Prince Of Shadows
Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Benvolio is a Montague, cousin to Romeo although maligned for being half-foreign, born to an English mother. Benvolio’s job is to protect the hapless Romeo and the Montague name for they have been in feud with the House of Capulet for generations. Each of the houses seek to become the most powerful and the most favoured of the Prince of Verona. Although there is always bloodshed, the way in which it is shed makes a difference.
By night Benvolio is the Prince of Shadows, stealing from the wealthy and smug simply because he can. Whilst taking from Tybalt Capulet some valued possessions, he comes across Rosaline, Tybalt’s sister. Bound for the Church, she is bookish, the mere sidekick to Juliet, the House of Capulet’s hope for she is to marry Paris, the cousin of the Prince himself. Rosaline is at first, the object of Romeo’s childish affections and when their grandmother finds out, she sends Benvolio back to the House of Capulet to ply his trade and steal back Romeo’s thoughtless letters of love.
When Benvolio and Romeo’s friend Mercutio suffers a great loss, the likes of which changes him forever, he places a curse to exact his revenge. It is a curse that will claim the lives of many and alter the fates of both Montagues and Capulets alike and it is up to Benvolio to break the curse before it takes him and try and find a genuine happiness with the woman he has come to love.
I studied Romeo & Juliet in high school when I was 14 and that was *cough* 18 years ago. I don’t remember a lot of the finer details of the play, just the bare basics about Romeo, Juliet, forbidden love, warring houses, poison, fake deaths, real deaths, the end. This is a adaptation/retelling of Shakespeare’s famous play but from the point of view of an onlooker, Romeo’s cousin Benvolio, although he is really much more than just an onlooker in this version, being charged with keeping the hapless Romeo (who really is a bit of an idiot) out of trouble. This is significantly difficult for Benvolio – at the beginning of the book (and the play) Romeo is depressed because the love of his life, Rosaline, a Capulet niece does not return his feelings. When Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio go masked to a Capulet ball, Romeo falls in love immediately with Juliet, the daughter of the House of Capulet and about a million times more unlikely a match than Rosaline was, even though Juliet returns his feelings. The two houses would never consent to a match and the two young lovers are forced to conduct their courtship and secret marriage with the help of only a Friar.
Both Benvolio and Mercutio are embellished here, given more detailed backgrounds and characters although Mercutio retains the same humour and tendency towards losing his temper that occurs in the play. Caine takes one of Mercutio’s final lines “A plague on both your houses” as he is dying and spins it into something much bigger that affects the whole story and many of the main characters including Romeo and Juliet. It’s an interesting idea and it gives a little backbone to the star-crossed lovers, that it was something bigger than themselves, that they really couldn’t control it. I actually found Mercutio probably the most interesting character in this book. It’s unfortunate that his demise kind of prevents the story being told from his perspective because ultimately, I find him more enjoyable and more of a complete character. There’s no denying that Benvolio is really kind of bland – I think his nighttime activities are supposed to make him interesting, a sort of Robin Hood who occasionally does magnanimous acts but I’m not overly sure this was pulled off.
The book is quite slow for at least the first half of it – I contemplated putting it down a couple of times because there was just nothing happening except Benvolio creeping around at night, Romeo being mopey and Benvolio’s sister and grandmother being evil and unbearable. However the second half of the book does really begin to make up for the slow first half – the action becomes more pronounced, there is less repetition and the same sort of impending doom that hangs over Romeo & Juliet does the same here, not just because you know the fate of most of the characters but also the way in which Caine builds the tension as Benvolio strives to save the people he cares about and break the curse that he finds out has been brought down upon both the houses.
This is an interesting idea and I think it’s probable I’d have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so long since I’d read Romeo & Juliet. I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan (I blame secondary school for that) and I have tended to forget his plays the second I’ve been able to stop studying them. I also think that it might’ve worked a little better if it’d been written in third person narrative which would’ve allowed more from Rosaline’s perspective rather than just a brief letter/diary entry and also Mercutio’s perspective, which I really would’ve liked to have been able to to experience. As I mentioned, he was by far the most interesting character and it seemed that Caine gave him a lot of depth, perhaps more than Benvolio and a far more exciting storyline. His grief is so strong I’d have liked to have been in his head for it.
Caine should be applauded for something very different from most, if not all of her previous work. It’s not without its faults for me but it’s a brave story to tell.
Book #39 of 2014