Darius Santiago is the King’s most trusted man, a master spy and assassin. He is handsome, charming, and ruthless, but he has one weakness–the stunning Princess Serafina. She is all he has ever wanted and everything he cannot have.
Serafina has worshipped Darius from afar her whole life, knowing that deep in the reaches of her soul–where she is not royalty but a flesh-and-blood woman–she belongs to this dangerous, untouchable man. Unable to suppress their desire any longer, they are swept into a daring dance of passion destined to consume them both until a deadly enemy threatens to destroy their new love.
Rating: B for narration; C- for content
Originally published in 1999, Gaelen Foley’s Princess is the second book in her Ascension trilogy and contains enough cheese to keep several branches of McDonald’s going for the next decade.
It’s very much a romance in the Old-Skool vein, set in an exotic location (an island off the Italian coast), with a youthful, impossibly beautiful yet scholarly heroine (we know she’s scholarly because of the presence of a microscope and books in her room!), a man-whore hero who does not know how to love (and whose man-pain knows no bounds), and his scheming ex-mistress who knows all his secrets and is determined to win him back at any cost.
The thing is, if you know what you’re getting before embarking upon this fourteen hour extravaganza, it’s not a bad listen, principally due to the Herculean efforts of narrator Elizabeth Wiley who plays it completely straight down the line and delivers an honest and very enjoyable performance.
Princess is set some twenty years after The Pirate Prince, which first introduced the character of Darius Santiago as a scruffy street-urchin. Now in his thirties, he has become King Lazar’s right-hand-man – cunning spy, ruthless assassin, and the man trusted with the security and safety of the royal family. He’s also incredibly handsome and charming, so of course, women are falling over themselves in the scramble to his bed, and he’s (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein) jist a guy who cain’t say “no”.
But in all honesty, the poor guy has had enough of being used for his studly skills: he daren’t even leave his door unlocked for fear some randy female will turn up without warning and demand a good seeing-to, and no woman will ever touch his heart – mostly because he believes he doesn’t have one and wouldn’t know what to do with one if he had.
The only woman towards whom he has any finer feelings is the Princess Serafina, who he has worshipped from afar for years. But he is a mere guttersnipe and not at all good enough for her – so the best he can hope for is to keep her safe and see her happy. Serafina has been contracted to marry a member of the Russian nobility in order to cement a pact to ensure Ascension’s safety against Napoleon, and although Darius has uncovered some rather unsavoury information about the potential bridegroom, the betrothal has already been finalised. In order to save her from having to marry someone she doesn’t love and who will likely mistreat her, Darius comes up with a completely hare-brained scheme, a mission from which he doesn’t expect to return alive.
Not much happens in the first section of the book, other than Darius and Serafina mooning over each other, sighing over how unutterably gorgeous he/she is, and Darius agonising over the fact that he’s unworthy and can’t have her. Of course, Serafina has eyes for no-one other than her handsome protector, and wants them to be together for whatever time they can manage, but Darius is having none of it – until he suddenly changes his mind and thinks they might as well get it on for a while because he’s going to die soon anyway.
And they say chivalry is dead.
Or maybe on its last legs, because Darius draws the line at actual defloration, so they do a lot of “everything but” instead.
I haven’t read or listened to a large number of historical romances dating from the 1990s, but when I do, I’ve noticed that while the language is perhaps less forthright, the sex scenes themselves are often longer and raunchier than we’re used to now. I don’t know exactly why that should be – maybe as time has progressed authors have refined their styles and techniques, or perhaps back then the sexy stuff was more of a novelty, but the sex scenes in this book seemed to go on for days. Once again, I pay tribute to Ms Wiley, because she gets right into the swing of things, and after the first love scene, I wanted to give her a round of applause. And then offer her a cigarette.
The lovers’ idyll ends after a few days when Darius has to return to court and then he must eschew further distraction and carry out his master plan for protecting Serafina. No Napoleon means no threat to Ascension, which in turn means there’s no need for her to marry a shady Russian. Ergo – Darius is going to assassinate Napoleon.
Now, I’m all for introducing a little actual history into historicals. But I’m expected to take that seriously? That noise you can hear is my credulity shattering into tiny pieces. And to cap it all, the rakishly handsome babe-magnet and ruthless assassin proves himself almost hopelessly inept. What a guy. I suppose you have to feel sorry for him at some point. He had a shitty childhood, has learned not to trust, insists he doesn’t know what love is, and is carrying around more emotional baggage than Jacob Marley has chains. And in the last part of the book, his personal pity party reaches such a pitch that I was tempted to break out the Leonard Cohen LPs.
Serafina is pretty much what one would expect of a twenty-year old pampered Princess. She’s beautiful and wilful, but with a playful side that serves to temper Darius’ dourness. She’s also prone to hair-tossing tantrums, and I wanted to slap her on more than one occasion. Like Darius, she makes some stupid decisions in their relationship, but she’s got cojones of steel when it counts.
I’ve already said that Elizabeth Wiley has done a sterling job in the narration of this audiobook. She employs a wide repertoire of suitably Mediterranean-sounding accents, although I wasn’t all that convinced by the Italian ones which actually sounded more Eastern European to my ears. She differentiates well between all the characters, sounding suitably unpleasant as the sleazy Russian prince, and gruff and gravelly for King Lazar. She growls her way through Darius’ dialogue most convincingly and has my undying admiration for managing to utter the purplest of prose while keeping a straight face (although I’d love to know how many takes some of it required!). While my personal preference is for a British accented narration for European stories, Ms Wiley’s American accent is unobtrusive and her voice is very pleasing to the ear. Her narrative is well-paced, her vocal acting skills are impressive, and while the content of the book falls just short of being as ripe as a six-month old Camembert, her vibrant performance is what pushes it from being “so bad as to be unlistenable”, to being “so bad, it’s good”.