REVIEW: For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale
This is the penultimate book in my Laura Kinsale rereadapalooza – number 11 of 12. I have put off rereading For My Lady’s Heart for sort of complicated reasons. When I read it back in the day, I really did love it – I loved all of the Kinsale books that I first read in the 1990s. But at the same time, I felt like I didn’t love it enough. It seemed like legitimate Kinsale fans had For My Lady’s Heart in their top two or three. It wasn’t there for me, and I always felt a little embarrassed for the reasons – I think I found the old English dialect a bit inaccessible, and the heroine’s coldness off-putting.
In retrospect, neither of these were huge issues in my reading of the book – again, I really loved it. But at the same time they didn’t seem like good enough reasons, and I always feel a bit sheepish when I don’t love a difficult heroine. I think I’ve actually gotten better about that, since sometimes these days I find myself rooting for heroines that other readers deem too unlikable. But I was younger then, and had a particular attraction to the ubiquitous “jerk hero, martyr heroine” dynamic.
All this is a long-winded way to say that I picked this up with some trepidation. I actually bought the digital bundle that has both the original version and the “lighter” version of FMLH, published in 2011. I wasn’t about to wuss out with the “ne Olde Englysh” version, though I’m a bit curious about the other changes that were made (Kinsale refers to it as a “tighter” story in her author’s note. I thought maybe I’d read it when it came out, but my book log says no). So “ye Olde Englysh” it was.
I do remember, I think, finding the prologue of For My Lady’s Heart unusually evocative back when I first read it. A group of pilgrims, traveling to Avignon in the mid-to-late 14th century, are stopped in a forest, at the mercy of a young woman of the party having her umpteenth religious ecstasy of the day.
It begins to rain, and as the woman, Isabelle, berates the rest of the company for their sins, they finally have had enough and leave her there with her husband. The husband – our hero, Ruck – begs Isabelle to ride his horse so they can catch up with the other pilgrims. The forest is full of bandits, and they are now without the safety of numbers. But Isabelle is apparently planning to walk all the way to Jerusalem. The couple argue, about Isabelle and her religious devotion, which has rendered her determined to remain chaste (she and Ruck are practically newlyweds).
Ruck and Isabelle eventually travel forward enough to discover that they have been lucky (or Isabelle is indeed favored by God, as she concludes). The other pilgrims have all been slaughtered by brigands.
Once in Avignon, Ruck and Isabelle are escorted to see church officials, after Isabelle has another
very public fit vision. It’s there that Ruck first spies an impossibly beautiful noble lady carrying a white falcon. He is mesmerized by her. The next day both Isabelle and Ruck are given an audience in which Ruck is asked by the church examiners whether he will relinquish his hold on Isabelle and allow her to go into a nunnery. Questions about his recent vow of chastity to Isabelle are interrupted by the mysterious stranger from the day before. She avers that he stared at her with lust the previous day, a charge Ruck cannot deny.
The upshot of this encounter is that Isabelle is (supposedly) sent to a nunnery, Ruck is left with the responsibility of regularly sending the church money for her care, and is left without a wife. He also soon finds that the church has taken his horse and armor, too. Ruck is in despair when a mute hunchback brings him a note from the mysterious lady, along with a handful of emeralds. The note urges him to leave Avignon as soon as possible.
Thirteen years later Ruck and the mysterious lady – who is in fact the Princess Melanthe of Monteverde – are reunited. He is a nameless knight, known only as the Green Knight, in service of the Duke of Lancaster. Princess Melanthe is stopped at Lancaster’s castle in Aquitaine, on a perilous journey to her family estate, Bowland, in England. Ruck recognizes Melanthe instantly, though it takes her a bit longer to remember him.
The Duke of Lancaster is very publicly courting Melanthe, a courtship that she has several reasons to view as abhorrent and dangerous. Melanthe is English, but was married as a teenager to the much older Prince Ligurio of Monteverde, a small Italianate principality. While Ligurio lived, a fragile balance existed between the three ruling families of Monteverde – the Monteverdes, the Navona and the Riata. Now, Ligurio is dead, and that balance has shifted.
Melanthe wants nothing more than to escape to her ancestral home of Bowland, a place she feels she can finally be safe from these foreign political machinations. But in order to leave Monteverde, she had to promise Gian Navona she would marry him; he believes she has merely gone to England to settle her business there. To keep Melanthe on a leash, Gian has sent his teenage bastard Allegreto, who sleeps in Melanthe’s bed (they cultivate the fiction that they are lovers). Riata spies regularly turn up, as well, though Allegreto, an adolescent assassin, usually dispatches them.
Attention from yet another man, even (or especially) one as powerful as the Duke of Lancaster, is a complication Melanthe doesn’t need. Circumstances force her to very publicly and humiliatingly reject the duke’s suit. In this, she has an unexpected ally in Ruck.
Ruck made a private pledge when he left Avignon – he pledged himself to Melanthe. Now, at a tournament that Lancaster has arranged to make himself look good in front of Melanthe, Ruck’s pledge sets him against Lancaster. The resulting humiliation almost causes Lancaster to kill Ruck, but he instead decides to punish him with a banishment – he will escort Princess Melanthe to Bowland, with a small detachment of hired soldiers.
One of the pleasures of For My Lady’s Heart is the road trip aspect – I always enjoy a good road trip story. In this one, the hero and heroine (particularly the heroine) are in danger from both generic enemies (bandits) and specific ones (Riata spies and assassins). Melanthe treats Ruck with an arch, disdainful amusement. Ruck hates her and lusts after her. He has built her up in his mind over the years as a paragon of womanhood, and the reality is like cold water thrown over him. (Ruck has some Madonna/whore conditioning to overcome, which is probably not surprising given the setting, but Ruck is especially given to black-and-white thinking.)
Melanthe is one of the most complex romance heroines that I’ve read. She was thrown into a very treacherous world at a young age, and the armor she’s had to develop has hardened her, perhaps permanently. Since her husband died, she has had no one to rely on or trust but herself.
Heroes as calculating and ruthless as Melanthe are a dime a dozen, but I can’t think of another heroine who quite matches her. Watching her blossom and relax – not just due to Ruck’s influence, but because she’s living in relative safety for the first time in decades – was touching. Ruck observes several times while they’re on the road that he’s never seen a woman who sleeps so much, but he doesn’t know that Melanthe has had to sleep with one eye open for far too long.
Ruck is unusual too but perhaps not as much so as Melanthe. I think what is compelling about him is that he feels like a true medieval hero. His religiosity is at the core of who he is. He’s not debonair or suave; he’s a soldier and a plain man, who doesn’t have much use for or experience with the people he encounters once he’s reunited with Melanthe. The games that Melanthe and Allegreto play are confusing and angering to him.
Not all aspects of Ruck’s authenticity are appealing.
Allegreto is a significant secondary character in For My Lady’s Heart. He’s also the hero of Shadowheart, the book’s sequel. He is definitely compelling; deadly and cold, but also essentially a child, with a child’s fear of plague and of his father, whom he loves as much as he dreads. There’s a sort of secondary romance between him and Melanthe’s duplicitous maid Cara, one that is bittersweet and futile because Cara is: 1) terrified of Allegreto and 2) a real drip. (I guess it’s only slightly icky that the heroine of Shadowheart is Cara’s younger sister, who at least isn’t a drip.)
There’s a separation late in this book that I found a bit trying.
And I had one last niggle about the end (I remembered the last third of the book a lot less clearly than the first two-thirds, for some reason).
I’m going to give this an A-, putting it in line with several of my favorite Kinsales now (after all this time!).
I remember in this book I read years ago, there was a similar situation in reverse for a pair of minor characters. Hubby suddenly got religion and decided to enter a monastery leaving his wife (sorta) married but with no husband. At the time, I thought “That sucks for her.” I still think it. In the comments section, a few people weighed in on whether or not people would still be considered married or not.
You remembered a heck of a lot more of it than I did – something I realized as I was reading your review. I loved it back in the day but it didn’t stick with me much beyond “medieval,” “white falcon,” “child assassin,” and “strong heroine.”
I read Kinsale’s Seize the Fire a couple of years ago. It is my first and only Kinsale because the drama (oh, The Drama!) left me wrung out and worn out. She tells a great story, but I feel that I need to get in shape by training as for an athletic competition before tackling another.
@LML: Now I have this image of you, running in place and lifting heavy stacks of library books while the theme from “Rocky” blares in the background.
This is one of the few Kinsale books that I have not read; another is Shadowheart which I started but put aside. I enjoyed your review, Jennie, but I can tell that this is not a book for me.
@Jayne: Oh, interesting. I think I read a few Elizabeth Chadwick books back in the day. She seemed like the type of medieval author who valued historical accuracy.
@LML: Ha! I know what you mean. I had such a taste for sturmg und drang early in my romance reading career. I still do, to some extent, but I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t always need to have your heart pulled out of your chest and stomped on (and I’m speaking both of the h/h and the reader) for it to be a successful romance.
@Kareni: Yeah, it’s a bit unusual. Shadowheart is too, though in a different way.
I’d completely forgotten that about Ruck’s rape of his first wife, ugh. That’s gross. It seems that there are offensive things in all of the three Kinsales I most used to love. The Dream Hunter and The Shadow and the Star, whose most prominent flaw in the story (although it’s a close call in TSATS, which also contains rape) is cultural appropriation, are the other two.
I liked Flowers from the Storm a lot at one time and I *think* it doesn’t have either issue. It’s too cutesie for me now, though (many of her books are). That’s one thing I remember and appreciate about FMLH; it wasn’t twee, unlike pretty much all the others. I wonder how the BDSM in the sequel, Shadowheart, would read now. It was revolutionary in a mainstream historical back then.
Interestingly, though this was my favorite Kinsale, I was never that keen on Ruck. Instead, I was in the book for Melanthe and Allegretto, two unusually fresh characters (Melanthe reminds me of Irene from Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books now).
This was my favorite of all favorites; and an amazingly well-plotted book unlike most of Kinsale’s others. I love the way she positions Ruck, Melanthe, Allegreto and Cara at the end of the book. They are like dominoes; if one falls they all fall.
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I think I felt as you did about the villain’s defeat the very first time I read the book, but later on, with the multiple readings that followed, I came to see it as the best possible way for him to be disposed of. He had to be a force of nature, someone whom none of the other characters, and especially not Ruck, defeated. Otherwise Melanthe’s worst action, driven by the instinct that no one could kill him, would have proven the product of irrational anxiety on Melanthe and Allegretto’s part, and that would have run counter to their prior characterization. Throughout the book, they were the realists and Ruck the idealist.
@LML: I agree 100% about Seize the Fire. I read it around 1990 and didn’t work up the nerve to try another Kinsale until 1994. I almost wrote her off completely, but then I read an interview with her in a chain bookstore newsletter that persuaded me to try again. Fortunately FFTS, though not light, was much lighter than STF.
@Janine: Yes, I think you’re right about the villain. It feels strange when you first read it but makes more sense the more you think about it.
I agree with your comparison of Melanthe to Irene.
I remember not liking the BDSM in Shadowheart (it’s really not my thing at all) and having now read it again, it’s milder than I remember but I still don’t like it (I’ll talk about why when I review it but it really does probably just boil down to my feelings on BDSM).
I have a weakness for twee. Particularly in Kinsale’s books where the twee elements serve to balance the dark elements (for me at least). I actually even quite like the excessively twee Midsummer Moon.
@Jayne, thank you for my biggest smile in days.
@Jennie, Feeling battered by memory of reading Seize the Fire, I forgot to mention that I enjoyed your review enough to think of strength training as prep before reading For My Lady’s Heart. Considering the rape, though, I’ll pass. I appreciate twee done well – Seize the Fire had a darling twee little penguin – so perhaps Midsummer Moon will be my next Kinsale.
@ Janine, so interesting that someone else had the very same reading experience. That book was exhausting!
@Jennie: I had to look up the definition of twee! But as a person who generally likes ( and defends) sentimentalism and cuteness I can see how some might find an excess of it nauseating. I did find it puzzling in reference to Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart, it’s been a long time since I read the book but my memory is that it’s the opposite of twee. It’s a dark book with a lot of suffering and angst and unrequited lust and it depicts a harsh world too. Where do the twee parts appear?
@Jayne: you are hilarious and this is so funny !!!!
@Jennie: I don’t like BDSM either and I remember being disappointed in Shadowheart ( although seriously what a great title!). I don’t think the book lived up to his magnetism or charisma in FMLH. And it’s also hard when the hero is more compelling than the heroine. I’ll have to re read it to remember though….I don’t remember any twee in this either
@LML: Gosh, I loved that penguin.
@Layla: I think Janine’s point was that FMLH is *not* twee the way some of Kinsale’s other books are.
@Layla: Shadowheart is not hugely twee. I need to write up my review of it so I I have to give it some thought and see how I really felt about it.
@Jennie: gosh I’m sorry I didn’t read thAr correctly !!!! Lol thanks for correcting me!!
@Jennie: me too! Best part of the whole book :)
@Jennie: well I loved this review !! I’ll look forward to your shadow heart one;) also I’ll have to look to see if you reviewed flowers from the storm. I recently re read it and ADORED it! I enjoyed it even more than when I first read it.
@Layla: My review of FFTS is here: https://dearauthor.com/?s=FLOWERS+FROM+THE+STORM
@LML: Try Flowers from the Storm. It has no rape whatsoever and it’s most people’s favorite. It’s my second favorite, I’d say.
@Layla: It’s mostly the cuteness that bugs me, I don’t mind sentimentality so much, unless it’s extreme (i.e. Balogh’s family reunions where there are a hundred children).
@Janine, following your note, I read Jennie’s review of Flowers From the Storm. Either that title or Midsummer Moon will be the next Kinsale I read.
@LML: To clarify, although Flowers from the Storm is lighter than many Kinsales, it’s still not as light as a couple of others. But I haven’t been able to finish Midsummer Moon or Uncertain Magic (I’d call those two books fluffy), which are the lightest. Midsummer Moon is the most twee of her books, IMO—much worse than the penguin in STF (the penguin was good and much needed since the rest of the book was almost a horror novel). The odds are good that you’ll like Flowers from the Storm; it’s by far her most popular book and was, in its day, considered by many to be one of the best books in the entire historical romance genre.
This and FFTS are my favorite kinsales and maybe romance novels of all time. I love the characters Kinsale created here – from the hero/heroines, minor and major side characters, to the villain – everyone has hidden depths. Ruck is at once an alpha and beta hero, he and melanthe feel like mature heroes but both of them are inexperienced and insecure befitting their personal histories. I also love the immersive world kinsale created (recreated?) with the language, and having the characters express views that feel contemporary with the times (but I’m no medieval scholar). Finally, I love the magic of the story, with the noble knight, a dragon-dinosaur, the castle shrouded in clouds, and the sleeping princess. It’s just the best!
@Li: It was my favorite Kinsale too–those are all marvelous things. However being reminded of how Ruck raped his first wife (though I know it would not have been thought of as such at the time and was only mentioned briefly), I don’t think I would like it as much now.
@janine Agree that the episode the prologue describes is fairly terrible, but also feel like Ruck spends the rest of the book redeeming himself and treating Isabel and Melanthe with respect and earning readers’ forgiveness.
@Li: I can’t not judge Ruck (holy double negative!) but I can put it in perspective. I wish he’d had more obvious remorse for it later in the book but he did have pain about what was, clearly, a nightmare of a marriage (for both parties).
I think I muse more about the 90s (in which FMLH was written) being “a different time” than I do about the 1400s being a different time. There are a lot of thoughts and behaviors that historical characters can indulge in that are understandable in context, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about them. At least not in a romance.
@Jennie: Yeah, that’s what bugged me too, the absence of remorse. I’m curious, though, why this feels so different to you than when Samuel rapes Leda in The Shadow and the Star? I remember that when we reviewed it together you said you couldn’t view it as rape because the characters didn’t think of it as such. Surely that was true of Ruck and Isabel as well? The concept of marital rape was probably nonexistent in England in the 1400s.
Do you think it’s because Samuel does feel remorse (although wasn’t that more directed at Kai, Tess, and Gryph?)? Or is it the “consent for the heroine” thing that Robin used to post about in the earlier days of DA? Or something else? I hope this isn’t an offensive question.
@Janine: I probably shouldn’t have put it that way – I’m struggling with this in my review of Shadowheart now. What we would consider as rape vs. what the characters do.
For me, though, the difference between FMLH and TS&TS is that Ruck is well aware that he’s forcing his wife; she is begging him to stop and crying. He knows that, however deluded she is, it’s important to her to remain chaste. He’s well aware of how much he’s hurting her but does it more than once, anyway.
Whereas Samuel has all the guilt in the world, but as usual it’s for the wrong things. His wrongs are different and not really as related to the actual act as Ruck’s are, IMO.