Desert Isle Keeper
Narrated by Nicholas Boulton
Having very much enjoyed For My Lady’s Heart in audio format, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to its sequel, Shadowheart, which picks up the story of Allegretto della Navona, the ruthless young assassin who was one of the major secondary characters in that novel. He’s certainly an interesting choice for the hero of an historical romance but I knew that if anyone could make a murderer into a romantic hero, it would be Ms. Kinsale.
She does that and then some. Allegretto is utterly captivating, despite the terrible things he has done, his wicked past, and his dark thoughts. At times, he’s so charmingly seductive that it’s difficult to believe he has gone through life leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake and then will come a moment when the ruthless assassin comes to the fore and reminds us abruptly of that fact. He’s a very complex character and his path towards redemption, both spiritually and literally, is fittingly arduous. It would have been easy to turn him into a tortured soul who was badly misunderstood, to build on those flashes of conscience he displayed in For My Lady’s Heart and have him reforming somewhat in the intervening years. But this is Laura Kinsale, and she’s never one to take the easy way out. Her achievement in making the listener care about a man without conscience, without heart, and, given his status as an ex-communicate, without a soul, is nothing sort of masterly.
It’s clear in the previous book that Allegretto is a terribly disturbed and conflicted character. The bastard son of Gian Navona, he was taught to kill at a young age and put to work as an assassin. He has never known love or affection – at sixteen, everyone around him knows what he is and what he is capable of – and they are terrified of him. But he also shows himself to have a conscience during the events of that story, especially at the very end, when he arrives at Savernake, the home of Melanthe’s waiting woman, Cara, with the latter’s six-year-old half sister, Elena. Elena is, in reality, the sole heiress to the city-state of Monteverde in Northern Italy, a city torn asunder by the feud between the rival houses of Riata and Navona. Elena had been held hostage by the Riata as a way of blackmailing Cara into murdering her mistress. When Cara failed and the Riata would have killed Elena, Allegretto spirited her away to safety and England, where she is brought up in the house of her sister and brother-in-law, with no idea of her true identity.
When, at the age of seventeen, Elena discovers the truth, she is distraught. She has no wish to leave England and wants nothing to do with Monteverde, but she is given no alternative. Her godmother, the Lady Melanthe, has arranged her marriage to Franco Pietro, the head of the Riata family as a way to end the strife that is tearing Monteverde apart.
On the journey, Elena’s ship is attacked by pirates and she is taken to the island of “Il Corvo” (the Raven), a man who is clearly much to be feared. He is also the most beautiful man Elena has ever seen and seems strangely familiar to her. Il Corvo is none other than Allegretto della Navona, the same man who rescued Elena from the Riata over a decade previously, and who now intends to use her to stake his own claim to the throne of Monteverde.
As the story progresses, Elena discovers an abiding love for her homeland and the courage to do what she must in order to bring peace. Her transformation from a naïve young woman into a forceful head of state is remarkable, although dealing with the nature of her feelings for Allegretto seems at times to be even more difficult than brokering peace between the warring factions of the Riata and the Navona. Franco Pietro seems willing to bury the hatchet but Allegretto is not – until circumstances force him to work with his enemy in order to prevent disaster.
As a piece of historical fiction, a historical thriller, a story of revenge and redemption, Shadowheart works brilliantly. The hero – or perhaps I should say, anti-hero – is an utterly compelling character who, despite his catalogue of terrible deeds, is devastatingly attractive and he is brought vividly to life in Nicholas Boulton’s masterful and multi-layered performance.
As a romance, I found Shadowheart to be slightly less successful. I understand that there was some degree of controversy when the book first came out which mostly related to the unconventional sexual relationship between Allegretto and Elena. It’s probably going too far to call it sadomasochistic, but nearly all their sexual encounters involve Elena inflicting pain upon her lover – usually by using teeth and nails, and at one point, a leather strap or belt – and enjoying it.
I can rationalise it, certainly. The first time they have sex, it’s little more than rape, and during that, Elena bites Allegretto so hard that she draws blood. That’s understandable as she’s trying to defend herself; yet even in those circumstances, she realises that she enjoyed both inflicting the pain and seeing Allegretto’s reaction to it.
Their sexual encounters after this follow a similar pattern, with Elena wanting to hurt Allegretto in some way, and he inviting her to do so. I can certainly understand that she might want revenge on him for forcing her and that he could be allowing her to exact it because he knows what he did was wrong. I can also argue that Allegretto is a man so filled with self-loathing that he would see that sort of punishment as his due. He’s a murderer; he’s unprincipled, ruthless, and evil so why would he be deserving of love or tenderness or affection?
Elena’s life has been turned upside down and she is completely powerless to do anything about it. Here is the most gorgeous man in Christendom – a man who has done innumerable terrible things in his young life, a man who is so terrified at the thought of losing control that it makes him almost physically ill – and he is offering her power, power over him.
That’s what my head tells me about why these two people might have entered into a sexual relationship based on pain. But my gut tells me that the whole “hurt me while we’re having sex” thing doesn’t scream “romance”. In fact, it wasn’t until much later in the book, where the relationship between Elena and Allegretto had to take a back-seat to the political intrigue and machinations taking place in the rest of the story, that I began to feel a deeper emotional connection developing between them, which, in one scene during Allegretto’s imprisonment was so powerful as to have almost made me sob out loud.
This aspect of the novel seems to polarise readers and I can see why. I also found it difficult to reconcile the seventeen-year-old Elena who becomes alarmed at the over-enthusiastic kisses of the man she wants to marry with the seventeen-year-old Elena who finds she likes to hurt her lover during sex and is comfortable enough with that to suggest role-play in the bedroom that involves her tying him up and slapping him with a leather belt.
I’m not a prude. I don’t read a lot of erotica, although I do read it occasionally, and I’m more than okay with raunchy sex scenes in romantic novels. But the infliction of pain made for uncomfortable listening and, dare I say, felt a little out of place in a romance.
That said, however, the parts of the novel that deal with the emotional rather than the sexual side of the relationship between the protagonists are very intense and deeply romantic. Allegretto’s concern for Elena’s immortal soul and his desperation at the thought of her dying unshriven are beautifully written, with the sort of emotional punch that made me feel as though my heart had been ripped out and stomped on.
Nicholas Boulton is narrating once more, and again delivers a superb performance. He perfectly captures Allegretto’s mercurial nature, switching seamlessly between devastating sensuality, ruthless pragmatism, and murderous intent. His Allegretto just oozes sex appeal, while at the same time flawlessly conveys the sense of the barely leashed darkness he carries inside him. I was bowled over by the raw intensity of his interpretation, especially in those moments which – metaphorically – strip Allegretto bare and allow us a glimpse of the man beneath the surface. The scenes that really stand out for me are the one I’ve already mentioned, during Allegretto’s imprisonment, and the one towards the end of the book where he finally faces his demons.
Although most of the action takes place in Italy, Allegretto’s associates are a motley bunch – Italian, Turkish and English – and Mr. Boulton navigates his way easily through a myriad of different characters and accents without putting a foot wrong, from the authoritative, gruff, Italianate tones of Franco Pietro to the quiet yet lethal Turkish servant Zafer and the bluff, English mercenary, Philip Welles.
His interpretation of Elena works very well, too, with her progression from girlhood to maturity being marked by subtle changes of tone and a growing confidence in her speech. All the secondary characters are appropriately and distinctly voiced and I did enjoy the brief reunion with Ruck and Melanthe near the beginning of the book.
While taking place in the same historical period as For My Lady’s Heart, there is much less use of archaic language and expression in Shadowheart. The author has said that this is principally because the characters are speaking French and Italian rather than English for most of the time (which is consistent with For My Lady’s Heart – when characters spoke in languages other than English, the middle-English expressions disappeared), so some may find it more approachable in both print and audio than the earlier book.
I agonised over a final grading for this fabulous, difficult, and sometimes downright uncomfortable audiobook. I loved the complexity of the story, the political machinations, the intrigue, and the setting. I adored Allegretto, the ultimate in dark and tortured heroes; I liked seeing the rather naïve and nervous Elena transform into a strong ruler and equally strong woman. I have to be honest, however, and confess that I downgraded the story a little because I didn’t find the sexual relationship between Allegretto and Elena in the early part of the book to be convincing or romantic. However, the intensity of the emotions in the second half and the beauty of the writing bumped it back up again.
In all honesty, Shadowheart is probably not a book for everyone. It’s intense, brilliant, and rewarding, but can also be very problematic. Yet it’s an audiobook I will certainly revisit as the performance was utterly mesmerising and, in spite of my reservations, I was completely enthralled by the story.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: A+ and Book Content: B+
Unabridged. Length – 17 hours 50 minutes