On the back cover, author Laura Kinsale tells her readers that she had to tell Allegreto's story, who first appeared in MY LADY'S HEART, having a will and life stronger than any fictional creation. I'm flabbergasted. I admit this is my first Kinsale novel and that I've never read MY LADY'S HEART, but SHADOWHEART belongs to Elena and rests on the strength of _her_ will, not Allegreto's. This isn't Allegreto's story, this is Elena's story with Allegreto cheering her on from the sidelines. Allegreto shows little will or determination of his own, especially compared to Elena.
I'd characterize SHADOWHEART as Allegreto's abiding submission and surrender to Elena's will and strength of character both in private and public. Similar to most romance novels dealing with the tortured-soul hero, the heroine (Elena) divests the hero (Allegreto) of everything he was or wanted to be (or thought he wanted to be), reducing him to lapdog status by the end of the book. As a side note to Elena's will and strength in ruling Monteverde, she also manages to lift the shadow on Allegreto's heart. I was disgusted by the S&M scenes, even those that didn't contain outright S&M still featured plenty of pain, Elena the giver, Allegreto the willing receiver. I'm not sure they're entirely needed, and the "love" between the hero and heroine just didn't ring true at all, considering the hero's lapdog status in the second half on the novel and his willing debasement before her during their coupling. Despite the later parts of the novel trying to show a deeper "love" between the two, I found myself cringing at the prospect of a coupling. It wasn't love, even in the end it wasn't love. The book does everything to make it seem like love and make it seem Elena cares for Allegreto, but I didn't glean any caring or love, only a twisted desire to hurt and have her pirate Allegreto fawn at her feet during S&M scenes in private and before Monteverde in public.
Such a shame. =Really= a shame because I thought Kinsale was fantastic in all other respects: solid prose, vivid settings and imagery, and a rich fabric of history which really had me captivated until the S&M started inundating us in droves and then Allegreto was reduced to a lapdog. SHADOWHEART also featured very engrossing plotting, especially for a "romance" novel. I found Kinsale's worldbuilding rivaling most accomplished adult sff worldbuilders too.
If only, if only...
I would organize SHADOWHEART into a prologue and 3 acts.
The prologue begins by introducing our typical headstrong heroine Elena unlike any other woman from the historical time period, dabbling in love potions and other unseemly witchcraft. During the "prologue," we discover that Elena isn't just any low-born English maid, she's a princess from Monteverde, a rather rich Italian province now ruled by Franco Pietro of the family Riata. In a marriage alliance between the English throne via the Duke of Lancaster and the Riata, Elena is shipped over to Monteverde for a marriage with Franco Pietro of the Riata.
The first act begins and ends on the island Il Corvo, where the exiled pirate Allegreto Navona (the Raven) abducts the Princess Elena of Monteverde and forces her hand in marriage and in bed. The Navona is an ancient, powerful, yet defeated Monteverde family on its last breath with the bastard son Allegreto Navona. The Raven is at his best here in the first act, intentionally dark, mysterious and mystical. The witty banter between the Raven and Elena is also fun, Elena holding her own.
The second act brings us closer to Monteverde, first stopping in venice and then finally in the province of Monteverde, at an abandoned and broken Navona castle. The Raven plans to kill his bitter enemy Franco of the Riata and seize Monteverde for Elena and himself. For 5 years the Raven had planned an outright invasion but a severe storm throttles his fleet and now he instead plans on a more subtle, yet deadly, assassination. We're treated to a brutal S&M scene, with the Raven submitting to Elena's dominatrix desires. In a very sick and twisted way, she loves seeing the Raven so helpless, so defenseless, in agonizing pain and so debased before her. The Raven loves doing it for her! The second act ends with a fight between Franco of the Riata and Allegreto, both severely injured but surviving. Elena steps in, assumes rule of Monteverde on the strength of her blood, and has both Franco and Allegreto arrested. She doesn't want Monteverde to bleed more from the bitter Riata/Navona family rivalry and instead charts a course for peace.
The third and final act flaunts in public what the S&M scenes between Elena & Allegreto depicted in private back in the second act. I thought Elena assumed control all too easily and conveniently with a handful of bandits as a force. I was shocked the Riata do not have enough to overcome a few bandits, I mean they've been the ruling family for 5 years! Franco Pietro discovers Allegreto breeded Franco's son Matteo to hate his father, and while Matteo fosters with Elena, Franco stays his hand. In true lapdog fashion, Allegreto chooses to be imprisoned so he can guard Elena from afar since he does not trust the Riata. Both Allegreto and Franco are awed by Elena and her decisive actions. Naturally, Elena broods over being ill-suited as a child girl to rule and be in the company of men such as Franco and Monteverde's councilors. Clearly her strength is on full display as she brings both Franco and Allegreto, both the Riata and Navona to heel, and rules Monteverde in peace.
Allegreto desperately wants to be reinstated into the Holy Church so he can be with Elena in heaven if not in this life. Predictably, the wounded-soul hero has relinquished everything he is to Elena, and now only hopes to be with her in heaven. All the while, the Princess Elena shows courage, cunning and aplomb as a strong and just ruler for Monteverde, again all too easily. There exists a couple of scenes between Elena and Allegreto, with Allegreto servicing Elena adequately when she requires it. Even though the S&M isn't as outright in the third act, there's hints of pain and torture in their coupling. I had to move on as quickly as possible through these parts, funny how I dreaded the "romantic" scenes between the lead pair in historical "romance." The book attempts to paint Elena in a more compassionate and caring light in the third act, all the while trying to show her "love" for Allegreto. I didn't see it, her brutal pain offerings to Allegreto (especially from the second act) just seemed to overshadow the "love" she allegedly feels for Allegreto.
The third and final act ends with Elena risking everything to be with Allegreto. Our heroine gets everything she wants, Allegreto to love and Monteverde to rule. To the book's credit, Allegreto does seem to act out of his own volition towards the end. He's rewarded for his efforts with a new title, Guardian of the Prima's Life and Person.
If you're an S&M fan, and find "love" in it, SHADOWHEART is just for you.
The book seems to suggest that finding such S&M scenes revolting is narrow-minded. For example, when Elena's maid Margaret won't openly or otherwise reciprocate another's love (Zafer) because he isn't Christian, we're led to believe that it's narrow-minded thinking (which it is). The Church, the Pope and Christiandom play a strong role in the daily lives of this historical time period, really constricting and stamping out differing ideologies. When Elena begins to think her sadistic desires are evil, or of the Devil, we can only infer we're suppose to open our mind to such coupling as a possible form of "love."
Maybe I'm just too square and narrow-minded, because I couldn't bring myself to accept the S&M between Elena & Allegreto for anything other than the way it was described: a feral coupling of animals utterly bereft of any heart or soul, much less love. I didn't find a human connection here or anything deep in Allegreto's naked submittal to Elena's sadism. Elena engorges on inflicting pain and playing the dominatrix while Allegreto relishes in receiving it.
She's sadistic beyond belief for a virgin 17,18 year-old, and everything else she says or does that seem heartfelt or endearing (trying to prevent Matteo from killing his own father, preventing Allegreto from killing Dario, stalling her marriage proposals towards the end) are easily overshadowed by her sadism. She delights so much when Allegreto bows, bends and breaks before her. That isn't love or anything deep to me, I found it sick. But hey, that's just me.
When Elena feels Allegreto won't submit to her sadistic whims at one point during the second act (or he couldn't continue anymore), she tells him she loves him. The book describes the words Elena says to him as if someone else is saying those words for Elena, far removed from Elena herself. Upon hearing those words, Allegreto melts away before her, submitting to her completely. Maybe I just don't get it, because I didn't see these words as a sign of affection, but rather a bloodthirsty and cunning manipulation, so Allegreto would submit. Elena begins to fiercely regard the Raven as one of her possessions, what with the Raven bearing all of her brutal marks. The Raven is a happy boy scout about it though, he encourages it and willingly submits, finding his own bliss in her bloody scabbing of his body.
Love doesn't have to be forcing your partner to debase and degrade himself before you, but for Elena, she draws a cruel pleasure from it. Some may argue Allegreto's character is very deserving of Elena's sadism. I'm not so sure, Allegreto's cruelty isn't nearly on display as much as Elena's...
If not for the S&M and Allegreto's lapdog status by the end of the novel, I would have given this novel the 5 stars it deserves. But I just couldn't get past the S&M.