Night of Fire
Ooh-la-la, what a treat this book is! I have admired Barbara Samuel’s writing, and Night of Fire, the sequel to The Black Angel, merely cements my admiration. A lush setting, strong characters, an impossible love – if it weren’t for a slight falter at the end, this one would go in the box I’m taking to my desert isle someday.
Left a “happy widow” by the death of her cruel husband, Lady Cassandra St. Ives seems set in her life of scholarship. Her solitary life is brightened by a correspondence with Basilio, the Italian Count Montevarchi. She accepts his invitation to visit him in Tuscany, imagining that she’ll enjoy meeting the man she pictures as a pudgy, going-bald, jovial fellow of middle age. Imagine her shock when she sets eyes on a breathtakingly handsome and virile man; she’s dismayed, fearing that her attraction to him will ruin their friendship.
Basilio has always thought of Cassandra as a comfortable widow past her prime, and he’s stunned to meet a flame-haired beauty whose presence tempts him beyond endurance. He knows they would be better off keeping this relationship platonic; giving in to his desires might jeopardize their friendship, which is precious to him. Besides, he can’t offer her anything more than an affair, since he’s engaged to a girl, Analise, whom he promised his mother he’d protect. It doesn’t matter that neither Basilio nor Analise wants the marriage – he gave his word, and he can’t back out of it. But as he watches Cassandra unfold in the warmth of the Tuscan sunshine, the temptation grows stronger. He learns that Cassandra, in spite of her horrible experience with marriage and intimacy, wants him just as much, and that knowledge pushes Basilio over the edge. So they decide to live in the here and now, to create memories that will carry them through the years to come, when each must live without the other.
I felt as if I’d need a chainsaw to cut through the tension in this book, and there is tension on all levels. There’s the initial sexual tension between Basilio and Cassandra, which is deliciously taut and well sustained, even after they are intimate. Then there’s the question of how these two inherently honorable people will deal with a situation whose potential solutions promise misery to all involved: they can part, and be alone for the rest of their lives, they can continue as lovers, which would be dishonest and shameful, or Basilio can break his promise and marry Cassandra, knowing he’s dishonored his family and his mother’s memory. Aside from that, Basilio has a fractious relationship with his powerful and unpleasant father, while Cassandra struggles to come to terms with a side of herself that she’s repressed for too long.
While all the characters are strong and memorable, this is very much a hero’s book. Samuel has created a terrific character in Basilio, and the reader comes to know him inside and out. Cassandra is just as well drawn, but for me she always lurks just inside her lover’s shadow. Members of the St. Ives family play important roles, but they never overwhelm the protagonists. As for Basilio’s fiancee, Analise could have been the villain of the piece, but she’s portrayed in a very sympathetic light; something tells me that the author hasn’t quite finished with her.
It’s unusual for an historical romance to be set in Italy, and I very much appreciated the change of scenery. The first half of the book is drenched in the light and heat of Tuscany. Samuel is such a fine writer that you can almost feel the dust, smell the grapes growing, watch the sun go down in a blaze of fire. The contrast between this and the cold and gloom of an English autumn, where the story moves in the second half, serves to underscore the apparent impossibility of reconciling the two worlds the hero and heroine have known.
What kept this off my DIK list, then? While I realized early on that there would be no easy way out of such an untenable situation for Cassandra and Basilio, the ending left me just a little bit unsatisfied. I’m willing to overlook that, though, because the rest of the book is so enjoyable. With Night of Fire, Barbara Samuel proves that she’s one of the best writers of historical romance around. If you’re looking for a solid story with unforgettable characters and beautiful prose, pick this one up.