Betrayed by His Kiss
The book reviews that are often hardest to write – as AAR staffers will agree – are those for books which fall into the middle range, the C grade books which aren’t bad, but which don’t really have anything particularly special to make them stand out from the crowd. If you love or hate something, it’s normally fairly easy to come up with something to say, but when a book falls into the “average” category…well, it can be tough.
Betrayed by His Kiss is one of those books. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it; it wasn’t a bad book, but it didn’t reach out and grab me, either. The setting of Florence in the late fifteenth century is unusual in the genre and the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of that vibrant city are beautifully written and very evocative. Because the central character is an artist, in a city of great artists – not least of which is Botticelli, who makes a few cameo appearances – Ms. McCabe has taken care to frame many of those descriptions in terms of colour and light, and they are very effective.
The storyline, however, doesn’t seem to have received the same attention. I found myself reciting “Two households, both alike in dignity; In fair Verona, where we lay our scene;” in my head and substituting Florence for Verona, because what we have here, in essence is one of those boy-meets-girl-from-rival-family stories of murder and revenge. Fortunately, minus the mutual poisonings, although the body count is still pretty high.
Isabella Spinola lives quietly in the county with her scholarly, absent-minded father, and is, for the most part content. At nineteen, she’s practically on the shelf, and while she’s not desperate to get married, part of her would have liked to live a little before settling into confirmed spinsterhood. When she receives a letter from her cousin, Caterina Strozzi, inviting her to come to Florence as her companion, it seems as though Isabella is going to get her wish.
Florence is every bit as beautiful and fascinating as Isabella had expected it to be, although she very quickly experiences one of its less endearing aspects when she loses her way and is accosted by a couple of ruffians. Fortunately, an avenging angel in the shape of a darkly attractive and rather deadly young man arrives in the nick of time to save her and set her back en route.
Isabella takes up residence with her cousins, Caterina and Matteo Strozzi in a vast and luxurious palazzo, and while astonished at such luxury and delighted at the prospect of meeting the famed Signor Botticelli, is unable to forget the face of her rescuer, whom she nicknames “Hades” in her mind, because of his handsome, dark looks and air of command.
“Hades” is, in fact, Orlando Landucci, sworn enemy of the Strozzi and committed to putting a period to Matteo’s existence following the latter’s seduction and abandonment of Orlando’s younger sister, Maria, who lost her unborn child and then took her own life. There is much mention in the text of the inner darkness that is Orlando’s constant companion, and reference to “dark” deeds in his past, but given that almost everything we see of him seems to contradict those statements, they mean little – it’s another case of telling rather than showing which contribute nothing to an understanding of the character.
There is some interesting historical background to be found in the story, with the incorporation of the so-called Pazzi Conspiracy, a plot to assassinate the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, and which ultimately, led to war. In the book, the ensuing massacre becomes the backdrop to Orlando’s moment of revenge, and then to Isabella’s swearing vengeance for her cousin and other members of the Strozzi’s intimate circle.
My problems with the storytelling stem from the fact that the pacing is very uneven, with the first three-quarters of the book meandering along at a leisurely pace, setting up the romance, taking the reader into the streets of Florence and into Botticelli’s studio…it’s all very well written, but all the action is crushed into the last twenty-five percent, which makes the entire book feel unbalanced. Orlando’s character is two-dimensional at best, and Isabella fares no better. They’ve both vague stereotypes (Orlando even gets a balcony to climb!) and Isabella’s decision to avenge her cousin’s death comes completely out of the blue rather than from any facet of her character that we have been shown.
Ultimately, the strengths of Betrayed by His Kiss are the historical and background detail which have clearly been lovingly researched and written. Sadly, the romance between this particular pair of star-crossed lovers is unconvincing and rather dull.