Following a lengthy hiatus from writing romance while her “muse went on strike” Laura Kinsale has returned to her craft with Shadowheart. Anyone who has read Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart knows that Allegreto Navona wouldn’t be the average romantic hero. Although Italian thugs who kill people for a living are trendy these days, I wondered how Kinsale would make a silk purse out of a man with few apparent redeeming qualities. He could make anyone’s muse desert her. In the end what we have is an unusual set of characters, and enough of that Kinsale magic to make it work.
During the 14th century, years after their travails in For My Lady’s Heart, Elena lives a rustic life with her sister Cara and family. Elena loves a dashing knight, Sir Raymond, but her efforts with a love spell and the effect on the local chickens causes Raymond to cry off and angers the villagers. In shame she is sent to Windsor to appear before her godmother and benefactress, the beautiful Melanthe, Countess of Bowland.
When young King Richard’s uncle, the duke of Lancaster, learns of Elena’s presence at court, a series of events are placed in motion. Elena’s grandfather was Melanthe’s first husband and Prince of Monteverde, Italy. Monteverde has been at the heart of a bloody feud between two Italian families since before Melanthe fled to England and turned all claim on the place over to Lancaster. The families of Riata and Navona have used every means to hold power there, and now the Riata family holds it. Lancaster sees Elena as a perfect pawn to improve the king’s relations in Italy. He decides that as the last true princess of Monteverde, Elena will be sent there to marry Franco Pietro Riata.
Distressed for Elena’s sake Melanthe sends her off with cryptic warnings to trust only herself. En route to Italy, Elena’s ship comes under attack by pirates and takes refuge on a small island. Unfortunately for her, the island is the haven of Allegreto Navona, bastard son of Gian Navona and last surviving member of the murderous family. Allegreto was raised for one purpose, to kill at his father’s command. He and Melanthe have a history, and when he sees Elena, who looks so much like her godmother, he realizes who she is and takes advantage of his good fortune, forcing a drugged Elena into marriage.
Allegreto means to take Elena to Monteverde, kill his enemies and restore his family to power. He gets more than he bargains for. At seventeen Elena is just learning her inner nature. She’s made of strong stuff but has not shown her mettle beyond childish rebelliousness. She shows herself to be resourceful and independent, yet her youth is apparent, too. Her self-discovery is captivating, and when it comes to Allegreto, a bit kinky. It’s okay — he likes it that way.
The struggle between good and evil is the theme here. Most of these characters are assassins or at least mercenaries to some degree. Elena quickly learns what it takes to survive. Elena and Allegreto have lengthy discussions concerning the fate of their own souls. One of the rare and subtle moments of humor in the story comes when Elena lies in bed with Allegreto and says that they need to go to confession as soon as possible. She’s chagrined to learn that she is capable of inflicting pain on him. She can be very tender, and then use him like a feral cat with a scratching post. They really do seem a lot like amorous felines at times. The author takes a brave risk with sadomasochism. It suits these characters perfectly; however, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first.
The primary reason Laura Kinsale is among my favorite authors is that she portrays romantic heroes better than anyone. Their flaws and raw needs make them vulnerable and endearing. Her men rarely hit a false note when romancing their women, and the insight she provides into their feelings is an aphrodisiac that too many writers of the genre overlook. Allegreto manages to live up to the legacy - the love scenes work. Even though these two play rough, who can doubt that they are lovers in every sense of the word? One of the most compelling love scenes in the book doesn’t even involve sex, but a game similar to rock/paper/scissors.
Kinsale has the ability to bring time periods to life as well. In Shadowheart she avoids the Middle English that made the previous book such a challenge. The combination of characterization and historical authenticity seems so effortless on her part, yet the effect is thrilling.
Initially Allegreto annoyed me with his swirling cape and mystic hoopla — did I mention I was not a fan of his? However, Allegreto succeeded in winning me over. His age isn’t stated but he is still young himself. He is solitary, intense yet tender and truly opens up to Elena. He admires her, craves her passion and love. He endures (in fact enjoys) Elena’s brand of lovemaking.
Often a risk taker with her characters, Kinsale’s books don’t appeal to everyone. I wasn’t sure myself if I would be able to accept these characters at first. Their behavior is at times disturbing, and I didn’t know how their conflict could be resolved in the end, which of course it is. Still, I think any Kinsale is better than most of the romance novels you will read. Let yourself be swept into the story, told so well by the very best.