The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalyn Landor

countess consp

Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.

So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership…even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.

Rating: A for narration, A for content

I read The Countess Conspiracy immediately upon its release back in December and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2013. Reading it was a highly emotional experience, however, and I had to keep taking breaks because I found it so intense. It’s clearly a book that’s very close to its author’s heart, paying tribute as it does to all the “forgotten” women of history, specifically those who were involved in the numerous scientific discoveries made in the nineteenth century, but who were derided or dismissed because of their sex.

For a book of average length, the novel is very complex, with multiple plot threads weaving themselves in and around the lives of the two protagonists. We have met them before, albeit briefly, in the previous books in the series, The Duchess War and The Heiress Effect. Sebastian Malheur is cousin to Robert, Duke of Clermont and his half-brother Oliver Marshall; Violet, the widowed Countess of Cambury more or less grew up with Robert and Sebastian as their family estates were close together.

In the previous books, Sebastian was shown to be the joker of the group. Even though his scientific work has made him an object of disgust and ridicule in some circles, he nonetheless maintains a happy-go-lucky manner which, combined with his handsome features and devastating charm, makes him the life and soul of any party. He’s highly intelligent, witty, and the kind of man who is able to put even the most nervous of people at their ease, yet, one of his most attractive qualities is his inability to realise just how clever he actually is. Even he thinks of himself as a bit of a waste of space, a view which is further reinforced by the fact that his elder brother keeps insisting Sebastian has made nothing of his life.

Violet is Sebastian’s complete opposite. She’s tightly buttoned up and lets nobody get close to her. Her eleven-year marriage was unhappy and, by the last years, she had become incredibly withdrawn and subject to frequent and increasingly dangerous bouts of illness.

Both Sebastian and Violet have complicated relationships with their respective families; Violet’s mother, in particular, is an incredibly intriguing character who, while a stickler for propriety on the surface, would nonetheless do anything to ensure the safety of her two daughters. And Sebastian desperately wants his brother’s approval. But the complications of these familial relationships are almost nothing compared to the difficulties that are faced by Sebastian and Violet in their own incredibly complex partnership.

As a woman, Violet’s scientific discoveries were not taken seriously. Five years earlier, Sebastian had the idea of presenting her work as his – just to see if the academic establishment would take Violet’s ideas and concepts seriously with a man’s name on the work. Once her paper was accepted, Violet asked Sebastian to continue as her mouthpiece, so to speak. Over the years, Sebastian has become almost as much of an expert in their chosen field as Violet. Nobody knows of their collaboration but the deception has begun to take its toll on Sebastian and at the beginning of the story, he tells Violet he can no longer continue.

Violet is devastated. All she has is her work – her work is her identity and she feels as though her entire world has been ripped out from under her.

YoMatters are further complicated by the fact that Sebastian has been in love with Violet for years. Despite his reputation for rakish behaviour (which we don’t see in the book), he’s never tried to seduce her, knowing she doesn’t feel the same way. Unrequited love isn’t easy, but he’d rather have Violet as a friend than not have her in his life at all.

However, Sebastian is wrong. Violet’s reasons for closing herself off emotionally are heart-breaking and sickening. Since the Earl’s death, she has forced herself not to feel, regards herself as damaged and unlovable, and has buried the truth of her feelings for Sebastian because she is so terrified of the consequences of allowing herself to love him.

I’ve adored every one of the books in the Brothers Sinister series so far, and The Countess Conspiracy is no exception. It might be Ms. Milan’s most angst-filled book yet, so if you’re not someone who likes to read about characters in trouble and facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, this might not be the book for you. But I was gripped from start to finish. The writing is utterly sublime and the characterisation is magnificent. Violet is a very difficult character to like, which makes producing a successful romance a challenge; even more so if the hero is as wonderful a man as Sebastian Malheur turns out to be. Yet the way Violet gradually thaws and returns to life from the bleak, cold place she had been forcing herself to inhabit is masterfully done and Sebastian’s sensitivity and his deep, abiding concern for her happiness and welfare are beautiful to behold.

Rosalyn Landor is narrating once again, and I’m running out of ways to describe the intelligence and sensitivity of her performances. While it’s true that there are a number of excellent audiobook performers who could have done justice to this excellent series, the combination of Ms. Milan’s writing and Ms. Landor’s vocal characterisations is perfect. I am always struck by this narrator’s ability to go beyond what’s on the page and her insight into the characters she portrays. As ever, she differentiates numerous individuals with ease and appropriateness. Violet and her sister, Lily, are performed in a middle register, as befits their station and age (mid-thirties), while Lily’s daughter, Amanda (who is seventeen), is pitched higher, and Violet’s mother is firmly in the alto range as befits an authoritative, no-nonsense matriarch.

I have had the odd quibble occasionally about there not being enough differentiation between Ms Landor’s male voices, but I’ve noticed a definite improvement in that in many of her recent recordings. Sebastian and his brother Benedict are clearly and distinctly voiced so that there is never any difficulty telling them apart in their many scenes together. As for Sebastian himself… I will admit he sounded overly pompous at the beginning, although to be fair, he IS giving a lecture and playing a part in front of a partly hostile audience, so I am choosing to think of it as an acting choice rather than a fault in characterisation. In scenes with Benedict or Violet, Ms. Landor adopts a much softer, huskier tone for Sebastian, and in the love scenes, she’s pitch-perfect – I had to remind myself sometimes I was listening to a woman!

I enjoyed listening to The Countess Conspiracy as much as I enjoyed reading the book – possibly more so because of the richness of Ms. Landor’s performance and the depth it adds to the already strong characterisation. I’m chalking yet another audio triumph up to team Milan/Landor and am eagerly looking forward to the next instalment in the series.

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