Sometimes it’s hard to predict whether any single element in a story is going to be a deal-breaker or a deal-maker; you just have to read the book to find out. The intense, almost violent, nature of the sexual relationship between the hero and heroine almost ruined this one for me, but Kinsale managed to offer enough compensation in the form of an engrossing plot and her trademark lyrical writing so that I feel I can still give a recommendation, albeit a heavily qualified one, for the sequel to For My Lady’s Heart that we’ve all been waiting to read. If you like your heroes dark and tortured – well, they don’t come much darker than Allegretto Navona.
Happily ensconced in the English countryside, young lady Elayne spends her days in her sister Cara’s household, oblivious to the political turmoil surrounding her. Suddenly she receives a summons from her godmother Melanthe: she must prepare to return to Monteverde, the Italian city-state she left as a small child. It happens that Elayne is the Princess Elena Rosafina of Monteverde, only a half-sister to Cara; her grandfather was Prince Ligurio, Melanthe’s first husband who fell victim to the wars between Riata and Navona in northern Italy. Now Elayne’s political importance has come to the attention of the English crown, and Melanthe has negotiated a marriage contract between Elayne and Franco Pietro, the head of the Riata.
With no alternative, Elayne reluctantly sets out on the journey to Monteverde. Along the way, however, she’s kidnapped by Il Corvo, the most beautiful man she’s ever encountered. She should be scared to death of this brigand, but there’s something vaguely familiar and comforting about him. It finally dawns on her who he really is: Allegretto Navona, Franco Pietro’s enemy and bastard son of the man responsible for Prince Ligurio’s death. But he’s also the one who spirited Elayne out of Monteverde when the Riata would have killed her as a child.
Intent on using Elayne as a pawn in his ongoing feud with the Riata, Allegretto forces her to travel with him, presenting her to the world as his wife. He is willing to face his enemies, but being with Elayne means he can no longer hide from his greatest foe: himself. If he wants everything she represents, he’s going to have to come to terms with his truly wicked past and the darkness that lives inside him. For her part, Elayne slowly comes to realize that her fate, and Allegretto’s, are inextricably linked to Monteverde, and as much as she has struggled to avoid it, perhaps she would do better to embrace that fate and build a life for herself and her dark angel in the city that bears her name.
Here’s what worked for me in this book: I liked the heroine. Elayne starts out as a silly 17-year-old, but by the time the curtain falls, she’s grown up a lot, and Kinsale shows that growth in a believable manner. I liked the setting – it was so very nice to read a medieval romance set somewhere other than England or France. I really liked the plot: there are several nice twists to it, although I have to say that the identity of a major malefactor was telegraphed almost immediately after the character made his appearance in the second half of the story. I liked the fact that Allegretto was no cardboard fake-rake kind of hero: he had truly committed some awful sins in his life, and was willing to commit them again, and felt anguish over what he’d done and who he was. I liked the fact that a sense of religiosity permeated the characters’ lives, adding depth and verisimilitude to the story.
I did have a couple of major problems, though. The first is that the bulk of the story is told from Elayne’s point of view; indeed, we’re not allowed into Allegretto’s head until 200 pages into the book. He became more than just mysterious to me – he became almost inscrutable. One rule of storytelling I’ve heard of is to write the scene from the POV of the character who has the most at stake, and I would argue that Allegretto has at least as much as Elayne at stake, if not more, over the course of the book – after all, he’s supposed to be the tortured one, isn’t he, the more conflicted character? I would have appreciated a little more balance in the distribution of POV, so that I might have felt less distant from him.
But my biggest issue lay in the nature of Allegretto and Elayne’s sexual relationship. For starters, their first encounter is little more than a rape. More to the point, though, is that early on, Elayne discovers that she gets off on hurting Allegretto, and that he gets off on the pain: she bites him hard enough to draw blood, and he assents to it. At one point, they’re playing “Imperious Queen and Conquered Slave,” and she ties his wrists up and uses a whip on him. So, okay, I’m not so much of a square that a little game-playing, a little light BDSM is going to put me off; after all, I do read Emma Holly. But when I read something like this passage, I’ll admit it gives me pause:
She slid her hand down and covered the tip [of his penis]. He stilled, with fear humming through his veins. She pinched the tender hood between her fingers until he panted, gripping the sheets beside him. Then she drew down his sheath and scored fire across the head with her nails. He made a hoarse sound, arching to her. They both knew, they both had learned these small cruelties and delights quickly…[S]he reached back with one hand and caressed and pinched and tortured his cullions and shaft with her fingernails…exquisite pleasure as she hurt him. He thrust into her palm with a rough sob, his muscles working hard against the pain that was utter bliss.
Ow, and ow again. When I think of love scenes in romance – and I do mean love scenes, not just sex scenes – the image of one partner purposely and repeatedly hurting the other doesn’t fit, no matter how much they both may enjoy it. That’s erotica, it’s not romance, and I don’t mind it if I know I’m reading erotica from the start. But it’s pretty jarring in a genre romance, even one from a writer who’s been known to take risks, like Kinsale (who can forget Samuel taking Leda against the wall in The Shadow and the Star, or Christian and Maddy’s drawing-room tryst in Flowers From the Storm?). Even her marvelous writing skills couldn’t carry me past the borderline distaste that these scenes engendered in me (and on the subject of writing style, one minor quibble: it’s impossible to “hiss” a word or phrase that has no sibilants in it, like “Monteverde” or “Elena! Get out! Now!” This beginner’s mistake happened more than a few times, dragging me out of the story every time).
I know people have been waiting for a long time for this book – hell, I have, too, and parts of it are really well done. I was just taken aback by, shall we say, the intensity of Allegretto and Elayne’s sexual relationship. Knowing this, other readers may be better prepared than I was as they pick the book up and renew their acquaintance with perhaps the baddest boy in Laura Kinsale’s stable of unique heroes.