The Dark Knight
by Elizabeth Elliott, historical (2012)
Bantam, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-553-57567-5


Okay, pay attention, because the synopsis of The Dark Knight is going to be quite convoluted. We are in the late 13th century, a time when King Edward plumps his kingly rear end on the throne. Some Welsh lords are not too pleased with the situation, especially when King Edward demands a heavy tax and a constant supply of men to fuel England's war with France. Now, these Welsh lords may find a reason to unite and stick it to Edward: a direct descendant of Prince Llewellyn, the last great ruler of Wales.

This heir, Avalene de Forshay, has no idea of this, but she is suddenly in demand: Faulke Segrave, one of the most powerful Welsh lords in the neighborhood, seeks to wed her and thus cement his status as the top dog among the others. From thereon, he will rally the others to his side. Even better, Avalene is the daughter of Baron Weston, a powerful English lord. If Faulke becomes his son-in-law, Faulke gains a valuable English ally.

Naturally, the English do not want this to happen. King Edward's personal Merlin, Mordecai, has divined the future and realizes that Avalene must not be allowed to wed Faulke. I personally think anyone can deduce this without having to pay a magician, but hey, it's Edward's money. Mordecai brings in our hero, Dante Chiavari, to remove Avalene from the picture. Dante can do whatever he wants with her, but he must set the following in motion, as per what the stars told Mordecai:

One, make sure that Avalene does not marry Faulke.

Two, make sure that Faulke remains alive.

Three, Faulke must marry an English bride, because this will swing him over to the English side. I have my doubts about a guy's allegiance suddenly swinging to the other side just because he's now married to an English bride, but, judging from the excerpt of the next book, this guy is the hero of that book. You know what this means, right? The amazing power of the romance heroine's pure hoo-hah, to transform a disagreeable hero into a romantic geezer - coming up next!

Of course, Avalene's hoo-hah is pretty potent too, as the hero completely loses his dark and dangerous vibe once he dips his wick into that virtuous honeypot. But more on that later. Back to the story, Dante poses as Sir Percival, a gallant knight that is supposed to escort Avalene from her uncle's holding back to her father. This is because Faulke has pretty much blackmailed her father in handing her over to Faulke. Anyway, Dante as Percival shows up, but Avalene is unknowingly involved in some homegrown drama that eventually gives him a prime opportunity to go on the run with her. Avalene is convinced at first sight that Percival is the man of her dreams, so what happens when Dante is unmasked?

The Dark Knight can stand alone, but it is actually related to a book written by this author some fifteen years ago. Elizabeth Elliott really has some catching up to do, I tell you. For those people who have no idea who this author is - and I don't blame them - let me briefly say that this author writes somewhat heavy historical romances, with lots of details although I can't promise all these details are historically accurate. This one also features some intense drama arising from conflicted emotions, misplaced trust, and the threat of impending betrayal of the heroine by the hero. It could have been an amazing and emotionally draining read.

It could have been, that is. This story starts out fabulously - the hero starts out fantastically - as Dante coldly murders two people that are involved in the disintegration of his once-noble family without a blink, much less any hint of remorse. The twisted and fiendish reader that I am, I immediately sit up and pay attention. If Dante keeps this up, I'd be volunteering to sew T-shirts for members of his fan club. Unfortunately, the virtuous honeypot strikes again, sigh, and Dante becomes increasingly turned into a kitten for the consumption of genteel readers everywhere. He goes from a guy who coldly measures how quickly he can snap Avalene's neck the first time they meet into this protector type in a transformation that never feels organic or natural.

An issue here is the reason why Avalene should be kept alive. The author goes to some lengths to rationalize Avalene's continuous existence even from the first chapter, when Mordecai uncharacteristically tells Dante that there is no reason why Avalene shouldn't be kept alive. Avalene's death will only benefit England, let's face it, and yet, her death is supposed to be only a last resort measure. How does this make sense? And it goes downhill from here as Dante keeps saying that maybe he will kill Avalene but of course he never does. That guy comes off protesting too much after a while, if you ask me.

For a hardhearted assassin, Dante sure goes out of his way to avoid killing anything after his initial homicidal rampage. When he rescues Avalene from Faulke and his men, for example, he only knocks these men out. There is some justification given for this - and let's face it, the author has a contract to make a series from this book - but Dante doesn't even want to kill those men's horses in order to slow them down! No, he will just have his men take the horses with them. After a while, I am starting to wonder whether Mr Deadly Number One Assassin here can even kill a cockroach. Dante's portrayal is a complete cop-out - a disappointing wipe-out as he goes from gloriously sexy-evil to another generic emo dude.

And it is also disappointing that the only real conflict that stands in the way of Dante actually marrying Avalene is that he doesn't want a Welsh wife. His assassin gig doesn't matter because he's also going to be given a comfortable life afterward, and him marrying Avalene is actually advantageous for the motherland. Even Mordecai suggests this. So, after all that political shenanigan set-up, the real drama boils down to Dante being a whiny twit who isn't sure whether he wants to pay for the milk he's been getting so far for free. This entire book feels like a contrived set-up for the next book, I tell you.

And Avalene! She starts out like a naïve type who is nonetheless able to be run his uncle's household, but it isn't long before she turns into a prattling child-like idiot, constantly insisting even to herself that, sure, Dante has lied to her and what not, but their love is true, she knows it, and therefore, she knows he will love her back and they will be together forever, blah blah blah oh god, just shut this dingbat up already. It's lucky that Dante turns out to be such a dud, because if he were a genuine bad assassin, she'd be dead early in the story and the world will be a bit better for it.

Since Avalene is an idiot, she doesn't make Dante work or even sweat a bit for his deception. She's always willing to put out since she loves and trusts him forever and ever, so there is no intense emotional conflict here. Once again, it all boils down to whether Dante wants to pay for the cow.

Really, underneath all that "dark and intense big historical romance" pretensions, The Dark Knight is as deep as a puddle.

Rating: 57


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