By Laura Kinsale, 1993, Medieval Romance
Berkley, $5.99, 431 pages, ISBN #0-425-14004-0
Reissue Berkley 2004, $6.99, 480 pages, ISBN #0425140040
Followed by Shadowheart
Whenever I start reading a book by Laura Kinsale, I expect an intense and compelling read, a complex love story that’s usually on the darker side, and at least one tortured protagonist. This mixture may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is definitely one I enjoy, and it figures prominently in For My Lady’s Heart.
Laura Kinsale is known as an exceptional prose stylist and talented writer, and I was therefore curious about how she would tackle her first medieval romance, arguably one of the trickiest periods to write about. Many authors seem to use this setting merely as an interesting background for a commonplace story with modern characters, disregarding some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Middle Ages or the way religion permeated those people’s lives. Not so Laura Kinsale.
In fact, when I began reading the opening paragraph of For My Lady’s Heart, I was immediately transported back into the 14th century, probably one of the darkest periods in European history, with its plague epidemics, peasants’ uprisings and religious strife. This rather apocalyptic mood also characterizes the prologue, which introduces the hero, Ruck of Wolfscar, at the age of seventeen. He is accompanying his wife Isabelle on her pilgrimage to Avignon, where one of the two Popes of the time holds court. Isabelle is a religious zealot whose mystical visions have led her to choose the life of a recluse. Although Ruck suffers from his wife’s rejection, he is willing to take a vow of celibacy and let Isabelle join a nunnery. At the last moment, however, he is prevented from binding himself to the church by a beautiful lady who tells the archbishop that Ruck will never be able to preserve his chastity since he has been harboring impure thoughts about her. She speaks the truth - Ruck has been haunted by Melanthe, the princess of Monteverde, ever since he laid eyes on her. The Church declares his vow invalid and confiscates all his possessions. Yet again the mysterious lady saves Ruck by bestowing two emeralds upon him which enable him to escape destitution and start a new life. Although his pride is stung, he secretly swears himself to her service.
Thirteen years later, a knight known as the Green Sire disrupts the New Year’s Celebration of the Duke of Lancaster and his guest, the princess Melanthe. He issues a challenge to all knights to fight him for the honor of his lady. Although Melanthe does not recognize him, she seizes the chance of escaping the Duke’s insistent courtship and declares Ruck her champion. When he manages to defeat all his adversaries, despite the Duke’s attempts at thwarting him, Melanthe accepts him as her escort during her travels to the English court, where she wants to reclaim Bowland Castle, her father’s inheritance.
In many of Kinsale’s romances, it is the hero who is supremely tortured, but in For My Lady’s Heart, it is Melanthe who desperately needs to be saved: saved from her persecutors, the houses of Riata and Navona, who are determined to get the Monteverde holdings by hook or by crook; saved from the bitter memories of her past; and ultimately saved from herself. If it were not for the insight we get into her wounded soul, she would appear cold and downright cruel. Ruck, however, manages to breach the barriers she has erected around herself ever since she became a pawn in the feud between her husband and two other Italian noble families. Ruck is the perfect hero to redeem her - honorable to a fault, bound to a rigid code of chivalry, gentle and kind. He may have lived celibate for thirteen years, but he more than makes up for it with his vivid imagination. The love scenes were both touching and funny - and really made me laugh about the side-effects of confession and the detailed questions of nosy priests, who unwittingly taught Ruck quite a bit about love-making!
As a matter of fact, Ruck is sprung right from a medieval tale of romance, and this is no coincidence: For My Lady’s Heart is partly inspired by the famous Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Various motifs of that tale are woven into the plot: the Green Knight, who sets out to challenge the bravest of warriors; the beautiful lady who tempts a chaste man; battles against formidable enemies; and the quest for a lady’s heart. There is one delightful passage in which Ruck tells the tale of his slaying a dragon, making use of the medieval verse form. At this point, I was simply awed by Laura Kinsale’s talent and her ability to recapture the magic and enchantment of that literature in her novel. A major part of the dialogue even contains elements of Middle English, and although I stumbled occasionally over one or the other expression, this particular language gave a richness and historical authenticity to the story that was quite extraordinary.
Of course, one cannot talk about For My Lady’s Heart without mentioning Allegreto, the fascinating young man who secretly loves and protects Melanthe, but is too enmeshed in Machiavellian intrigue to be morally unambiguous. Kinsale gives us just enough glimpses at his tortured soul to rouse our curiosity. Fortunately, Allegreto will get his own story: according to Laura Kinsale’s web site, he is going to be the hero of her forthcoming novel Shadowheart. In the meantime, I am joining the ranks of those who eagerly await Allegreto’s comeback, hoping that Enchanter will be a worthy sequel to the wonderful For My Lady’s Heart.
-- Vivien Fritsche
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