by Susan Wiggs, historical (1993)
Harper, $5.50, ISBN 0-06-108052-7
I wish Harper would reissue this masterpiece, because my copy is already tattered enough, no thanks to rereading. 16th century Venice truly comes to life indeed, adding splendor to a wonderful May-December romance. Indeed, until today I have read very few books that is as colorful and memorable as Lord Of The Night.
The Lord Of The Night - a title equivalent to the police chief of Venice - in question is Sandro Cavalli, a patrician who is fair and dedicated in his duty. When he investigates several killings involving mutilation of men, he comes into contact with beautiful, maddening, and not-that-innocent Laura Bandello.
Actually, he first sees her when she is lying naked in a fellow artist's bed. Laura is posing as Danae, the virgin princess offered to Zeus. She is a woman gifted with an artistic talent, and she works her way by posing as a model in return for art lessons as well as painting portraits. And in a few weeks' time, she would make her debut as a courtesan, a fact which outrages Sandro.
Laura's tutor, however, declares that an artist has to sacrifice for art, and he admires Laura for her intentions. (Artists. Tsk tsk.)
And since Laura lives in a bordello, she knows a transvestite who was the last person the most recent murder victim - a government official - spent time with. Laura also realizes that the serial killer may be closer to her than she thinks, and Sandro, already feeling enough attraction to this too-young lady (she is in her late teens, he in his late forties), has to muster up his manly protective instincts as well.
And hence the uptight, too-proper Lord of the Night finds himself in the midst of the world of artists, nuns, and prostitutes, all three not exactly mutually exclusive in the bewildering underworld of Renaissance Venice. Ms Wiggs really brought to life the underworld of Venice, where no one is one-dimensional. The artists, the prostitutes, the nuns, all have their stories of heartbreak and too-brief moment of happiness to tell. Even the villain turns out to be more pitiful than hateful, a product of careless and vicious patrician cruelty on the common people who couldn't fight back. (Let's just say the number thirty-one, a symbolic number in a truly heinous form of debauchery, will always cause a chill to run down my spine.)
Yet at the same time, the romance isn't dark or gritty. Laura is a strong, willful woman who is willing to risk all for her art. And her artist eyes fall for Sandro's weathered yet magnetic features. Slowly, she falls for the noble man in him too. Laura's growing attraction to Sandro is nicely captured in her paintings of the man - naked, of course.
Sandro, oh, what a man! Who says men over forty are over the hill? This man is a hunk. He is never cruel and always capable - a fair, judicious man who isn't afraid to unbend and change his world for Laura. From his panicky instincts to dye his greying hair for Laura to his final sacrifice for her, he is truly a hero in all the sense of the word. Noblemen who marry commoners by law would lose their status, and Sandro's marrying Laura would cost him everything he has. Does that stop him? What a man indeed.
There is also a touching romance between Laura's friend, Yasmin, who is kidnapped from her homeland and forced into prostitution, with Jamal, Sandro's assistant who has lost his tongue (literally) as a result of his slavery days. A woman who hates men slowly succumbing to a man who couldn't tell her lies and false flattery - now that's truly a poetic and moving romance indeed. There's something heartbreaking about the scene where Yasmin talked without fetters and inhibitions for the first time in her life to Jamal in her garden, and Jamal would just listen, not knowing that even then, by listening, he is making her falling for him.
That's what I love about Lord Of The Night - everything is real. The passion, the heartbreak, and the pain of betrayal and deceit are all vividly detailed amidst a backdrop where debauchery and religion coexist and art and romance are very much alive indeed. A breathtaking masterpiece of a read, that's what this book is.
This book at Amazon.com
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