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!).