The Dark Knight
by Elizabeth Elliott
(Bantam, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0553575675
*****
Elizabeth Elliott wrote several very well-received historical romances in the 1990s, then disappeared off the radar screen. (More on that in a minute.) The Dark Knight, her first book in over a decade, heralds the return of a strong, unique voice in romantic fiction, and it’s to be hoped this time she’s back for good.

Dante Chiavari is of noble Italian birth, but his birthright was stolen by a greedy uncle who murdered his family and whose lies caused Dante to be banished from his homeland. Now Dante is the English King Edward’s favorite assassin. But he is tired of the life he lives and his most fervent wish is to return to Italy and avenge his family’s deaths. Under the mentorship of Mordecai, a wizard who can foretell the future, Dante is given two final directives. One is to travel back to Italy and eliminate his traitorous uncle, an act of justice Dante gladly carries out, though he ends up with a young slave boy under his wing. The other is more obscure. Dante must abduct Avalene de Forshay, the daughter of a powerful Welsh baron, and bring her to London, thus preventing her marriage to the Welsh nobleman Faulke Seagrave, who plans to use Avalene to spark a war between Wales and England.

Posing as “Sir Percival,” trusted knight of Faulke Seagrave, Dante travels to Colway Castle, ostensibly to escort Avalene to the Seagrave estate. He is completely unprepared for his own reaction to the beautiful girl he must abduct, and Avalene is equally drawn to the handsome, mysterious Sir Percival. Avalene knows her father has arranged her marriage to Seagrave. However, her aunt is helping the castle steward in his attempts to trap Avalene in a compromising position so she will be forced to marry him, therefore keeping her at Colway and at her aunt’s beck and call. This gives Dante the excuse he needs to convince Avalene to leave with him, and they slip away in secret.

Avalene is a bit naïve, but she is no fool. Having been raised with people who valued her only for her beauty or her bloodline, she trusts very few people and can’t believe that a man as handsome and fine as Dante would really want her for herself. As for Dante, he has focused on finishing with his past as an assassin, but has given little thought to his future. Now that he has found the woman who has invaded his heart, he can’t believe she will return his feelings once she knows the truth about him. As they travel across England, pursued by Seagrave and his men, Avalene and Dante must learn to trust each other.

The story has many twists and turns. I have to admit, I couldn’t predict how the author would untangle her plot. Avalene is a significant political pawn because of her bloodline. Dante has lived the life of a hired killer – no match for a woman of her birth. Add to this Dante’s feelings of unworthiness and Avalene’s potential reaction to his duplicity, and the romance seems doomed.

But this is Elizabeth Elliott, and readers can rest easy. Dante is a dark hero, to be sure, and the political obstacles are real, but she doesn’t take the easy route. The plot unwinds in a realistic fashion. No contrivances to help it along.

I enjoyed both Dante and Avalene, though they are very different characters. Avalene loses much of her naiveté during the course of the book, but retains her essential sweet nature. It’s this very nature that calls to Dante, who is more of a tortured soul. Up to this point, his past as an assassin hasn’t bothered him much. Now he is forced to examine his past, and must come to terms with it before he can move forward into a new life and return to Italy to reclaim his birthright. Avalene can see his essential goodness when he cannot; he can see her strength when she is unaware of it herself. They’re an excellent match for one another.

While readers will need to pay attention, the political machinations don’t overwhelm the romance. The balance is perfect. Even the slight touch of mysticism in the form of Mordecai fits the period of the novel. Elizabeth Elliott’s website is well worth a visit to read her own take on why she was away from writing for over a decade, and hopefully she is back to stay. The Dark Knight is one of the best historical romances of the year and a must-read for romance lovers.

--Cathy Sova


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