Royally Matched (Royally #2) by Emma Chase (audiobook) – Narrated by Andi Arndt and Shane East

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Some men are born responsible, some men have responsibility thrust upon them. Henry John Edgar Thomas Pembrook, Prince of Wessco, just got the motherlode of all responsibility dumped in his regal lap.

He’s not handling it well.

Hoping to help her grandson to rise to the occasion, Queen Lenora agrees to give him “space”—but while the Queen’s away, the Prince will play. After a chance meeting with an American television producer, Henry finally makes a decision all on his own:

Welcome to Matched: Royal Edition.

A reality TV dating game show featuring twenty of the world’s most beautiful blue bloods gathered in the same castle. Only one will win the diamond tiara, only one will capture the handsome prince’s heart.

While Henry revels in the sexy, raunchy antics of the contestants as they fight, literally, for his affection, it’s the quiet, bespectacled girl in the corner—with the voice of an angel and a body that would tempt a saint—who catches his eye.

The more Henry gets to know Sarah Mirabelle Zinnia Von Titebottum, the more enamored he becomes of her simple beauty, her strength, her kind spirit… and her naughty sense of humor.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day—and irresponsible royals aren’t reformed overnight.

As he endeavors to right his wrongs, old words take on whole new meanings for the dashing Prince. Words like, Duty, Honor and most of all—Love.

Rating: Narration – A (Shane East)/B (Andi Arndt) Content – C+

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I picked up Royally Matched. There seems to be a current fad for fake-British royals in romances, in which authors seem to think it’s okay to mangle British history and geography just so they can employ the trappings of the monarchy in their stories. For her Royally series, author Emma Chase appears to have carved up the UK to create the kingdom of Wessco (which sounds like a supermarket chain). I gather it has ties to England and Scotland that go back to medieval times – so where is it? A rock in the North Sea? A bit of Scotland that has somehow become independent, referendum notwithstanding? I’m sorry, I know this is a rom-com and most people probably don’t care, but I live here (the UK, not a rock in the North Sea) and things like this BUG me!

Anyway. In the previous book, the Crown Prince, Nicholas, stepped aside from the succession in order to marry the woman he loved, leaving his younger brother Harry Henry as heir to their grandmother, the formidable Queen Lenora. Henry has always been the “other” one, the rebel who likes to party long and hard, the one who doesn’t care about tradition and rules – and the one most likely to fuck up. But now, he’s faced with the prospect of becoming king one day, and he’s not adjusting at all well.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Claiming His Desert Princess (Hot Arabian Nights #4) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Stolen nights with the secret princess…

Bound to marry for duty, Princess Tahira finds her only freedom in forbidden escapes to the desert. Then one night she encounters a stranger under the stars—adventurer Christopher Fordyce. He’s wildly attractive and thrillingly dangerous…an illicit fantasy she can’t resist!

Even unaware of Tahira’s royal blood, Christopher knows his shameful past makes any future with her impossible. But in the sultry desert heat, desires are uncovered and secrets unveiled, and soon Christopher will risk everything to claim his desert princess!

Rating: B-

Claiming His Desert Princess is the final book in Marguerite Kaye’s Hot Arabian Nights quartet of historical romances set in Arabia in the early 1800s. Contemporary romances abound with gorgeous sheikh heroes, but they’re not so often found in historicals, and neither are there that many regency romances set outside England, so the series had a dual appeal for me, and I’ve enjoyed all the books to varying degrees (my favourite is still the first, The Widow and the Sheikh). In this story, however, it’s the heroine rather than the hero who is of royal blood. Christopher Fordyce, who has appeared briefly in the earlier books, is clearly on a mission of some kind, the nature of which has not so far been made entirely clear. Having conceived the idea of him as a kind of cross between Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia (as personified by Peter O’Toole), I’ve been looking forward to his story and finally discovering exactly what he was up to. All is indeed revealed in this book, but I can’t deny that some pacing issues, a rushed ending and a sense of “oh – was that it?” ultimately left me feeling a little disappointed.

English antiquarian and surveyor, Christopher Fordyce, has travelled to Arabia in order to return a valuable ancient artefact to its rightful owner – or at least to the owner’s descendants. He has been in the country for over six months, travelling around trying to trace the origin of a turquoise amulet which was left to him upon the death of his father, and finally believes he has located the key to his quest in the form of the newly opened mines in the kingdom of Nessarah. He visits at night in order to see what progress has been made on the excavations, and is discovered there by a young woman named Tahira who explains she is deeply interested in the history of Nessarah and has begun to make a study of it and the various artefacts she finds. There is an undeniable spark of attraction between them from the very first, and they immediately bond over their shared interest in history and in uncovering the mysteries of the past. Tahira is able to supply Christopher with some interesting snippets of information regarding the mine and its workings and at each meeting, they reveal a little more of themselves to each other which, for Tahira, provides an incredible taste of freedom from the life to which she has been born. For she is keeping one, very important detail from Christopher, which is that she is the eldest sister of Prince Ghutrif, who is the de factor ruler of Nessarah.

Ghutrif is determined to marry Tahira off.  She has been betrothed twice before, both times to the Prince of Murimon – but those betrothals ended when her first intended was killed in a fall from his horse, and her second, Prince Kadar (Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride) fell in love with someone else.  Tahira is blamed for both these failures to marry, told she has brought dishonour upon her family, and her position at the palace is becoming increasingly difficult to bear.  The one bright spot in her life is her nightly meetings with the handsome Englishman who understands her sense of connection with the past, and who truly listens to her and values her opinion.  She decides not to disclose her  identity to him because then he is bound to insist they stop meeting – and given she has very little time left before she is married, Tahira is reluctant to end their association before she is forced to do so.

Christopher is keeping secrets as well, ones which clearly relate to a painful past that he refuses to discuss.  All he will tell Tahira is that returning the amulet to its rightful place means that he will finally be able to shake off the yoke of the past and face the future with a clean slate.  This is the weakest part of the story, because I found it difficult to believe that Christopher had imbued an inanimate object with such power over his life.  The major part of the reveal as to his reasons and why he is running from his past does not come until around two-thirds of the way through the book, so it’s difficult to say more without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it revolves around Christopher’s sense of self and identity following a discovery made after the death of his father. He believes the amulet to have been a bribe and that the only way he can live with a clear conscience is to return it. But it feels like a flimsy plot device, and didn’t make much sense to me.

The writing flows smoothly, and the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the desert and the bazaars and souks are as evocative as always, but the first two thirds of the book are fairly static, consisting mostly of a series of night-time meetings between Christopher and Tahira in which they continue their search for artefacts, interspersed with glimpses into the monotony of Tahira’s life in the palace harem, or of Christopher’s attempts to track the provenance of the amulet.   His wanting to make Tahira’s wishes come true – sliding down the dunes, riding across the desert at night, swimming in an oasis – is sweet, and their clandestine meetings provide plenty of opportunity for things to become fairly heated between them, although Christopher refuses flat out to ruin Tahira and leave her with the consequences of their actions.  It’s all very well done, in particular the parts that show very clearly just how limited Tahira’s choices are, but it’s somewhat repetitive until the point at which we are made privy to Christopher’s motivations. The pacing picks up from around there, but I can’t help wishing that Ms. Kaye had chosen to ‘drip-feed’ Christopher’s story throughout rather than saving all the explanations until the back end of the book.

Marguerite Kaye is one of my favourite authors and she always writes with intelligence, researches her subjects well and creates a strong sense of time and place in her stories.  However, I suspect that maybe Claiming His Desert Princess is a victim of my own high expectations – I liked it, but I wanted to LOVE it, and I didn’t quite make it that far.  Nonetheless it’s a solid read with a nicely developed romance and at the very least merits a qualified recommendation

His Royal Favourite (His Royal Secret #2) by Lilah Pace

his royal favourite

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

James, Prince of Wales, is making history. He’s decided to come out to his subjects—and the world. However, telling the truth means exposing his relationship with lone-wolf reporter Benjamin Dahan. Although Ben never wanted commitment, the unexpected depth of his feelings leads him to join James in the media’s harsh spotlight.

When the news story explodes across the globe, Ben can endure the mockery and dirty jokes. But after his tragic past is cruelly revealed, his life begins to implode. Can even his love for James be worth this?

James has it no easier. His revelation divides the country and sparks turmoil within the royal family. He must struggle to defend not only himself and Ben, but also his younger sister, who hovers on the brink of a breakdown that could endanger her life.

Is Ben strong enough to survive the onslaught and stand by James’ side? And will James have to make a choice between Ben and the crown?

Rating: A-

His Royal Favorite is the second book in the duology that began with His Royal Secret. As it’s a direct sequel, it’s advisable to have read the first book before embarking upon this one, and also means that there are going to be spoilers for His Royal Secret in this review.

The story in His Royal Favorite picks up pretty much where it ended in the previous book. In a Britain in which Queen Victoria and the House of Winsdor never existed, the reigning monarch is the elderly King George IX of the House of Hanover, and the next in line to the throne is his grandson, the handsome, popular, twenty-nine year old James, Prince of Wales. But James is gay and very firmly in the closet, believing that the British people will not accept a homosexual as their next king, and also well aware of the political and religious issues that would arise as a result of the fact that the monarch is also Head of the Church of England and of the Commonwealth.

But James’ life got even more complicated when he met and fell in love with Benjamin Dahan, an Israeli born German national who is also a journalist. Given the circumstances, the couple were happy to settle for a no-strings sex-only affair at first, but it wasn’t long before the relationship turned into something more emotional as both men realised that they had found something very special in the other, someone to talk to and laugh with, someone who understood them on an almost instinctual level. At the end of the book, James had finally decided that enough was enough and that he didn’t want to live a lie any longer. Knowing that Ben doesn’t want commitment, that putting a partner through the horrors of the media circus that was bound to follow his announcement would be extremely unfair, and, ultimately, loving Ben enough to let him go, James resigned himself to going it alone. I admit I had a lump in my throat when Ben told James he was in it for the long haul and that he was going to stand beside him through whatever was to come.

His Royal Favorite starts with James telling his PR people that he is going to be coming out as a gay man in an existing relationship and follows the two men through the ensuing months, which are going to prove incredibly difficult for both of them and will test them to their limits.

Lilah Pace has done a fantastic job in both books of portraying the way that tradition and protocol still play such a huge role in the life of the modern royal family, and also of the way the tabloid press, gossip rags and paparazzi operate.  James gives a wonderful, heartfelt speech at his press conference, and while the public’s initial reaction to the fact that he is gay is generally positive, it’s Ben who suffers the real slings and arrows.  He had some idea of what might be awaiting him from the media – people camping outside his flat, his place of work and following him wherever he goes – but nothing could have prepared him for what actually happens, which is incredibly nasty and intrusive.

Ben had led a rather nomadic existence up to now, his work as an economic and financial journalist taking him round the world.  He loves his job and plans to continue it, but after he is revealed as the Prince of Wales’ lover, it becomes impossible.  Sure, his phone calls are taken by everyone now, but nobody takes him seriously, and when he discovers that someone at the office has been leaking comments to the press, it’s the final nail in the coffin and he resigns, planning to work on his next book instead. But things don’t quite work out that way.  Ben feels adrift – his life has changed in ways he couldn’t have forseen and he starts to question his decisions and even to wonder if he knows who he is any more.  An uncomfortable distance begins to grow between him and James, but neither knows how to cross the breach.

James may have been born to a life of immense wealth and privilege, but he has problems, too.  His uncle, Prince Richard, is stirring up trouble within the Church by speaking to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the incompatibility of James’s homosexuality with his (possible) future position as Head of the Church of England; his sister, emotionally fragile at the best of times, is showing signs of becoming more unstable; and Ben is pulling away from him.  Added to all that is the fact that James knows that there are soon likely to be calls for him to be removed from the line of succession.  While he can’t deny that the idea of stepping aside and being able to have more of a private life, is an attractive one, being king is the job James was born to do, and has been trained for all his life.  Moreover, he wants to do it; he loves his country and he wants to play his part in shaping its future.

All the secondary characters, even those that only appear briefly, are carefully crafted to be individuals rather than stereotypes, and I particularly enjoyed Ben’s interactions with the formidable Queen Louise and his developing friendship with Cass, the young woman who had acted as James’ girlfriend for years.  Ms. Pace writes with warmth, humour and poignancy; and if the ending is a little bit fairy-tale… well, that’s what handsome princes are for, right?

His Royal Secret and His Royal Favorite (and I have to wonder why, as they’re both fairly short books, the whole story wasn’t published in one long one) tell the story of two people who fall in love under extraordinary circumstances and are prepared to go the extra mile to make it work. It’s not easy; both make mistakes and Ben is often overwhelmed by the complexity of James’s life, but it’s obvious that in spite of their massive difference in status, Ben and James are equal partners in their relationship.  Both are fully cognizant of what they have found in each other and the way they support one another through some truly difficult times and experiences is a real joy to behold.

His Royal Favorite provides an excellent conclusion to this sexy, heart-wrenching and quite unique tale, and I’m already looking forward to reading the whole thing again.

His Royal Secret (Royal Secret #1) by Lilah Pace

his royal secret

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

James, the handsome, cosmopolitan Prince of Wales, is used to being in the public eye. But he’s keeping a king-sized secret…James, next in line for the throne, is gay.

He’s been able to hide his sexual orientation with the help of his best friend and beard, Lady Cassandra. Sometimes he feels like a coward for not coming out, but he daren’t risk losing the crown. If he did, the succession would fall on his deeply troubled younger sister, Princess Amelia. To protect her, James is willing to live a lie.

While on holiday, he meets Benjamin Dahan—a rugged international reporter with a globe-trotting, unattached life—who catches far more than James’s eye. And when Ben is transferred to London, it seems fate may finally be smiling on James.

But what began as a torrid fling grows into something far more intimate and powerful. Soon James will have to decide who he is, what he wants from life and love, and what he’s willing to sacrifice for the truth…

Rating:A

This book, and its upcoming sequel, His Royal Favourite, are set in an alternate Great Britain in which – if I read it right – Queen Victoria and the House of Windsor didn’t exist. It’s 2012, the reigning monarch is eighty-three year old King George IX of the House of Hanover, and the next in line to the throne is his grandson, James, who became Prince of Wales following the tragic deaths of his parents in a plane crash a decade earlier when he was nineteen.

James is handsome, charming and popular. He is well aware of how privileged his life is but also knows what is expected of him as the Prince of Wales now, and, in probably not so many years, as King of England. As the actual royal family must, James has to cope with life in the goldfish bowl that is the public eye and with the constant attention of the tabloid press, the gossip magazines and the paparazzi. This is stressful and difficult at the best of times, but for James it makes his life even harder than it already is, because he is gay. He had come out to his father, who was surprised but fully supportive and the two of them had intended to discuss a strategy for James to come out publicly once Prince Edmund returned from his trip to Austraila. Unfortunately, Edmund was killed before he could do so, and James remains in the closet, understanding the ramifications his homosexuality could have in relation to the monarch’s position as Head of the Church of England and of the Commonwealth, and convinced that the British public will not accept a gay man as the next king. He also knows that, should he step aside – whether voluntarily or because he has been forced to do so – the burden of future sovereignty will fall upon his sister, Amelia, an emotionally fragile and troubled young woman who would not be able to cope with all the demands such a position would place upon her.

So James continues to live a lie, protected by his long-term friend, Lady Cassandra who knows the truth and has acted as James’ beard for the last ten years. She is frequently the target of vicious attacks in the tabloids, which have got much worse lately because she has been seen in the company of another man. She is one of the small number of people who know the truth about James’ sexuality, and even though she thinks he should come out, she continues to stand by him in spite of the huge personal cost.

James is on a royal visit to Kenya when he meets Benjamin Dahan, an Israeli-born German national who is staying at the same complex. Ben sees a guy stuck outside in a downpour and invites him to take shelter on his patio without at first realising who he is. He quickly does realise, of course, but it’s immediately clear that James likes the informality and the opportunity to be a normal guy just having a drink with someone. They drink, chat, play a rather sexually-charged game of chess and end up in bed together. James has to be incredibly careful given his position, and this is the first time in three years he has let himself give in to his sexual urges. He was badly burned by his last relationship, in which the man he thought cared for him betrayed him when things ended between them, so James is naturally wary – but there is something about Ben that makes him feel comfortable. Ben tells James he writes, and doesn’t correct James’ assumption that he is a novelist when in fact, he is a journalist who reports on economic and financial matters for a major news organisation. When James discovers this at the end of their encounter, he is utterly horrified and accuses Ben of having deliberately used him – but he has just received news that his grandfather has had a stroke and that he needs to return to London right away. Sick with trepidation and fear, James waits for the story to break – but it never does, and he realises that, unlike so many other reporters, Ben was not out to get a story.

A month later, James is astonished to see Ben at a charity event in London, and finds the opportunity to speak to him privately. They apologise to each other and agree to get together again, which they do later that night. This marks the beginning of a passionate affair which both men know can be nothing more than sex, but that suits them. James’ life is not his own most of the time which means he can’t really entertain the idea of anything long-term; and Ben has trust and commitment issues as the result of a previous relationship, so a no-strings affair with lots of great sex is absolutely what he wants.

But it’s not long before things start to change between them, and they become more emotionally involved than they had wanted or expected. The sex scenes are quite numerous and hot, but the author also does a great job with showing how their relationship is evolving and how they care for each other, mostly through a series of little things and gestures, which are very telling. Even though Ben is determined to keep himself from becoming emotionally invested, it soon becomes clear that he can’t. James is a kind, generous, loving man, and even though Ben, as a journalist, has some idea of how little privacy James has, he is nonetheless unprepared for the enormity of it and can’t help being weirded out by all the custom and protocol that surrounds the prince’s position.

One of the most impressive things about this book is the picture Lilah Pace has painted of the day-to-day “job” of being a member of the royal family, or The Firm, as it is known. She aptly describes the different attitudes and power conflicts within the family; has a firm grasp of the political implications of James’ sexuality and absolutely nails the difficulties of the constant 24/7 year-round scrutiny faced by someone in James’ situation. James is a man with a strong sense of duty and honour, mindful of what is owed to his position and determined to do his absolute best, yet he can’t speak out or answer back those who will pounce on the slightest misstep – so it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to come out and open his life up to minute scrutiny.

Ben is just as likeable, a bit of a grouchy bear, and somewhat bewildered by the world into which he has suddenly been drawn courtesy of his association with James. I particularly liked the way we are shown him coming to a gradual realisation as to the truth of what James’ life is actually like, and how he comes to understand his decision to keep his sexuality a secret. The chemistry between the two men is seriously hot, but one can also feel the love and affection running alongside it. There are some wonderfully poignant moments between James and his sister Amelia (or Indigo, as she prefers to be known), and I don’t mind admitting that I had a lump in my throat near the end, when Ben decides to stand by James at a difficult time.

His Royal Secret is book one of a duology, so the story here ends with an HFN and the knowledge that there is much more to come in the next book, His Royal Favourite. I raced through both of them one after the other in the same afternoon, and had to wonder why the two weren’t just published as one long (but not overlong) book rather than in two halves. Whatever the reason, His Royal Secret is a thoroughly enjoyable read that makes a wonderfully romantic, sexy and gripping story out of an unusual premise and, as I said in my original note at Goodreads, “I can’t think of a single thing I disliked… Not one.”

When Gods Die (Sebastian St. Cyr #2) by C.S Harris (audiobook) – Narrated by Davina Porter

when gods die audio

This title is available to purchase from Audible

Brighton, England, 1811. The beautiful wife of an aging Marquis is found dead in the arms of the Prince Regent. Draped around her neck lies an ancient necklace with mythic origins-and mysterious ties to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin. Haunted by his past, Sebastian investigates both the Marchioness’s death and his own possible connection to it-and discovers a complex pattern of lies and subterfuge. With the aid of his lover, Kat Boleyn, and a former street urchin now under his protection, Sebastian edges closer to the killer. And when one murder follows another, he confronts a conspiracy that threatens his own identity…and imperils the monarchy itself.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

There’s another intriguing mystery for Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, in this second book of the series. When a beautiful young marchioness is found dead in the arms of the Prince Regent, Sebastian is asked by Lord Jarvis, the Regent’s cousin, to investigate. Sebastian is suspicious; Jarvis is a manipulative, powerful man with connections and influence at the highest levels of government and society, and is no friend to Sebastian’s father, Lord Hendon or Sebastian himself.

The viscount is reluctant to become involved at first, but when he sees that the woman is wearing a necklace formerly owned by his mother – who died when he was eleven – he is driven to discover the truth, both about the murder and the necklace. It’s an investigation that will lead him to uncover some painful secrets about his past as well as into danger when he uncovers a plot against the Monarchy.

This is a solid second outing for the viscount-turned-detective that reunites him with characters from the previous book – the street urchin, Tom (now Sebastian’s Tiger), former army surgeon Paul Gibson, actress Kat Boleyn and magistrate Henry Lovejoy. The mystery is well-constructed, and the secondary characters are well-drawn, especially the elderly marquess who was clearly devoted to his young wife. There’s also a nice helping of political intrigue; the revolution in France took place within living memory, there’s war on the Peninsula and the English monarchy is deeply unpopular; and there are those willing to take action in order to effect drastic change.

There’s also trouble ahead for Sebastian in his personal life. We learned in the previous book that the woman he loves was pursuing her own agenda, and it seems as though the secrets she is keeping are soon to be exposed. I can’t say I’m warming to Kat as a character, although she does actually help Sebastian with his investigation this time, rather than withholding information from him, so I suppose that’s a step in the right direction. But I can’t buy into their relationship and don’t feel any sense of connection between them; each says they’re very much in love, but it’s a case of telling rather than showing. Other than the fact that she’s beautiful, he’s handsome and they had a relationship six years ago which was thwarted by Sebastian’s father, I don’t know why they are together. I also found Sebastian’s persistence in wanting to marry her to be rather short-sighted on his part. Neither of them cares much for society’s opinion, it’s true, but he gives no thought to any children they might have, who would be social pariahs through no fault of their own. Here, Kat is the more clear-sighted of the two of them, even though she is tempted to give in from time to time. The other really annoying thing in this book was the number of times Sebastian’s “feral” /“extraordinary yellow”/“amber” eyes were mentioned; I stopped counting after the first ten, but surely this should have been picked up in editing.

Even so, I enjoyed the story and I like the way Ms. Harris is gradually unfolding Sebastian’s family history. I imagine this continues throughout the books, which probably makes it difficult to read or listen to them out of order, or as standalones.

Davina Porter’s narration is excellent once again, with age/station appropriate vocalisations for each character and clear delineation between them. I know that this series was recorded out of order; I believe books 7,8 and 9 were recorded first and that the first six followed later (along with recordings of books 10 and 11) – so I’ll be interested to note, when I get to book 7, whether there are any differences in her character portrayals. My favourite of all her interpretations is undoubtedly that of young Tom – he always makes me smile.

I’ll definitely be picking up the next book, Why Mermaids Sing, in the near future.

The Virgin’s War (Tudor Legacy #3) by Laura Andersen

the virgins war
This title may be purchased from Amazon.

As the Spanish Armada approaches Irish shores, Elizabeth I feels the full burden of her royal office. She must not let England fall to her former husband, King Philip of Spain. And Princess Anabel, their daughter, has yet to declare with whom her allegiance—and her support—lie.

Exiled Stephen Courtenay is in France with his brother, Kit, who has his own reasons for avoiding England. But rumblings of war, a sinister plot, and their loyalty to the crown call them home. Yet not even Pippa Courtenay, their sister, gifted with divine sight, can foresee the grave danger that awaits them all. As Queen Elizabeth commits her riches, her honor, and her people to the approaching conflict, she will risk everything—even her life—to preserve England’s freedom.

Rating:A

The Virgin’s War is the final book in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series and the sixth book to take place in the alternate Tudor timeline that she set up back in The Boleyn King, book one of her compelling Boleyn Trilogy. In that series, Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who lived to succeed him; and the current one picks up some twenty years later, with Elizabeth I having followed her brother to the throne. Mind you, this is no Virgin Queen; here, Elizabeth married – and later divorced – Philip of Spain and had a daughter by him, Anne Isabella (Anabel), Princess of Wales.

With the current vogue for books in series which also work as standalones, it can be tricky to review a book in which it is necessary to have read the others in the set without giving away too much – so there are bound to be spoilers for The Virgin’s Daughter and The Virgin’s Spy in this review.

It’s over two decades since Henry VIII’s reformation, and the political situation in England is still dominated by the religious divide between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Much of the action in The Virgin’s Spy takes place in Ireland, where English forces are fighting Catholic rebels who have the support of Mary, Queen of Scots. In this universe, Mary escaped from captivity in England and has subsequently married Philip of Spain, thus uniting two of the most important Catholic monarchs in Europe. Philip has had his eye on the conquest of England for some time, but in spite of the continual urging of his wife, he is prepared to wait for the right moment to invade. When news reaches him that Princess Anne and her mother have become estranged and almost openly opposed to each other, he realises that the time to strike is almost at hand. With Anne building her power-base in the north and making concerted efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people there, it seems as though there will be a royal rebellion soon, and Philip plans to take advantage of the split between mother and daughter to invade England. He knows the English will never accept him as king, but now there is Anne, young, lovely and widely beloved, who is obviously sympathetic to the Catholic cause and who, he believes will bring her country back to the true faith.

But Elizabeth and Anabel are two fiercely intelligent, politically astute women and they are playing a long game. At the suggestion of Pippa Courtenay, Anabel’s closest friend and adviser, Anabel makes the move north to Middleham Castle (Richard III’s former home and stronghold) and begins to court the approval of the region’s Catholics by recruiting two of the most high profile of them to her Council. Anabel and her mother deliberately maintain the fiction of an estrangement and take care to have little contact with each other; and over the next couple of years, they carefully orchestrate their preparations for England’s defence.

Laura Andersen has impressed me once again with her meticulous research and her talent for interweaving the threads of her alternative history so cleverly in and out of the existing tapestry of historical fact. Yet for all her skill in mapping out these momentous events, she doesn’t lose sight of the personal stories that are so closely woven through the larger political canvas. Minuette and Dominic Courtenay, Elizabeth’s oldest friends, have roles to play, as do their four children, Lucette, Stephen and the twins Kit and Pippa. Lucette’s story was told in The Virgin’s Daughter and Stephen’s in The Virgin’s Spy, but they have prominent parts here, especially Stephen, who was stripped of his titles and banished from England as a result of his actions in the previous book. Pippa is a mystic and has the gift of second sight; it’s she who sets Anabel’s plan in motion by suggesting she move north, and she who is instrumental in rallying support among the towns and villages of the region. Pippa and Kit share one of those unusual mental bonds so often found between twins, but the strain of keeping some of the things she knows from her brother is starting to weigh very heavy on Pippa and her strength is failing. Meanwhile Kit and Anabel are struggling with the depth of their feelings for each other; a princess cannot marry where she chooses and they have always known this – but with a Spanish invasion imminent, Anabel must do whatever she can to help to secure the throne.

This is a deliciously complex story that builds gradually and reaches a breathless climax that is full of both triumph and sorrow. Ms Andersen has created a set of wonderful characters for whom I came to care and whose joys and heartbreak (seriously – I cried more than once) I experienced right along with them. She does a terrific job with the characterisation of Elizabeth in particular, exploring the burden of sovereignty, her necessary isolation and how she continues to face decisions head on, no matter how difficult they may be. I enjoyed the insights into her relationship with her two closest advisors – Burleigh and Walsingham – and her long-term and sometimes uneasy friendship with Minuette Courtenay. And if, like me, you fell a little bit in love with Dominic in the first trilogy, you’ll be pleased to see him at Elizabeth’s side once more as he responds to her call to arms and takes his place as one of the nation’s most trusted and respected military leaders.

Unlike the earlier Boleyn Trilogy, however, this one ends firmly in its alternate timeline, which feels perfectly right given the struggles and personal tragedies this set of characters has endured in order to get there. Perhaps it’s a teeny bit too perfect, but by the time I reached the epilogue I really didn’t care. I was so strongly caught up in the story and the experiences of the characters had impacted upon me so viscerally that I felt they absolutely deserved the ending they got. The Virgin’s War is a splendid end to another superbly written and researched trilogy by this author, and I am eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.

All About Romance: My Favourite Reads of 2015

I still haven’t found the time to put together a post of my favourite books from last year or to update my reading challenge post. I really want to do it and fully intend to, but for now, here’s the post I wrote for All About Romance listing my Top Ten Books of 2015.

2015 top 10I both love and hate these sorts of round-ups. On the one hand, I like to look back over my reading year and see what I’ve enjoyed (and try to forget what I didn’t!) but on the other, narrowing it down to a “best of” can be difficult if one has had a good reading year, something I count myself fortunate to have had in 2015.

Looking back through my reviews of books published, I’ve given one A+ (my only one in the almost three years I’ve been reviewing for AAR), which went to K.J Charles’ A Seditious Affair, which is also my top pick of the year. I’ve given 5 A grades and 13 A- grades, so my choices have come from that group and also include a couple of titles I didn’t review at AAR. In no particular order, then, my choices are:

 

 

You can read about the rest of my choices at All About Romance.