REVIEW: Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale
And we’ve come to it…the end of my five-year, twelve-book reread and review of Laura Kinsale’s oeuvre. This is Kinsale’s second-to-last published book – it originally came out in 2004. My trusty book log indicates that I gave it an A- but noted that it was a “bit disappointing.” To be fair, highly anticipated books about beloved secondary characters are almost always a little bit of a letdown. And an A- is a great grade!
Let’s start with a blurb:
Dangerous and dashing assassin Allegreto wants to regain his rightful place in the rich Italian principality of Monteverde. Happily, the means to do so is Lady Elena, long-lost Monteverde princess and sole heir to the kingdom. Though she is promised to his rival, Allegreto seizes her ship, takes Elena prisoner, and weds her, thus beginning their battle of wits and passion.
As the book opens, Elena is known as Elayne; she’s been raised in England by her sister Cara and retains no real memory of her early childhood in Monteverde or the perilous journey to England (Allegreto rescued her from the clutches of the Riata family and brought her to Cara, whom he nursed a teenage tendre for).
Elayne is 17 and thinks she’s in love with Raymond de Clare, a knight of Lord Lancaster’s visiting the forest castle where she lives with her sister Cara and brother-in-law Sir Guy. The castle belongs to the Lady Melanthe, the Countess of Bowland, who is, of course, the heroine of For My Lady’s Heart. Elayne seems a bit bumbling and silly at first, trying to cast love charms to snare Raymond. When one of her charms is tied to a blight on the local poultry, Raymond renounces her and Elayne is sent to her godmother, Melanthe, presumably in disgrace.
It’s there that Elayne learns what she has never been told – she is not just Melanthe’s goddaughter, but a ward of the powerful Lancaster. She is not just Lady Elena Rosafina of Monteverde, but she is a princess of Monteverde. Summarily, she finds out that Raymond is to be married off to get him out of the way, and she herself is being sent to Monteverde, as bride to Franco Pietro, one of the Riata family.
Three families – Monteverde, Riata and Navona – had long been locked in a power struggle for control of the tiny principality of Monteverde. Melanthe was caught up in this struggle in For My Lady’s Heart. Now Elayne/Elena is intended to bring Monteverde and Riata together. (Navona being considered no longer a player since the head of the family died in For My Lady’s Heart, and his bastard son, Allegreto, has disappeared.)
All this a lot for Elena to take in. She trusts Melanthe and tries to absorb her lessons about survival in the treacherous atmosphere she’s about to enter, but she misses her home and the simple life she’s left behind. Still, she boards the ship intended to take her to her betrothed and her new life. She’s guarded by Knights Hospitaller and a convoy intended to protect against pirates. Not surprisingly (because why introduce all that security if it’s not going to be breached?) the ship Elena is on is first lured away from the convoy and then boarded by sailors who convince Elena’s chaperone to board their superior vessel. This ship then alights on a desolate island in the Mediterranean, Il Corvo (the Raven), where Elena is introduced to the island’s master of the same name.
Il Corvo the man is, of course, Allegreto. When he realizes he has the Monteverde princess in his clutches, Allegreto begins to plan for a return to his “rightful” place as the master of Monteverde.
Since we last saw him in For My Lady’s Heart, Allegreto has not only acquired an island and fortress; he has a loyal army of young servants who he has trained in the arts he himself was trained in as a child (i.e. how to be an assassin). Elena is both terrified of and drawn to her captor (which is what it quickly becomes clear Allegreto is). His interest in esoteric scientific arts has her fearful that he’s a wizard of some sort. (Hey, I just realized the symmetry of Allegreto as wizard and Elena as witch. This was the concern in regard to the blighted poultry at the beginning of the book – that she would be accused of witchcraft.)
Allegreto sets about wooing Elena in his fashion, which involves drugging her, a sham wedding and a consummation while she’s drugged. Which is, of course, rape. I know I’m being too flip about it and I should probably be outraged but my Kinsale rereads have dredged up more than a few distasteful elements that are artifacts of Different Times and Different Thinking. For some reason I just can’t get myself as properly outraged as I think I should be about this. It helps (if that’s the right word?) that Elena is an enthusiastic participant. (Though again, not able to consent because drugged.)
I remember there being a bit of controversy at the time of publication over the (really rather mild) BDSM aspects of the love scenes. I don’t know that I was scandalized at the time (I kind of doubt it?) but BDSM is not my thing so I believe I found it a little off-putting. I found it a little off-putting this time for sure. One of my issues (besides it again, just being Not My Thing) was that Allegreto’s desire to be hurt is clearly tied to childhood trauma. This was also the case in another book that I read and really liked recently – that book was literary fiction. I’m far from being an expert on anything BDSM, and don’t want to offend anyone, but it in turn seems offensive to me to draw a clear line between “abused as a child” and “needs to be abused to get off.” It just takes something that I could be neutral on (like, not hot to me, but whatever) and makes it kind of icky.
I really didn’t remember anything that happened once Allegreto and Elena leave the island, so the latter part of the book had the advantage of feeling new to me. There’s kind of a long separation, and so it felt to me like the two of them were moving forward (eventually, in Allegreto’s case – moving forward is at first not his strong suit) on parallel tracks but not together. I didn’t love that aspect; I’ve never been a fan of h/h separations in romance.
All in all, I’m not sure how I feel about Shadowheart. It wasn’t my favorite Kinsale when I first read it, and it’s not my favorite now. It’s probably in the bottom third of 12. It has all of the Kinsale hallmarks – strong prose and interesting characters. It probably has a cleaner plot than several others that I can think of. But though it moved me here and there (an accomplishment in and of itself these days), it didn’t have nearly the emotional powerful of my favorite Kinsales. For better or worse, Kinsale is an author I judge against herself. Right after rereading this, I gave it an A- (again), but I think I’ll drop it down to a B+.
Of the other eleven books I’ve rereviewed, I gave one a C (in part due to a distasteful plot development); the rest were all between A and B, with most getting an A-. In retrospect, it’s not the book that I gave an A to, Flowers From the Storm, that I think is my current favorite. When I look back on my recent rereads the one that sticks out for me the most is The Dream Hunter, which I gave an A- (really anything I took off the grade was because I favored Zenia over Arden, and I felt like Kinsale favored Arden over Zenia).
This has been a fun five year journey! I would love to do the same with Patricia Gaffney or Penelope Williamson, but the latter’s books, particularly, can be hard to find electronically, if at all. I’ve lost a lot of my paper versions of various books over the years and moves; it’s sad to think I’ll never read some of those books again. I’m glad that Kinsale’s books remain in print, for now.