Book Review: Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale

I cried happy tears while reading this story.

That fact might prove embarrassing, since

a) I am not the type of person who would be expected to weep sappily over romance novels, not least because

b) I am a sadist. Literally, a dominant sexual sadist.

But here I am, all salt-watery with a tissue in hand, because

c) the heroine of this novel is a dominant sexual sadist–and also a youthful ingenue who finds herself in way over her head when she’s revealed as the last scion of a medieval Italian noble house, and joins forces with a beautiful assassin who overcomes his tragic past to devote himself to her and her cause.

I was once a somewhat ingenuous young heroine, though Ancestry.com hasn’t revealed quite such revelations in my family history. If I’d discovered this book sooner, I wonder what it would have done for me. Probably sparked a lot of light bulbs–though I may have taken it in stride. A voracious reader of everything from romance novels to Westerns to science fiction to historical mysteries, I was just starting to think of stories as something that could apply to my own life. Only once I did did I realize how few romance novels captured the experiences find most romantic.

And then Shadowheart gives me this:

He held her look. With a slow move, like a lazy caress, he touched his fingertips to his shoulder, to the place where she had bitten him. Instantly she felt a spring of hot sensation, a violent dream of her power to mark and wound him as he arched under her hands. He smiled at her, a mere hint in the greenish light of the storm.

Elayne looked down, snatching a quick breath, as if the atmosphere had closed upon her.  …She had never in her life before wanted to hurt any creature. It was not anger, though anger was a part of it. But it was more than that, more–it was all twined and twisted with the way he looked beneath his lashes and smiled as if he knew.

Shadowheart, pp 159-160

Even before he gets very far in his redemption arc, Alegretto’s already enchanting me with his submissive seduction, or seductive submission, or whatever this is–it just made me curl my fingers over my mouth and tear up. I didn’t even realize such active, teasing submission was a thing I could want in my relationships, fictional or otherwise. And Elayne’s reaction is described so beautifully, with complexity and sympathy. I never thought I’d see a woman’s sadistic desires written in lyrical, opulent romance-novel prose without having to write it myself.

In fact, though, Shadowheart has a lot of strengths in common with some of my favorite books from my teens and early twenties, with a big, twisty plot and rich historical and spiritual details. The medieval intrigue and adventures by land and sea bring to mind the Lymond Chronicles, though the dialogue is a bit more accessible (without being modern). The characterization-heavy politics and a soft fantasy feeling, from hints of magic–Elayne attempts witchcraft in her opening scene, while Alegretto studies astrology–to a fictional kingdom, reminded me of Kushiel’s Legacy for more than the obvious kinky reasons. And Alegretto’s religion-tinted and oh so stylish attitude, combined with his somewhat reluctant redemption arc, made me nostalgic for the Coldfire Trilogy in a way I get every few years between rereadings.

As you might guess from the comparisons above, this isn’t a particularity light and easy read. Tonally, it has enough shadows to appeal to my inner Gothic romance fan. But it’s Gothic romance the way I want it to be and rarely get–the way I yearned for as I threw Philippa Carr’s The Lion Triumphant  at the wall. Victoria Holt under all her pseudonyms is a reliable page-turner, and I fell under the enchantment of drama and danger, but when it devolved into an unending cycle of kidnapping and rape at the hands of a smug ‘romantic’ hero, I wanted to f–ing deck him. Or for the heroine to deck him. Oh yes, the thought of the heroine inflicting a little more discomfort on that guy appealed to me.

And this is where the review gets awkward. Because Shadowheart’s central romance? Shares more than tone with those Gothic romances that enchanted yet frustrated me. Content warning for the next few paragraphs. Yes, it’s for sexual assault.

Alegretto is much less idiotically smug than the heroes I hated so much, but he does kidnap Elayne, marries her against her will–all this is part of a somewhat complex political gambit–and their first sex scene is…well, passionate in some ways, hot in some ways, but ultimately, it’s not consensual on her part.

This is maddening, and heartbreaking, because I know that will be a dealbreaker for many readers, and I certainly don’t blame them. But there are so few historical romances with sympathetic sadistic heroines! I hate that people have to miss out on this one. I’m tempted to suggest you just skip pages 130-133 and pretend they happen differently, which is what I tried doing myself for a stretch, but some details of how that scene plays out are significant to later points in the novel.

Why did I hateread Lion Triumphant but love Shadowheart anyway? First, because Elayne does what I’d like to do to these asshole heroes–Alegretto deserves the title in this one scene–not with a punch, but with her teeth. That bite on his shoulder that he’s stroking seductively in the first quote? Yep.

And then this conversation follows directly after:

“It hurt,” she said between her clenched teeth, as if that were the worst of it.

“That did not please you?”

She looked at him. “No!”

He put his hand on his shoulder. His fingers came away bloody. “Ah, I understand. Only to hurt me pleases you.”

…”You may hurt me, if you take delight in it,” he said softly. “Only never outside of bedding, or with a weapon beyond your body.”

Shadowheart, p 133

Alegretto’s “That did not please you?” doesn’t seem sarcastic to me–especially because once he realizes she is into pain, only his pain, he freely gives permission for her to take what she wants, showing consideration for her desires within sensible limits (that bit about weapons is ‘cuz she also tries to stab him over the course of this scene. Which, again, he would absolutely have deserved). Submissives giving their boundaries is always hot to me, and was unexpected from this character of all people. He’s got a tragic backstory that could explain his utterly unreliable understanding of consent, not that it would excuse any of this in real life–but the story is fiction after all, a specific fantasy, and when I come right down to it, it’s a fantasy that has some appeal for me.

If more love stories that started with nonconsensual sex scenes had the heroine turn out to be a dominant sadist who later ties her husband up with tapestry cords in scenes they both freely agree to, if more stories with a conniving jerkass hero decided that the first time we should get his POV is when he’s flailing through subspace, I would probably be less enraged at these genre tropes in general. Not that I really want to see more unlabeled noncon in romance, but it’s an interesting experiment: given this combination, would I be able to enjoy such a book? Yes. I did.

Part of Gothic romance’s appeal is being able to embrace our scary sides, the things we like thinking about but would be terrified of in real life, the things we never want to do or have done to us, but find compelling to imagine experiencing or doing. Part of being a sadist is learning to embrace and channel my scary side. And submissive people can be damn scary, too–one of my favorite tropes is that of the dangerous submissive, someone who perhaps has to be bound either as punishment or protection from what they’d do otherwise. With Alegretto and Elayne, Shadowheart captures these tensions compellingly, and lets them play out in a distant yet richly detailed time and place held safely between two covers.

Shadowheart also avoids the most obnoxious and gaslightly of rape-as-love tropes, with Elayne’s outrage acknowledged and upheld as the correct response by the story. Alegretto’s not sexy or manly for what he does to her, and he pays for it, along with undergoing a hell of a redemption arc (pun intended…Kinsale doesn’t shy away from medieval religious mores, either). The narrative doesn’t pretend this was romantic. The romance comes afterwards, and it takes a lot of work–still not a development I’d find particularly realistic or heartwarming in real life, but one I can live with for the sake of a novel that does so many other interesting things.

/Content warning.

So yeah, there’s stuff here plenty of readers might bounce off of. Not only the above, but additional violence which isn’t shied away from, including torture scenes. Mistreatment of children. The alien worldview of the characters, and the very twisted politics–when characters aren’t betraying each other, they’re in an uneasy alliance with strange bedfellows , or stumbling into partnerships, or being quietly manipulated

You don’t need to read the previous book in the series to understand this one, though if you like Lady Melanthe you might want to

behind the scenes. Wait, that last sentence was actually a point in Shadowheart’s favor for me. There are also some refreshingly “modern” touches–yet based in historical precedents–like Elayne/Elena’s leadership as a female, democratically elected head of state.

Three other things about the medieval worldbuilding, specifically religion, which I liked even when I didn’t enjoy them: first, a nuanced, bittersweet handling of inter-religious relationships between side characters that I wish could have turned out better for them, yet which made sense in the worldbuilding. Second, the bit where Alegretto begs Elayne to go to confession, because surely being a woman commanding a man in bed is a sin, and he might be destined for hell but he doesn’t want her to go there too. I’m a heretic who loves overthrowing the social order and also a heartfelt, fucked-up romantic gesture with eternal consequences. Then later on Elayne tells him to accept her love as an inexplicable gift he doesn’t need to worry about earning, “Like grace.” I am a sucker for grace; there was moaning and weeping more happy tears. Lastly, there’s a very moving section at the end confronting the papal corruption of the Middle Ages and how that impacts the genuine faith certain characters hold.

Hopping back to the things Elayne needed confession for:

She slid her hands down his shoulders, down his arms. She caught his wrists and drew them behind his back.

“Do you understand?” she asked ruthlessly.

His fists closed hard. He had begun to tremble; she could feel it in his taut muscles where she held him with the lightest touch.

“Be still,” she murmured. She circled her fingers around his wrists, binding his hands crossed within her hold. She kissed his back and shoulders, opened her teeth against his skin. He tasted of sand and salt and water. His skin felt hot. He shook under the gentle stroke of her tongue and made a sound like a waking dreamer.

Shadowheart, p 236

That’s not even getting to the tapestry cord scene, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself, plus all the great scenes where Alegretto is sassily submissive and Elena is so innocent people completely overlook her capacity for sadism (and for political conniving–she took me aback in one scene, doing something I never imagined a romance heroine would be allowed to do. I was so pleased, yet a bit scared too).

Also, if you enjoyed the bit in Jupiter Ascending where Caine Wise asks for Jupiter’s permission to kill a man–in between all those “Your Majesties”–you’ll get a kick out of certain scenes as well.

For the first hundred pages and the last hundred pages, I was constantly pinching myself and skipping ahead to see–surely not? Surely I’d been misled again? Yes, the reviews on Goodreads mentioned she was a sadist, but could I trust them? She’s going to reform and become vanilla, or even submissive, by the end of it, isn’t she?

No spoilers, but: no, she doesn’t “reform.” In fact, here’s a bit from near the end of the book:

She caught the folds of his tunic and worked at the light belt that crossed his hips. He looked down at her as she did it, watching her as if he were bespelled.

The belt came free. Elena leaned and drew the velvet upward. He sat upright suddenly and tore it over his head, taking his shirt with it. She pulled him to her, kissing his chest, running her fingers along the fine shape of his collarbone and shoulder.

Shadowheart, p 430

One of the things I especially love is Elena’s agency, how she’s the one touching Alegretto, undressing him for the most part, and while he’s gazing at her adoringly here, frequently she’s the one to drink in his beauty (and yes, “beautiful” is the word she uses. Not to mention all those “softly”s).

On the very last page, even after [SPOILER] she’s convinced him to go to confession, and presumably has done it herself, so they’re both reformed and can hope to go to heaven together when they die–it’s that kind of Middle Ages love story [/SPOILER] Alegretto is still saying things that make it clear he’s at her mercy, and that’s exactly where he wants to be.

To summarize this entire book in two paragraphs:

“I am yours,” the pirate said to her. Softly. Simply. He watched her out of shadowed eyes. “To my death.”

…Black mystery and pain, and she wanted it again–she wanted him before her, his head arched back, at her mercy. The strength of what she felt, the power he gave her to hurt him–her desire for it shocked her.

Shadowheart, page 155

If that sounds like your kind of thing–if you’re into poetic and thoughtful depictions of kink, and especially dominant women, or if you love Gothics, or medieval adventure, or dynamic and complex politics, or dramatic gestures, or fantasy fiction, or all of the above–I suggest you make room on your bookshelf for Shadowheart. I’m glad I did.

Find Shadowheart at:

Goodreads

(I’ve also started a GoodReads list of Historical Femdom novels; please add to it!)
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