He was once a legendary highwayman. Now he’s a recluse in a ruined French castle, with only a half-wild wolf for a companion. When Lady Leigh Strachan comes looking for a man to aid in her revenge, she’s disillusioned to find that the famed Prince of Midnight couldn’t help even if he cared to – which he doesn’t. S. T. Maitland wants nothing to do with his legend, or with this fierce, beautiful, broken woman… until the old thrill of living on the cutting edge of danger begins to rise in his blood again.
This was the first of Laura Kinsale’s novels to appear in audiobook form, and I’m warning you now – the review is LONG and there may even be some fangirling involved . If you want the short version, however – the audiobook of The Prince of Midnight is fantastic, so go and listen to it immediately!
As for the longer version…
I’ve been following Laura Kinsale’s blog pieces over at AudioGals in which she talks about bringing her books to audio; about how she spent a long time listening to narrators because she knew how important it was to get it right… and since I heard the first clip posted of Prince I’ve been chomping at the bit. Not only because she’s produced some fantastic books and I’m looking forward to listening to them, but because Nicholas Boulton is quite possibly the best audiobook performer (I can’t call him a ‘narrator’ because the word doesn’t even begin to do him justice) I’ve ever heard. It certainly helps that he has a beautiful, mellifluous voice that’s soothing and sexy as sin at the same time, but it’s about so much more than that. He doesn’t just narrate – he inhabits the characters, from the principals right down to the bit-players, and gives each one a distinct voice. He juggles all manner of regional and foreign accents effortlessly (I’m very picky when it comes to accents) and if he had any problems with pronouncing the French and Italian dialogue, then I certainly wasn’t aware of it.
And most importantly – and impressively – he can convincingly voice female characters without using falsetto or making them sound screechy. In fact for Leigh, he uses a register and tone that seems to be not all that far removed from his natural speaking voice – yet there’s no doubt she’s female.
I confess that I haven’t read the book, although I did a bit of reading around – read synopses and reviews so that I was familiar with the storyline and characters (I didn’t want to have to break up the flow because I didn’t know who was who) and it’s clear this is another title of Ms Kinsale’s that really divides opinions. It seems as though the majority of reviews are either five stars or two – and that most of those love or hate stances are based on the readers’ feelings about the heroine.
She’s difficult to like, no doubt about it. Lady Leigh Strachan has travelled to the South of France to seek out the legendary highwayman known as Le Seigneur de Minuit, who had been regarded as a Robin Hood-like figure in the part of England they both come from. She wants him to teach her how to fight; to shoot, fence and ride, so that she can return home to exact revenge on the man who killed her family.
For his part, the legendary Seigneur – otherwise known as S.T Maitland – is now retired. For three years, he has buried himself in obscurity living in a run-down castle in Provence, painting and growing vegetables, with Nemo, a half-tame wolf as his only companion.
His reaction to meeting Leigh, a very beautiful young woman, is pretty much what you’d expect of a man who hasn’t had a woman in three years; and hers on meeting him is the crashing disappointment of discovering that her hero is no longer the man he once was. Although only in his thirties and ridiculously handsome, S.T is deaf in one ear and has problems keeping his balance, so he can’t ride, can’t fence or do anything which involves sudden and precise movement.
Leigh doesn’t even try to hide her disappointment and scorn. And doesn’t try for most of the book, which is why so many have found her to be unlikeable. S.T is infatuated with her from the start and wastes no time in letting her know he’s interested, but Leigh doesn’t want any of it. She’s downright nasty to him many times, and it’s mostly undeserved, but it’s clear to me that she’s deeply traumatised and is trying to protect herself – not just from feeling anything for S.T, but from feeling anything at all. Her parents and sisters weren’t killed in an accident, which would have been bad enough; they died brutally and calculatedly at the hands of the Reverend James Chilton, the leader of what we would today call a religious cult who has all but brainwashed the local population. In fact, it appears that what Leigh really wants is to die herself, but she keeps going because otherwise there will be no-one left to avenge her family.
S.T eventually agrees to help her and they travel to England. His vertigo affects him very badly during the sea voyage, although miraculously, the pitching and rolling of the ship seems somehow to have helped him, and his balance problems suddenly disappear.
Once that happens, he is suddenly transformed into the Seigneur de Minuit once again, full of braggadaccio and self-confidence – and to be fair his confidence in his own abilities is, for the most part, justified. Leigh, however, still maintains her distance emotionally, if not physically, even though now, her determination to maintain barriers between herself and S.T is more to do with her fears for his safety than any disappointment or dislike.
The more confident S.T becomes that he can handle Chilton, the more desperate Leigh becomes to stop him. But he can’t believe it – they’ve come this far, he’s back to his old self and now she doesn’t want revenge. Being S.T, he decides she’s bloody well going to have her revenge whether she likes it or not; he thinks that her wish to leave Chilton alone is because she lacks faith in him and doesn’t think S.T can carry out his plan to destroy him, whereas the truth is that Leigh, unable to tell S.T that she loves him and knowing exactly what Chilton is capable of, is terrified of losing him. She’s suffered so much and despite her desperate fight against it, has opened herself up once more to the risk of pain. The problem is that she doesn’t tell S.T any of this or contradict his assertions about her lack of faith in him.
Another issue for some readers is the fact that despite Leigh’s disdain for S.T and his awareness of it, they nonetheless embark upon a sexual relationship fairly early on in the book. Leigh offers herself initially as payment for his help, which he refuses. But he’s not a monk, and finds it impossible to maintain his refusal when she tempts him deliberately. He’s infatuated and horny and she feels that by letting him bed her, she’s in some way excising a debt – but even though it’s not pretty or at all romantic, the way Ms Kinsale handles it feels right somehow.
The story is quite complex and I’m barely scratching the surface. There’s the added complication of S.T’s still being a wanted criminal in England; a cameo appearance by the notorious Marquis de Sade; S.T’s capture by and escape from the cult and so much more going on that to try to write a complete synopsis would take up too much space 🙂
I’ve already said just how damn good this is in audio, but I wanted to pick out one or two points specifically to illustrate that. Even though I haven’t (yet) read the book I’ve been told by people who have and who have listened to the audio that the big thing for them was that they found Leigh to be a much more palatable character in the audio. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that that’s true; Nicholas Boulton’s interpretation almost strips her bare, as it were, and he really brings out the pain and vulnerability she struggles so hard to keep hidden. I didn’t dislike her as much as some readers seem to have done, but I would defy anybody to maintain that opinion after listening to the scene in which S.T makes Leigh train the horse he names Mistral. I had tears running down my face when she finally breaks down and finds she can’t help but feel for this beautiful, mistreated animal.
As for his performance of S.T himself… this is only the first of (I think) eleven of Ms Kinsale’s books that are coming out on audio, and I’m already running out of superlatives to describe just how good Nick Boulton is. God help me when I get to book ten – these reviews are going to be really short if I’m to avoid repeating myself over and over again! But it truly is a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a complex and multi-faceted character. You can hear his insecurities, his frustrations, his passion; you feel his triumphs and share in his joys – and if you can keep a straight face in the scene where S.T pretends to be totally plastered, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
Without wishing to do any disservice to Ms Kinsale’s splendid story, I’m going to end by saying that if you read the book and found it hard going because you couldn’t like Leigh – listen to this, and you might find it changes your mind. And if, like me, you haven’t read it before, then listen to this and you’ll wonder how the hell you managed NOT to have read it. And if you’ve read it and loved it – listen to this and you’ll find you love it even more than you did before.
Yes. It’s that good.