Rome in the Dark Ages: squalid, vulgar, ragged, former glory long gone. It's a wonderful setting, rich in irony. As one raised in the seaport of Genova, in the shadow of medieval structures city gates, castle walls, ruined watchtowers I was fascinated by the tarnished splendor of a once-great empire and the intrigue within.

Alice Borchardt, Devoted, Beguiled, masterfully places the reader squarely amidst a Rome devastated by invasion, inflation, poverty, decadence, and religio-political squabbling. In this drab, open-sewer city, crass Gundabald and his stupid son Hugo have come to wine and wench away the last of their money. Amidst their decadence, they are to arrange a marriage for Regeane Gundabald's niece, left in his "care" since the death of her mother. They hope to score big, since Regeane is distantly related to King Charlemagne.

Beautiful but coarse, given her barbarian background, Regeane is naive yet incredibly intuitive. She bears the burden of a supernatural gift that is more often a curse. Like her murdered father, Regeane is a shapeshifter woman by day and wolf by night and therefore also able to benefit from the wolf's senses and instincts. Afraid of her lupine form, the louts Gundabald and Hugo keep Regeane collared in a cell, beating her into submission over and over. While the wolf can miraculously heal her physical injuries, her psyche is bruised and battered, and she believes herself the freak Gundabald accuses her of being.

On the few, brief occasions Regeane is able to escape the clutches of her hung-over relatives, she finds her freedom on the wooded hills of Campagna, learning about herself under the light of a sympathetic moon. It is during one such excursion that she becomes embroiled in the politics of Rome. Regeane's subsequent betrothal to Maeniel, a barbarian lord who commands a key mountain pass, is caught up in the heart of the conflict between Pope Hadrian and the Lombards. Pope Hadrian himself sponsors the marriage, while the Lombards want Regeane dead. After a murder attempt made by a Lombard hireling, Regeane is rescued and sheltered and educated in love and sex by Lucilla, Rome's foremost madam and procurer (whose mysterious connection to the pope becomes important to his enemies). Borchardt only falters when the narrative sags somewhat in the middle and by choosing to present several key scenes offstage. Otherwise, her tale of lycanthropy, papal politics, and romantic encounters blends as well as any of her lovingly cataloged Roman menus. High melodrama indeed, and heady reading. Reviewed by Bill Gagliani.

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