The Dark Knight delivers a twist on the TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) heroine. This heroine is TSTD (too-smart-to-die).
Gypsy horse trainer Sandor Matskella has come to Hawksnest, a deserted castle ruin in northern England, to execute Lady Gastonia Cavendish. His uncle was designated the kingís executioner, but he is too ill to go. Sandorís cousin has been imprisoned in the Tower of London to ensure his uncleís compliance. The death warrant stipulates no blood is to be spilled so Sandor decides to use a garrote on the old crone. He is to bring her heart in a wooden casket to prove the deed was done.
Tonia, however, is not an old crone but a beautiful young woman. She, along with several other devout young women, established a Catholic house of prayer for women (a nunnery in other words). This is the time of Edward VI, the sickly son of Henry VIII, and Catholic monasteries and nunneries have been abolished and Catholic worship outlawed. Tonia and the other women were tried for treason in a secret Star Chamber proceeding. The other women were freed, but Tonia was sentenced to death. She was secretly transported to Hawksnest to await her execution.
In executionerís hooded mask, Sandor comes to Toniaís cell in the dark of the night. She asks that he allow her a few more hours so that she can see one more sunrise. He agrees. Tonia cleverly nudges the moment of her execution into the future a few hours at a time until Sandorís emotions are so involved in spite of her non-Rom heritage that he cannot carry through his task.
How can he save them both as well as his cousin?
The first half of The Dark Knight (a misleading title since Sandor is not a knight or any other rank in English society) is engaging as Tonia shrewdly manipulates Sandorís reservations to save her life. He later says he knew he couldnít kill her the moment he saw how beautiful she was, but this may be his personal version of revisionist history. Heís certainly attracted to her beauty from the outset, but itís her orchestration of the situation which leads to his change of heart. If Tonia had been a classic TSTL heroine feistily baiting and defying Sandor, he would have had no problem carrying out her execution. (And I would have been urging him to do it!)
Unfortunately the second half of the book doesnít maintain its intriguing originality. Sandor and Tonia suddenly realize theyíre both in love and things quickly get very serious from there. All their difficulties - Toniaís death warrant, Sandorís commission, their cultural differences - are swept aside in a rush of passion. It makes sense that Sandor would fall quickly in love with the enchanting Tonia, but I have reservations about her love for him. Her shift from religiously committed virgin to eager sexual partner is too abrupt. Their circumstances are uncomfortably similar to those of the Stockholm Syndrome (where a captive is so dependent on her captor that she begins to identify with him and imagines herself in love with him).
The circumstances behind Toniaís death sentence are also suspect. By chance, this was the second book in a row Iíd read that took place in this historical time period and where the Duke of Northumberland is the villain. (The other was Jane Featherís To Kiss a Spy.) In The Dark Knight, Northumberlandís motivation for his scheme resulting in Sandor and Tonia meeting seems not much more than a villain does bad things. If the intent was to make an example of Tonia (that Catholic houses of worship will not be permitted), it makes no sense that she was tried, sentenced, and would be executed in secrecy. Furthermore, I thought the ending was most unlikely and too pat.
The Dark Knight is one in the authorís Cavendish Chronicles, but it stands well on its own. If the second half of the book had maintained the originality of the beginning, I would be giving it a recommended rating. But readers donít often have the opportunity to meet a TSTD heroine so this might be a good choice in spite of the unfortunate turn.