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.
|Review Date:||March 20, 2004|
|Book Type:||Historical Romance | Medieval Romance|
|Review Tags:||age gap | assassin | BDSM | Italy | mild d/s | royalty|
When I decided to read Shadowheart and looked up it’s AAR grade, I was surprised to find it so low and now that I’ve finished the novel and read this review, I’m disappointed to find that the sexual dynamic contributed to it’s B-.
The sexual relationship between Allegreto and Elena was complex and challenging, but I also thought it was one of the more brilliant elements of the novel. Elena underwent an impressive change in circumstances and as her confidence grew, those developments were intertwined in her command of their physical intimacy and her acceptance of her sexual preferences. Allegreto needed to trust Elena completely and confront his own demons; both themes were explored erotically and interpersonally. And while their communication wasn’t as formalized as say, the BDSM in 50 Shades of Grey, I felt there was a healthy dialogue about consent/non-consent, positive encouragement and individual pleasure.
I agree with the previous comments – the novel’s sex was in support of the character development and plot AND Shadowheart was exactly how it needed to be. If you’re thinking of reading it, doooo it! It’s absolutely worth it. :)
I rated the story rather more highly in my review of the audiobook version, which I thought was even better than the book :)
Oh, I’ll have to check that out!
The distinction between erotica and romance is that the sex in erotica is the whole point, whereas in romance it is supposed to be in service to plot and character development. In Shadowheart, “the image of one partner purposely and repeatedly hurting the other” IS part of the plot and character development — even if this reviewer found it distasteful. So long as Allegreto and Elena are in conflict outside the bedroom, their sex life reflects a struggle between them for dominance. Not to spoil the ending, I’ll just say that the last sex scene, at a point where they have lain down their arms, doesn’t include the S&M aspect that bothered this reviewer.
I reviewed the audiobook version of this for AAR a couple of years back, and while the S&M aspect was problematic for me, too, I agree with what you say here – whether it’s one person’s taste or not, the sex scenes in this novel do serve a purpose other than titillation.
I found Shadownheart very shocking on my first read. I had to put it aside for a couple of years. Then I read all of Kinsale’s other books, especially For My Lady’s Heart and then Shadowheart was exactly how it needed to be.