Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 0-425-16232-X
Historical Romance, 2004
Hmm, I don’t know what to say. Laura Kinsale’s Shadowheart, which marks the author’s break from her long hiatus, is a disappointment as far as I’m concerned. Please put down the torches and pitchforks first, genteel readers, and let me try and explain why I feel this way before you commence with the lynching.
Our heroine, young Elayne, is a fourteenth-century dreamy teenaged girl living with her sister Cara and casting love hexes on a young man that catches her fancy. When this man decides to marry Elayne and files the appropriate paperwork with the local authorities, they both discover that Elayne is actually Elena Rosafina, the long-lost princess of Monteverde. How she ends up where she is today will be revealed later in the story. Readers familiar with the previous related For My Lady’s Heart, of course, will already know the story. Elayne’s godmother, Lady Melanthe, has negotiated a marriage between Elayne and Franco Pietro, the heir to the people that now rule Monteverde. Alas, her journey to Monteverde is disrupted when she is abducted by a brigand named Raven. Raven turns out to be Alegretto Navona, the bastard son of Melanthe’s first husband, Franco’s enemy, and the very person who sent Elayne away from Monteverde in the first place. No, he’s not the founder or performer for Cirque du Soleil, in case you’re wondering. The dastardly Alegretto decides to bind Elayne to him in a marriage based on drugs, S&M, and, er, I think love factors in the relationship somewhere.
Let me make this clear: I enjoy the S&M scenes. I may be in the minority here but I do enjoy reading love scenes that are different from the usual bluestocking deflowering acts. No, my biggest problem with this book is that for a little more than half of the story, I am allowed a glimpse into only Elayne’s point of view and she must be one of the most boring heroines I’ve ever come across. If this is a book by any other author, I suspect that the word “doormat” and “martyr” will be gleefully flung at Elayne. Elayne rarely acts on this story as much as she reacts, and the rare instance she acts on her own often result in unfortunate misfires. I am introduced to her when she is moping over the unfortunate results of her love spell. I am then subjected to long and tedious chapters of her letting herself be bullied and treated like a servant by her traveling companion on the voyage to Monteverde. And then I have to read about her wondering whether she enjoyed her drug-enhanced deflowering by Allegreto. This is followed by her telling her traveling companion that she slept willingly with Allegreto because she knows that he will kill this companion if she comes upfront about her being drugged by that man. And on and on. When she acts on her own, it’s due to the distressingly familiar “female” impulses: for the children, for the people, for love.
Sure, soon Elayne is whipping Allegreto like the best of dominatrixes around, but during coitus is the only moment when she actually seems to have some will to act on her own instead of letting her decisions be commanded by people and situations around her. I guess some people can say that Elayne’s dominatrix tendencies are representatives of her feelings of helplessness and frustration, or something, but Ms Kinsale doesn’t actually succeed in giving me that impression of Elayne. Elayne comes off like a one-dimensional martyr and doormat who is schooled into the fine arts of the velvet whip by a man who only offers her illusionary control in the bedroom. She does mature eventually, but the reasons for and the process of growing up are distressingly conventional compared to that of the man she is with.
Shadowheart becomes much more interesting when Allegreto’s psyche is finally revealed late in the story. Before that, he’s almost a ridiculous character with his pompously extravagant cloaks and postures, like a cross between Pepé Le Pew and some guy who tries too hard to be dark and dangerous. But when Allegreto’s psyche is revealed, he becomes a really interesting character – truly bad in every sense of the word and so ruthless that I must confess that my built-in Bad-Boy-o-Meter goes onto overdrive. I like him. I wonder whether he’ll still care for the dull Elayne if she isn’t so important to him politically.
Still, I love the S&M scenes. They’re well-written and unapologetically sensual. The later half of the story when Allegreto is given the chance to share his point of view is really enjoyable. But getting there is tough going as I have to be very patient with a disappointing heroine. At the end of the day, the very satisfying second half can’t prevent me from feeling nonetheless that Ms Kinsale should have allowed Allegreto to carry the story more. Elayne is too weak and too conventional a character compared to the unapologetically bad hero. She is just not that person to act as a compelling placeholder for this reader. In fact, I have this suspicion that I’d enjoy this book more if it’s all about Allegreto’s machinations with just a little of his romance with Elayne. Instead, there’s just too much Elayne in this story.