit of Italy she had been living in. Intrigues, plagues, tournaments and murders ensue.
I don’t really have much more to say about the plot, because this is a very intricate book and I don’t have anywhere near the space to do it justice. It’s not that the story is complicated as such, just that there is an awful lot of context behind everything which – in the book – is woven into the flow of the narrative but which in a review would wind up coming out as “and then this because this, which because this, which because this and this and this and stuff stuff stuff.” Kinsale does a remarkable job of evoking a very specific sense of world without resorting to infodumping, and you get the real sense that this book isn’t just set in the generic past but at an actual time in an actual place (specifically, in the North-West of England some time in the 1360s or 1370s). I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel (except perhaps Wolf Hall) that so well evoked a historical period without making it either unrecognisable to a present-day audience or descending into pastiche. Throughout the book it is very clear that these are not modern people, that their concerns are not modern concerns.
This sometimes means the book must walk a difficult line, because fourteenth century attitudes are pretty damned reprehensible in a lot of ways. Early on, Ruck reflects on his first marriage, and mentions that when he returned from the war and found his wife had undergone a transformative religious experience that meant she no longer wanted to have sex with him, he’d just raped her for about a week until the screaming got on his nerves. Later, when it is revealed that Isabelle was burned at the stake for heresy, Melanthe suggests that she deserved it for failing to do her duty as a wife. This is only remotely palatable because the book is at once so grounded in its period worldview and so aware of that grounding. The narrative voice is careful to neither judge the characters for their attitudes (which, while unacceptable to a modern audience, are entirely appropriate for their day) nor to condone them.
For My Lady’s Heart creates its sense of world better than most mainstream Fantasy novels I’ve read. Even compared to heavyweights like George R. R. Martin the book has a ring of authenticity that you seldom see in genre fiction. It comes from little things – like the fact that Ruck and Melanthe marry by swearing vows to each other in private because, well, you could do that back then – and from big deep-seated things, like the way that God and the soul and Heaven and Hell are treated as absolute facts of life by pretty much everybody (Ruck in particular dwells intensely on the concepts of sin and religious duty). And of course there’s the fact that half the dialogue is in Middle English (albeit slightly modified for a modern audience).
The other thing that struck me about For My Lady’s Heart was that it was one of the few books I’ve read as part of this project where I was really able to identify with the hero. In a lot of genre fiction there is a sharp division between the characters you’re supposed to identify with (the heroines in Romance, the male protagonists in about 90% of all other genre fiction) and the characters you’re supposed to fancy (the heroes in Romance, about 70% of the female characters in about 90% of all other genre fiction). A lot of the heroes I’ve encountered so far have read far more as fantasy figures or objects of desire than as characters in their own right. I should probably stress at this point that this is in no way a complaint, because that would be inordinately hypocritical given how badly female characters get treated in most of the other books I read. But it does sometimes present a barrier to identification, because it’s hard to put yourself into somebody’s head if all they think about is how much they want to shag the heroine (I had pretty much exactly this problem with Rhys in The Iron Duke). I didn’t have this problem at all in FMLH. In some ways I’m not sure why, because Ruck spends an awful lot of time thinking about how much he wants to bang Melanthe (although to be fair, I kind of think anybody would because she’s completely awesome), but I think the basic difference is that his desires are fully consistent with his personality. He’s established from the outset as an extremely sexual person who has been forced to live celibate because he believes that if he doesn’t he will literally go to hell, so it seems entirely reasonable that his desire to bonk the princess would weigh on his mind a tad.
I think it helps a lot that Ruck and Melanthe, between them, tick pretty much all of my “will never get tired of reading about this” boxes. I absolutely love characters who cling to their unswerving codes of personal honour in the face of a reality which fails to live up to their standards. I absolutely love characters who are so mired in lies and intrigues and betrayals that they have almost forgotten what truth and loyalty look like. I absolutely love it when you get both types of character in the same story and they wind up killing each other/learning valuable lessons about life and friendship/getting it on. It’s kind of how I imagine Ned Stark/Tyrion Lannister slash fic would be, although strangely nobody seems to have written any. So, yeah, it all just kind of worked for me. Ruck’s fear for his immortal soul and his struggle to keep to his principles in the face of danger and temptation acted as a powerful counterpoint to Melanthe’s fear for her physical safety, and her gradual lowering of her defences despite her instincts. The love story is integrated seamlessly into the world, the characters, and the wider conflict, so that when the two of them do finally get together it feels not only like a romantic payoff, but also like a genuine victory. Their marriage about halfway through the book represents a turning point not only because they – well – start shagging, but also because it is the point at which Melanthe begins to free herself from her past, and Ruck begins to reclaim his.
Reading For My Lady’s Heart was, for me, something of a melancholy experience. The whole book is shot through with a terrible sense of time lost or wasted, of mistakes and regrets and the spectres of the past. Ruck spends the first half of the book haunted by a wife who – unknown to him – has been dead for thirteen years. Melanthe spends it haunted by Gian Navona, the Italian nobleman who has sworn she will marry no other man. They wander an England haunted by the memory of the Black death, and when they arrive at Wolfscar, Ruck’s family home, it is the ghost of a castle. A castle that is finally restored to him by a king who is himself a shadow of what he once was. It felt to me as if the past – history itself, if you like – was like the marshlands which Ruck and Melanthe struggle across in the first half of the book: something vast, empty and impersonal in which one could easily drown and be lost forever. Ruck could easily have ended his days as a nameless knight in an empty castle. Melanthe could have fallen back under the sway of Gian Navona and never been seen again. They come together in the middle of all of this emptiness, and cling to one another with a passion that seems born, in part, out of a fear of drowning.
It is only in the closing chapters that the characters face a real threat in the present (although death by water remains an important theme). The sudden appearance of Gian Navona casts both Ruck and Melanthe adrift. Where in the earlier love scenes the reader floats easily in and out of the heads of both characters, the moment they are separated the text becomes rigorously single-viewpoint. When Ruck confronts Melanthe and Gian on the road, neither she nor the reader has any idea what he is thinking, and I at least found the sensation remarkably alienating. Suddenly we see him as he must always have appeared to his enemies – a terrifying armoured killing machine of whose intentions we cannot be certain. And we experience the same alienation when Ruck starts to receive cryptic messages from Melanthe and – having once trusted her implicitly – is now unsure if she means to save or destroy him. Strangely, the characters remain separated for almost the whole of the end of the book, reuniting only at the end of the penultimate chapter. Even more strangely, the epilogue doesn’t feature Ruck and Melanthe at all, instead focusing on Melanthe’s maidservant Cara and her reunion with her sister.
It’s surprising quite how well this works (or at least, I was surprised by it). Ruck and Melanthe’s story, ultimately, is one of escape. Escape from the past, from memories, from old fears and old enemies. At last they seem almost to escape from the text itself. In the closing pages of the final chapter, they are at last free to move forward, no longer defined by the events of the past thirteen years. And so we are free to leave them, and to turn our attention to other characters and other stories, knowing that whatever awaits Ruck and Melanthe, it will be of their own choosing.
So umm. Yeah. For My Lady’s Heart. It’s awesome.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading For My Lady’s Heart: If somebody tells you they’re a eunuch, don’t take their word for it. If somebody tells you they’re sending your wife to a nunnery, don’t take their word for it. If somebody tells you they’re sending themselves to a nunnery, don’t take their word for it. If somebody tells you a book has a dragon in it, don’t take their word for it. Confessionals make good sex manuals. Minstrels make good servants. Herons make good eating. Everybody looks good in green.