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Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf’s actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king’s bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales.
Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds.
Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.
Rating: A+ for narration; B for content
A couple of months ago, Laura Kinsale announced on her website that although Nicholas Boulton had finished recording all her books (boo!) he was going to be recording some more historical romances (yay!) – “recent titles that I’ve loved and appreciated for their quality and emotional intensity”. That recommendation together with the prospect of being able to listen to more of that velvety voice was enough to have me eagerly snapping up the audiobook of Elizabeth Kingston’s début novel, The King’s Man.
The story centres around two emotionally damaged characters who have spent most of their lives doing the bidding of others. Both of them are struggling to break free of the expectations that bind them to their pasts, but only together can they find the strength to be true to themselves and to lead their own lives.
Ranulf Ombrier, Lord of Morency, is known throughout the land as King Edward’s man, his enforcer, a man as ruthless as his master and one for whom no deed is too foul. At the beginning of the book, Ranulf awakens in a strange bed in a strange room and looks up to see what he thinks is an angel tending him. He has been severely wounded in a skirmish with a group of knights from Ruardean, a formidable stronghold on the Welsh Marches, and gradually comes to realise that he has been close to death. A death he would actively welcome as a way of finally escaping the memories that haunt him.
His ‘angel’ is Gwellian of Ruardean, a young woman who has been groomed since birth to be ready to lead the people of Wales in an uprising against the King. But having to constantly be what her domineering mother wants, to prove herself to be stronger and faster than the men around her, to inspire and lead is exhausting, and all Gwenllian really wants is to be left alone with her herbs and plants to further her knowledge of the healing arts. But her men respect her and look up to her, and no matter how much she wishes things to be different, they are what they are, and she accepts the weight of command to which she has been bred. Because of her unusual upbringing and military training, Gwenllian believes herself lacking as a woman – tall and leanly muscled, she knows she is unprepossessing and has none of the feminine accomplishments that ladies of her status are expected to have acquired.
While Ranulf is healing, he is rude and dismissive towards Gwenllian, seeing nothing in her of his ‘angel’ and wondering how he could ever have taken such an unattractive woman for such a thing. His taunts and barbs eventually lead to an armed confrontation between them – and when Gwenllian bests him, Ranulf becomes even more resentful. Yet even at this early stage in the story, and after such an inauspicious beginning, there is the sense that there is something growing between them, that these are two kindred spirits who are drawn to each other in spite of their wariness and distrust.
The King’s Man is very much a character driven story, in spite of the turbulent times in which it is set. The pacing allows time for the (at first) reluctant attraction between Ranulf and Gwenllian to build to an almost incendiary degree, and for the author to gradually reveal more and more about what makes them tick. Both characters have serious hang-ups; Ranulf was brought up by a cruel, ruthless man who never subjected Ranulf to the abuses he heaped upon everyone else, leaving him ashamed of the fact that he had loved his foster-father even as he had been ultimately driven to murder him. And Gwenllian has always been a pawn in the strategy of others, never allowed to live for herself or be herself – even her name is not truly her own, having been given to her because of the expectations that she would take on the mantle of her legendary namesake, the Welsh princess who led an army against the Normans more than a century earlier.
The romance between Ranulf and Gwenllian is intense, passionate and refreshingly free of so many of the tropes and stereotypes that abound in historical romance. I admit I was a little sceptical of the idea of Gwenllian as ‘warrior woman’, especially as women of the time were so powerless; but Ms Kingston has written her in such a way as to make it plausible and easy to accept.
Both Ranulf and Gwenllian are strongly-drawn, flawed characters who do not always do the right thing or act admirably. Yet they are compelling and easy to root for, especially when Gwenllian’s mother’s purpose becomes clear and it seems as though the couple are doomed to be on opposite sides in a long-brewing conflict.
I’m sure there were many other fans of historical romance audiobooks who, like me, were hoping that the final audiobook of Laura Kinsale’s oeuvre (so far) wouldn’t be the last we heard of Nicholas Boulton as a narrator in the genre. He really has raised the bar when it comes to audiobook narration, to a height only a very few can hope to match; and here, he once again proves himself a master of artistry and technique. The narrative is expressive and perfectly paced, and every single character, regardless of the amount of ‘screen time’ they get, is clearly and distinctly rendered, so there is never any question as to who is speaking at any given time. Mr Boulton has an incredibly wide range of timbre and accent, many of which he uses to excellent effect here, whether it be for the gravelly-voiced, Welsh-accented Madog, Gwenllian’s cousin and protector, or the tightly controlled, sometimes harsh-edged tone he employs to portray Ranulf, who is clearly a man wound incredibly tightly and full of hidden vulnerability and emotion. The principal female characters of Gwenllian and her overbearing mother are easy to tell apart in their scenes together, with Mr Boulton doing a terrific job with his interpretation of Gwenllian, getting to the heart of the character and skilfully conveying the self-doubt that lies beneath her warrior-queen exterior.
The King’s Man is a well-written, character-driven story, rich in historical detail and in the complexity of its characterisation. If I have a complaint, it is that Ranulf’s journey towards redemption is perhaps a little too easy for him, but overall, this is a strong début which is only enhanced by another incredibly accomplished performance from Nicholas Boulton.