Thursday, March 26, 2009

"For My Lady's Heart," by Laura Kinsale

Alternate Title: A Knight to Remember
The Chick:
Melanthe, Princess of Monteverde. A widow of a wealthy Italian prince, as well as heir to powerful lands in her own right, Melanthe lives a life surrounded by intrigue, stealth, and machinations, as warring factions strive to kill her, marry her, or use her to further their own agenda.
The Rub: Herself no stranger to scheming, all her hopes for escaping her pursuers depend on her maintaining calm, emotionless control. Love will only weaken her, especially love for a nameless knight who disapproves of her just as much as he adores her.
Dream Casting: Kate Beckinsale.

The Dude: Ruck, the Green Knight, a.k.a. Sir Ruadrik of Wolfscar. Years ago, when unfortunate circumstances left him nearly destitute, a random act of charity from a foreign princess saved his life, and he swore himself into her service, using her memory to guide his chivalrous exploits and keep him chaste for thirteen years. Now a full-fledged knight, he encounters her again...
The Rub: ... and discovers that his holy virtuous princess is actually an ice-cold bitch with a scandalous reputation, which doesn't sit well with the devout and rigidly honourable life he built for himself in her name.
Dream Casting: Hans Matheson.

The Plot: (the following has been translated from Middle English)

Ruck: My wife ran off to the church, and took all my money because Nun School's apparently real expensive, and I'm pretty sure I got put under a vow of chastity and I'm only seventeen! Fuck my life.

Princess Melanthe: There's a sucker born every minute, chump. Have some emeralds.

Ruck: What incomparable kindness and mercy! What a wonderful, amazingly pure and virtuous woman - I will dedicate my life to her service and purity ...

Thirteen Years Later

Melanthe: Hey, chump, I need you to kick your own liege's ass and destroy your hard-won reputation of honour and loyalty to aid my clandestine power games. Hop to it, Sir NoSexPlease!

Ruck: Fuck my life, the sequel.

Melanthe: Your life must be pretty exhausted now, chump. Why not give me a try?

Ruck: No! I made a vow to avoid the wretched sin of lust! I must stand firm...

Melanthe: Firm? I'm all for that!

Ruck: Oh all right.

Melanthe and Ruck: *quickie wedding*

Gian Navona, Melanthe's Medieval Stalker: Heeeeeeeeeere's Gian-y!

Melanthe: PSYCH! I totally don't love you Ruck and we're totally not married and your feet smell and don't think of following me because I'm a dirty whore just like you always suspected and by the way I hate you. Buh-bye! *flees*

Ruck: *follows* Hands off my wife! She's Mrs Chump to you people!

Melanthe: Ruck, what did I TELL you? GO AWAY.

Ruck: Your "Lassie go home" ploy may work with some Regency-era Duke of Slut, but I've spent thirteen years thinking with my better head!

Gian: Oh no you don't - *trips* *drowns*

Ruck: Huh. Convenient.

Melanthe: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Ice Queen, Slightly Thawed

1 Chivalrous, Sex-Starved Knight

1 Cute as Hell Assassin (who gets a sequel! Yippee!)

1 Rather Lame, Crybaby Assassin

1 Act of Lovemaking Improved Upon By Tips Administered During Confession (thanks Catholic Church!)

1 Crazy Bad Wife (deceased)

1 Ye Olde Perverted Stalker

1 Plate of Poisoned Shellfish

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

2 Cameos By Real Historical Personages (Eddie 3 and his fly honey Alice Perrer)

The Word: This is funny - in my last post, I was bitching a bit about how I don't enjoy a lot of the romances that were nominated by the RITAs this year, but that every once in a while a great author will come along and provide a reason for reading more romance. I mentioned Kinsale in the review because even though at the time I wrote that post I hadn't finished For My Lady's Heart, I already knew I loved it and wanted to raid all the Chapters and used book stores I could find for her backlist.

The novel is set in medieval times, around the decline of the reign of Edward the Third. Ruck, a young knight, accompanies his wife on a pilgrimage to Avignon because, upon his return from the Battle of Poitiers, he discovered his lusty wife had suddenly taken to seeing holy visions and ecstasies and is now wed to Christ. Riiight. Anyway, he hopes maybe a pilgrimage to the Pope's palace will shut her up for a few days and allow him to have sex with her again.

Turns out she actually wants to take the veil and swear them both to a life of chastity (for they're still considered married), and has also instructed the church to take everything he has on him (including horse, weapon and armour) to pay for it. However, he's saved from poverty when a foreign Princess he met at the Pope's palace takes pity on him and gives him some emeralds, enough to buy back his possessions and more. This act of kindness, coming at a very distraught time for him, provokes him into swearing fealty to her, even though he doesn't know her name and believes it unlikely he'll ever meet her again.

Thirteen years pass, and we meet Princess Melanthe. Being an insanely wealthy widow in Regency England was one of the few ways a woman could live a free and empowered life. Being an insanely wealthy widow in the Middle Ages, however, meant having a bull's-eye drawn on your ass with gold paint. Melanthe's claim to her deceased husband's Italian estates (as well as her English properties) has earned her the unwelcome attentions of several nasty Italian factions. One of these is the Navona clan, led by Gian Navona, who claims to protect her. Another is the Riata clan, who have peppered her retinue with hidden assassins.

Both factions have seen to it that any man who too openly fancies her hand (and the riches to be obtained through marriage to her) soon meets a nasty end. While Gian does this because he would prefer to marry her himself, the Riata are all too willing to murder her to keep her holdings from falling into the hands of someone too powerful for them to deal with. As a result, Melanthe's life is a tightrope walk, as she must constantly ply favours and play the factions against each other to keep their attention off of her. She's cold, cunning, calculating and distrustful of emotions - as they could too easily sign the death warrants of innocent people, not to mention her own.

However, Melanthe has been doing some scheming of her own. Plying the Navona clan with false promises to protect her from the Riata, she plans to flee to England and shack up on her own English estate, surrounded by loyal English guardsmen, before any of the Italian factions are the wiser. She figures once she has the home-court advantage, she'll be able to live by her own terms and defend her properties with clean, lawful steel instead of desperate intrigue, thereby gaining a measure of personal freedom.

However, her plans are sidetracked when she's roped into a dinner with an ambitious duke who unwittingly endangers both their lives by courting her openly despite her refusals. She saves both herself and the oblivious duke by manipulating the duke's nameless knight into serving as her champion. The Green Knight, whom we realize early on is really Ruck, is torn between serving his liege and serving the Princess. Ignoring his pleas, Melanthe orders him to humiliate his liege in combat, thereby destroying his relationship with his master as well as severely denting his knightly reputation. She then accepts him into her service.

Melanthe and Ruck do not hit it off right away. No sir. Melanthe has real trouble trusting, much less comprehending, Ruck's honesty and rigidly single-minded dedication to honour, virtue, and chivalry (and chastity, let's not forget that!). So used to pretty lies and poetic threats, Melanthe is annoyed, then intrigued, and then fascinated by Ruck's forthrightness and devotion to his vows. Ruck's reaction to Melanthe is a little more vehement. For thirteen devout, chaste years, he idealized and beatified Melanthe in his mind, only to meet her again and have his expectations shattered beyond measure. He believes her to be a whore, a tease, and quite possibly a witch. Of course, he aims just as much vitriol at himself - for being so easily taken in, or being so naive, for continuing to sinfully lust after her even when he knows her to be a manipulative harlot. Oh, the delicious drama.

However, the romance doesn't really get going until a false plague panic causes all of Melanthe's retinue to desert her - save Ruck. Melanthe, married to an Italian prince at age twelve, has spent her life surrounded by people - servants, advisers, her retinue. Quite literally, she's never been simply alone with another person in her life. Abandoned in a wasteland with only a knight for company, the sudden and utter removal of every reason to lie and scheme and play-act both terrifies and exhilarates her - allowing her to loosen up a little.

Or, occasionally, a little too much. Truly, Laura Kinsale's charactersation in this book is superb. Melanthe's life is so complicated, she wouldn't feel out of place in a George R R Martin novel, and thus her reaction to her sudden, freeing isolation is complicated as well: part liberation and part mental breakdown. True, when it's only her and Ruck and a desert, she no longer has to worry about being stabbed in the back or poisoned or tricked, but at the same time, all her points of reference for how to deal with herself are also kaput. She becomes childish and unreasonable, excitable and dreamy, frightened and adventurous, in one crazy mixture.

One of the most subtle and tender changes in her behaviour is the way she sleeps. This may sound weird, but hear me out - Melanthe, once she's with Ruck, sleeps a lot in this book. For hours. For days. But this is simply an indication of how swiftly she comes to trust and depend on Ruck - for someone who has spent eighteen years of her life sleeping with one eye open, she feels safe enough around Ruck to let all those sleepless nights catch up with her and drop off to dreamland at the drop of a hat. To her, complete trust is an unheard of luxury as decadent as silk sheets and chocolate strawberries and she will indulge for as long as she can.

And Ruck. Ahhh, Ruck. Laura Kinsale completely blew me away with her depiction of Ruck. I've read a few Arthurian romances where the heroes are pure and chaste and chivalrous and do craaay-zay things for love, and I've found almost all of them to be boring. But Kinsale gives us a knight who's pure and chaste and rigidly honourable and Chivalrous with a capital C - but blends it all with realistic motivation and heartwrenching pain. He may look perfect on the outside, but inside he's always praying for forgiveness and doing penance and doubting himself. He has a backstory just as complicated as Melanthe's that, also like the princess's, we only discover by bits and pieces to flesh out the story.

He also manages to be a controlled, strong, and confident character without being a stereotypical Alpha male. While he takes charge in dangerous situations, he always defers to Melanthe - not because he wants to, but because it's his job. I reveled in his clashes and confrontations with Melanthe - while both characters seem to be polar opposites (he is honourable and honest, she is cunning and calculating) at heart they are both control freaks who have built their lives around strict forms of discipline to protect themselves from the tumult all around them. Ruck clings to his code of honour and to God, in theory to keep himself from sinning, but really to protect himself from falling headfirst in love with a woman who could very well abandon him as Isabelle, his wife, did.

Melanthe, meanwhile, clings to cunning and deceit, always dodging, evading, always on the emotional and intellectual move. She's a spiritual nomad - always keeping herself in a state of intrigue and flux because it leaves her with options and exit strategies. Even as their romance blossoms, she always remains on the alert, always suspicious of treachery. Trusting Ruck is enough of a trial, at least at first.

One pivotal scene that really struck me about her character is when Melanthe finally meets Ruck's unique serving staff who have protected his estate. Melanthe gets on their bad side by identifying their seeming incompetence for what it is (actual incompetence), and immediately jumps to all sorts of conclusions regarding possible treachery - did they screw up Ruck's chance of inheritance on purpose? Are they whispering poisonous things about me to Ruck behind my back? What's their angle? This scene alone demonstrates so much about her character. She's spent so much of her life dodging shadows that she looks for them everywhere just to survive, and I couldn't blame her, even though in this case Ruck's staff are innocent of her imagined crimes.

I'm sorry if this review is getting a little long, but this book was just marvellous and jam-packed with detail on nearly every level. I'll try to trim it down. Did I mention that this book uses a lot of Middle English, particularly in dialogue, to the point where Kinsale has to provide a glossary, but she still manages to convey lively wordplay that flows smoothly and is understandable? Did I mention that she manages to find an understandable (and incredibly funny) excuse for Ruck's awareness of foreplay and sexual pleasuring despite being chaste for more than a decade? Did I mention all of the historical detail, all the epic battle scenes with lances and swords and armour described with lavish paragraphs? Did I mention how even the secondary characters and their lives are well developed and morally grey? Did I mention the gorgeous language and writing style of Laura Kinsale? DID I?

*pants* I still suspect I'm leaving out some crucial aspect of Laura Kinsale's awesomeness, but there you go. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. She creates a fantastic, fully-realized and original setting that serves as the glittering stage upon which a slow, subtle, and truly mesmorizing romance takes place between two very flawed, damaged, and beautiful people. I used to think chivalric romances really only worked in short format, because if stretched too long the story appeared stylized and unrealistic. But I used to think that way about fairy tales too, until authors like Robin McKinley rewrote them into gorgeous novels. Laura Kinsale manages to convey all the sweeping, epic grandeur, as well as the heartstopping romance, by keeping all the elements of a chivalric romance while at the same time shoring them up with historical detail, motivation and characterization that lends it depth, grace, and realism.

I've found myself another favourite author.


  1. Anonymous8:02 PM

    From reading your plot summary, I wasn't expecting an A+ rating. I guess that's why I don't read Medievals.

    To each his own and all that. ;-)

  2. I always try to make the plot summaries funny, whether the books are good or not. I'd check this book out, though. It might surprise you. ^_^ It certainly did me.

  3. I love me some Laura Kinsale and I've read just about every book she's written. So I have no idea why, but I hit a block every time I try and read this book. It's not the old English - that doesn't bother me. I WANT to read this book - it's been Very Well received. It's a medieval and I love that genre. But I don't know what it is. I've tried FOUR different times to read it and I just can't seem to get into it.

  4. Kristie J --> Don't worry - I've had that problem with Very Well Received books. My mum and I love fantasy books, but as much as she's suggested it, I've tried reading Anne McCaffery's "Dragonriders of Pern" THREE TIMES and have never finished it. I just couldn't get into that series at all.

  5. Anonymous9:07 AM

    I'm like that with Jane Austen. I have tried to read every one of her novels but just can't. I always put them aside unfinished.

  6. Vorkosigrrl10:45 AM

    Ah, AnimeJune. I agree, I agree, I agree, I agree, I agree. LOVE this book. LOVE it. Did I mention I LOVE it?

    Now if I can just get you to read some Lois McMaster Bujold. . . . . heh,heh, heh.

  7. Vorkosigrrl --> I've read Lois McMaster Bujold - starting with "Paladin of Souls." I didn't review it at the time because, although it was excellent, it seemed more fantasy with romantic elements than romance.

    The first book in "The Sharing Knife" series in on my TBR pile.

  8. Vorkosigrrl11:17 AM

    Yes, Lois isn't really a romance writer. With The Sharing Knife, she set out to write a "real" romance. I wasn't too happy with that series (it's really one large book in 4 volumes). Just didn't feel a personal relationship with it. But I bought 'em all, anyway, because she's my favorite author of all time, and I want to support her.

    Paladin of Souls is one of my favorites. I love all three of her "5-gods" series, and also the Vorkosigan series (obviously), though the Vorkosigan books are, for the most part, not at all romantic. At least not in the sense of the word we are using. Maybe in a literary sense.

  9. Great review for a great book. One of the best romances I've read. And considering the use of Middle English, that is an accomplishment indeed.