My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
For me, storywise Dante’s book wasn’t as per my expectations. Somehow I was hoping for something more. I, again, felt that the story was dragging in the middle, without anything interesting happening. At times, I found Avalane quite the wishy-washy thing too. But there are good things in this book as well, one of them is definitely Dante himself. He was just... so romantic. I wasn’t impressed by him in Betrothed but WOW, I saw a really different man in here. Totally enjoyed EE’s writing and all the historical connections as usual.
This story takes place 5 yrs after Betrothed. In there, we knew that Dante was working as King Edward I’s personal assassin. There were many conflicts and Dante’s boorish activities pissed me off. But his sister and only living relative, Claudia fell in love and finally married Guy, who loved her back equally.
His childhood was a tragic one. Dante’s parents died because of a betrayal done by his aunt’s husband, Lorenzo. This man poisoned Dante’s father, an Italian merchant and his mother, an Englishwoman, was later murdered with torture, also by Lorenzo. The three siblings, Roberto, Dante and Claudia were cast off from Italy with a scheme which and robbed off their inheritance. I don’t clearly remember how they survived but Claudia was left in the care of their mother’s brother, another greedy bastard called Lonsdale. Roberto turned into a hired mercenary and as he was a impetuous man, he paid for his rash decisions with his life (in The Warlord).
Now, Dante was taken in by a King’s adviser called Mordecai, who is a magician and has sights into the future. Mordecai trained Dante to be a weapon of destruction, with all kinds of skills. Dante is very handy with various weapons as he is good at being a chameleon. For many years he has killed on the King’s command; all traitors of the crown one way or the other. This, of course, shaped Dante and even though he can be called very efficient, in the core, there was a softness still lurking because the man inside, before he became what he is today, used to wear his heart in his sleeves. And, even though Dante doesn’t let remorse take him over, he was still bombarded by those after he met Avalene.
But recently, Dante has been wanting out of it. His next plan is to return to Italy and take revenge on Lorenzo, his one life’s goal that can’t be avoided. He also aims to take back his inheritance and the family Palazzo, a place he once called home. But today, he meets Mordecai for one last mission. Mordecai uses tarot cards to tell his future, which entwines with someone named Avalene. She is the last descendant of the late Welsh Prince Llewellyn. There are some historical notes here, for which Avalene’s ancestry can’t become public. Also, another prominent Welsh family, the Segraves, who are trying to rebel against the King, has to be stopped. And the leader of the rebels, Faulke, is apparently betrothed to Avalene; a marriage that can bring disaster for the King. Faulke needs an heir and a descendant of the last Welsh prince can make him very powerful indeed. Dante has to stop this from happening. Mordecai tells Dante that he can do anything he wants with Avalene, also that killing her won’t be of any use. But what Mordecai doesn’t clarify is that Dante’s own fate is intertwined with Avalene’s and leaves it find it out for himself. Dante is reluctant. He needs to be at Italy but because Mordecai tells him this is the King’s wish, Dante resigns to another mission.
When Avalene’s mother died leaving her young, her Marcher baron father left her in his sister’s care. Avalene’s aunt never abused her or anything but never really loved her either. But the woman never shied away from using Avalene’s help in running her keep. Avalene has been a chatelaine since she grew older. Her aunt and uncle, Lord Brunor, were clearly self-serving people. I disliked them both. And then there was their steward, John, who has been after Avalene and made her life hell. He’s always demeaning her every efforts and charmed his way into the bosom of both the lord and the lady of the manor. Avalene hated the man. She was also hurt by her father’s treatment but she tried to be happy, keeping her aunt happy and never really complaining.
While there, we get to see plenty of that drama in Lord Brunor’s keep. Avalene already knew that she was almost betrothed to Faulke, heir to one of the most important Welsh families called Segraves, though she never saw him. But duty is everything to Avalene and even after her father’s negligence after his second marriage, Avalene would do her duty. Now, the funny thing was, since Lord Brunor was nearly blind, people wore different colors of dresses to mark their rank. Avalene and John wore red. For a few days, they’ve been waiting for a man from Baron Weston, Avalene’s father, to arrive. They’re surprised when the man, Sir Pericval arrives early. Avalene is very interested to know what her father has to say and so she spies on the handsome Percival from the upper story alcove, which needed repairing. As they speak about Avalene’s future, she tries to eavesdrop. Suddenly, the wood gives away and Avalene falls right into Sir Percival’s arms!
Dante already knew of the plan, that he has to take away Avalene from her aunt’s household ASAP. So after his arrival and a very convincing introduction, he tells the Baron that Weston wants her daughter to be taken to his household before marriage. Of course the message was false, and Dante doesn’t care to know how Mordecai came by the realistic seal. When Weston’s so-called wishes were made known, immediately Margaret and John begin whining and Dante knew they won’t let her go. The Baron seemed stoic. Then, he has already spied the girl on the alcove above and was amused. By her dress color, Dante thought she was the steward’s wife but soon his assumptions were corrected. Dante also instinctively knew that the wood would gave away and he discreetly places himself where he can catch her… which he does a few minutes later. Then he realizes a few things; one, this is his victim and not the steward’s wife. Two, she felt just right in his arms. She was also wearing the Chiavari color, red (dress) and gold (her blonde hair). Dante, very unexpectedly, feels a pull towards her, as everything fell away when he looked into her eyes. He saw that they reflected back his own reactions. It shakes Dante badly. The king’s personal assassin can’t feel strong emotions like this, ever! Dante has kept his emotions in check for the most part of his life but this girl, she seems to undo everything he has worked for. On the other hand, Avalene was lost in Sir Percival’s eyes too. She already loved his voice. He made her forget everything around her but reality soon kicks in. Aunt Margaret was talking about the living arrangements for Percival and it was certain that she wanted him to live in the family quarters.
Now, there was an evil plan, concocted by the aunt. She was totally taken in by John and wanted Avalene to stay here and work her arse off for the rest of her life. But Avalene would get away from here, no matter what. Margaret’s plan was to compromise Avalene with the knight. There’s a convoluted means to this, which would somehow help her achieve her goal. Later she can marry Avalene off to John. But, Avalene hears of it when she accidentally eavesdrops as her aunt and uncle fight about it. Dante already knew of it from the Baron himself, who was annoyed by his wife’s machinations. This information helped both Dante and Avalene later.
Avalene had no idea who really this Percival was but she decides to ask for his help. At night, when she wakes from a nightmare, she finds Percival in her room. She was, at first, a bit apprehensive but soon, she gives into the feeling of security that she feels whenever he’s near. He’s so perfect, in looks and his behavior, that Avalene can’t help but fall a little and become dazed as she stares at him. Later they plan to run away in very next morning since there wasn’t much time. The next morning, the plan works perfectly, as most of the people of the castle were out on a hunt. The guards seeing Percival with Avalene let them pass. Avalene didn’t question him anything, she trusted him that much. But Dante knew that if she knew of the depth of his betrayal, his goal would be lost. Dante wants to take her away to Italy and make her his mistress. Oh he wants her alright but Dante is still a moron and thinks he won’t marry any English miss but an Italian noblewoman when he gets back to Venice after this mess was sorted out.
Now, to the matter of revenge, Dante has already meted out his own form of justice to Lorenzo and his conniving longtime mistress as it was seen soon after his meeting with Mordecai. I’m not sure when he made the time but Dante was in Venice, in his house, where Lorenzo was now living. He comes in with his mistress and was talking about how to thwart Dante and so on. I leave you to decipher how he poisoned them but Lorenzo took the most of it. We observe the cold, ruthless side of Dante through this demonstration, the way he kills the mistress without even giving her a chance to be surprised. Then as Lorenzo lay dying from the poison, Dante made sure he knew of his identity, what Lorenzo’s mistress did to his own kids and to Dante’s aunt. He wanted Lorenzo to know every bit of the sordid detail. But the joke was on him too, as Dante knew the man can’t talk back. It was a chilling scene and I thought, was done extremely well. On his way out, Dante remembers the Circassian young boy who was the poison tester and was now chained as a guard beside his master’s door. I was saddened by the truth of how the mixed raced kids were used in such a horrible way, treated lesser than a street dog. Dante knew he has to get rid of him but when he stealthily has a look, he finds the boy awake. As he takes a look at the bodies, the boy’s eyes seemed resigned to his fate. Then we see the different Dante; a man who with a soft heart. That look in the boy’s eyes gave way in his heart. I had tears forming here, as it warmed my heart and I knew I’d end up loving Dante sooner or later. Dante notices that the boy is malnourished. Dante finds out the boy’s name, Rami, and takes him with him. Later, we frequently see Rami and some of his funny antics throughout the book.
While in the journey, Avalene meets Oliver and Armand, two of Dante’s men (introduced in Betrothed) but she doesn’t question why only two men. Dante explains something about getting away easier with fewer men and she believes in it. And she believes in him for a time being, before Faulke finds her out and rescues her from the King’s assassin. But in between, they kissed and so on, with Avalene dreaming away about her Sir Knight. I begin to feel uncomfortable because I didn’t like Dante’s thoughts on duping Avalene. It pissed me off that he’d take advantage of her in this way. As Faulke takes her back, Dante knew his plan has come to an end. But, by then, it was clear that his emotions were deeper than simple lust. So Dante follows them. Meanwhile, Avalene learns of Dante’s treachery from her future husband but she can’t believe any of it. How could her gallant Knight be the king’s Assassin? A man no one has lived to talk about, while others fear? At this point of the story, I began to feel a little restless because I thought nothing interesting was happening. I don’t know but maybe I expected more actions or something.
Avalene resigns to the fact that she’d have to marry Faulke, who, even though strong and attractive, doesn’t make her heart sing like Percival (note, she still didn’t know Dante’s real name). And, then Faulke came off as a cold individual, whose only target in life was to create rebellions in Welsh at any cost. He didn’t care what he has to do to get it and there was a healthy dose of blackmailing involved from his side, which concerned Lord Weston. Now, gotta talk about him. Faulke, though young still, is his father’s only heir and so, he needs to beget an heir at any cost to keep his lineage alive. Faulk has already been married thrice and widowed, has 3 young daughters, information that didn’t make me swoon over him, can tell you that! It was hinted that his wives died of mysterious causes, which means there are whispers of murders. His father is a greedy bastard as we saw in the later part of the story, and it was also hinted that he was behind those murders because of his own ambitions. I don’t know what Faulke’s thoughts were though but he’s determined to marry Avalene because of her link to Prince Llewellyn and how it’d further his cause. But even a really good fighter and all that, he’s no match for Dante’s trickery as it was proven soon enough.
Dante uses poison but doesn’t kill Faulke or his men. When all, including Avalene, are unconscious from the poison’s effect, he and his men ties them up and takes Avalene. She is sick for quite sometimes as the poison took time to wear off. She tries her best to hate this man but to no avail. There’s something about this man doesn’t click to her as a villain. Then Dante decides to open up about himself to Avalene. At this point, he was desperate to let her see the side of his that no one really ever saw. He opens up about everything and I appreciated Avalene trusting him. TBH she never really faltered on that regard. It was something Dante definitely needed; this unfailing, absolute trust from her, to deem himself worthy enough. Avalene has already spoken much about herself to him before.
At some point, both realize that they’re in love. There was just no denying it. Dante tells her that he’d take her to London because they need to do something about this situation. In an abandoned barn, while resting, their relationship goes somewhat intimate but Dante doesn’t take it further because he wanted her first time to be special. And this wasn’t the first time where Dante has been so very considerate of Avalene’s needs, though many-a-times he tried to convince himself that it was for selfish reasons. But now, Dante is determined to fight his cause in front of the King and break the betrothal. He doesn’t want her to be his mistress anymore but his lady in every sense word. The scenes in London were interesting and Dante’s huge palace, which was owned by some Earl whom Dante himself executed on the King’s behalf, too. I loved this scene when, after seeing Dante’s vast wealth, a dazed Avalene thinks how foolish it was of her to think that Dante was a lesser knight. Then she hears of the Earl’s name and guesses correctly from Dante expression as to what happened. But she doesn’t force him to tell her, even when he offered it. Avalene knew instinctively that it’s not a topic he would feel comfortable talking about. I totally applauded her understanding of Dante, which amazed him more than once and drew him to her in the first place.
Avalene is in shock learning of the extent of Dante’s wealth, more so when Dante explains to her that he’s indeed a nobleman’s son and his title can equal to that of an English earl. Even though she’s already decided that no matter what, she’d give herself to him, still she felt uneasy when the time came. And funny too, when Dante realized she’s not as knowledgeable about sex as he initially thought her to be. But everything went well, making them both realize how perfect they’re for each-other.
It is in London where things started picking up in the story for me. Dante was already making his own plans about what to do, including meeting up with Mordecai for help. By now, Dante understood the magician’s intents and the meaning of his words and the cards delivered to him throughout the journey. The King’s recently widowed daughter, Isabella, was already in residence in his castle by the king’s order when they arrived. Dante didn’t like this invasion of privacy at all. Then Isabella decides to pay a call when Dante fails to present himself on her summons. He went to meet with Mordecai instead. With her, Isabella brought some of her husband’s German servants who are totally devoted to her. She was quite insufferable with her snotty ‘princess’ ways and all that pink, white and gold dress code. I mean every single servant and soldiers, including herself, wearing that shade must’ve been trying on the eyes of the others!
Avalene, who has never met royalty, is in awe of Isabella, as she was when she first set foot in London. But, Isabella’s personal guard insults Avalene in front of everyone, calling her a whore. Now, I got pissed at Avalene’s thoughts here as she told herself, of course she’s a whore as she’s now living in sin with a man. Of course she should take herself away from Isabella because she doesn’t belong there in front of royalty. I mean WTF?? Woman, you love that man and he loves you back. How can you think this way? I did wish to see some fire from her time and again, which never happened. Anyway, Armand, who was now devoted to Avalene’s honor as he knew of her place in Dante’s life, comes forward to preserve it. Before things got out of hand, Dante is there and showers so much affection and love to Avalene, that it made me swoon. *sigh* Isabella couldn’t help but notice that there is much more into this relationship than they initially believed. She then invites Avalene to accompany her every day for a few hours, to allay her boredom no doubt.
There were new twists here. Dante also paid a call to the King and learned that there is a new betrothal contract being processed, approved by the King and Faulke’s father, the greedy bastard. But this time, it involves Isabella too. Edward wants Isabella to marry again, to Faulke. There was a sneaky plan underneath. Faulke’s father was thinking of the all the wealth and title the King would bestow but what they didn’t know that Isabella is really barren and that her husband wasn’t impotent, as it was bandied about later to protect Isabella’s interest. As the princess herself hears of it, she sees the joke and asks many questions to Avalene, who knew much about Faulke’s family. She also her her own plans in mind... I won’t go into the last climax and how the whole thing was brilliantly solved for Dante and Avalene, so you have to find it out for yourself.
Now, TBH, I wasn’t looking forward to Faulke and Isabella’s book, which would be out next as per EE’s website. I didn’t find them interesting enough. But after reading the excerpt I’ve changed my mind. It was intriguing and now, waiting for that book. I hope it’s out soon! Meanwhile, for The Dark Knight, 4 stars.
[review edited on July 2018 after The Princess was released. Yep it took 6 yrs.!]
This ARC was provided to me by Random House/Bantam Dell via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.