Harlequin Historical, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-29155-8
Historical Romance, 2001
Here’s an enjoyable unconventional romance. Unconventional as in it’s set in Renaissance Venice circa 1550. It’s also a story steeped in the Madonna/whore complex, unabashedly so, and I surprised myself by enjoying One Knight in Venice more than I expected – I usually hate these sort of stories. But the hero Sir Francis’s Madonna/whore complex is… fascinating to read, because he’s one obviously twisted fellow underneath his almost-seven-feet golden hero façade.
Francis Bardolph is in Venice as an English spy. One day he goes to get a massage from healer Jessica Leonardo and voila! He’s struck by her purity. Okay, Jess is wearing a mask, because she is scarred with a birthmark that make superstitious people think she’s the devil’s spawn. The Inquisitors of the Holy Office are happily executing people they deem heretics, and despite having converted to Catholicism, Jess knows her safety is still tenuous at best. But her purity shines like a halo, or something, because Francis sees her and that’s it.
But she doesn’t want this: an affair with an English spy, of all people! She just want a quiet, normal good-girl life… but one look at exactly how big a man Francis is, and she’s a goner.
The hero has issues with women. He thinks the worst of his tarty mother, he hates his mistress who tries to bear his child so that she can be his wife (we all know such harlots should know better than even try to beat the system, right?), and in Jess, he finds his perfect Madonna. “You are perfect, you can’t have any sins,” he actually declares at one point in his story.
But the heroine is more than up to gracing his pedestal. Virtuous, holy-moly, innocent, always in some sort of trouble, she will never, by default, be anything but “innocence in distress”.
But the author takes the trouble to actually go deeper than surface when it comes to her characters. Jess may be goody-woody, but she has no qualms in enjoying her orgasms. Her first demand, upon being proposed to, is “Teach me English!” At least she isn’t above taking advantage of life’s good things thrown her way. Smart gal. She has potential. Likewise, if Francis has issues with women, his dogged loyalty to Jess is actually touching. He has found his Madonna, and no one but Jess will do. He sees Jess in his eyes. He hears Jess everywhere. She must be his. He loves her. He actually admits it early in this story – he loves her.
And I am always a sucker for dysfunctional heroes.
The author doesn’t hold herself back too in conjuring vivid atmospheric description of Venice. The carnivals, the terror of the Inquisition, the romance of the whole setting that is Venice – just lovely. Atmosphere is not lacking here.
I could do without the irritating depictions of prostitutes and the stereotypical secondary characters. Still, One Knight in Venice is a good read with atmosphere and well-fleshed characters.