Fair, Bright and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2) by Elizabeth Kingston (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Wales is conquered, and Eluned has lost everything: her country, her husband, her hope. All that remains is vengeance, and she will stop at nothing to have it.

When Robert de Lascaux is asked to marry the woman he has loved for eighteen years, he never hesitates. No wealth has ever mattered to him as much as Eluned has. But she, it seems, does not want him at all. Trapped in a web of intrigue, revenge, and desire, they cannot forget their past – but can they dare to share a future?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Fair, Bright, and Terrible is the sequel to Elizabeth Kingston’s The King’s Man, and is, like its predecessor, set in and around the final years of the Welsh struggle for independence against the military might of England under King Edward I. The book is an engrossing mix of historical romance and historical fiction; the author has obviously and extensively researched the political and military history of the time and the second-chance love story between two older and wiser protagonists – they’re both in their forties – is expertly woven throughout. But make no mistake – this is a gritty and angsty story about a proud, scheming woman who is so entirely focussed on revenge that she is prepared to sacrifice her happiness and her life if need be in order to obtain it; and her almost fanatical desire for vengeance to the exclusion of all else makes her difficult to like.

Eluned of Ruardean was not a popular character in The King’s Man, in large part thanks to the way in which she had so sternly controlled her daughter’s – Gwenllian’s – life and insisted on training her to be the saviour of the Welsh people, without really considering that Gwenllian was entitled to a say in her own life. She is still not the most sympathetic of women, but she’s a fascinating character nonetheless; driven, uncompromising and self-aware, and by the end of the book I was won over and seriously impressed by the author’s ability to have made such a flawed character both admirable and likeable.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Bold Angel by Kat Martin (audiobook) – Narrated by Lucy Rayner

bold-angel

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

They were enemies in a divided land…

Saxon beauty Caryn of Ivesham longed to escape the chill gray cloisters of the convent to which she’d fled – but not in marriage to the towering, feared Raolfe de Gere, the Norman knight they called Ral the Relentless. Even though he had once saved her from a fate worse than death, she could not forget he’d raised the grim battlements of Braxston keep on her dead father’s lands or that his men had dishonoured her sister. If she wed him to bring peace to her people, he would have to lay siege to her bed. But their destiny was more powerful than the clash of swords. The darkly handsome warlord’s blood coursed with desire for Caryn’s burnished crimson lips, and his passion would not be denied. But in the wild ecstasy they shared Ral feared more than his heart was in danger. Could his rebellious bride be a traitor deadlier than the wolves and brigands prowling deep in English forests?

Rating: Narration – C; Content – D

I suppose I should have known what I was letting myself in for when I read the title and synopsis of Bold Angel:

“Saxon beauty Caryn of Ivesham longed to escape the chill gray cloisters of the convent to which she’d fled-but not in marriage to the towering, feared Raolfe de Gere, the Norman knight they called Ral the Relentless.”

It goes on to tell how the

“darkly handsome warlord’s blood coursed with desire for Caryn’s burnished crimson lips”

… yeah, I should probably have moved on at that point, but I had decided I wanted to listen to Lucy Rayner, who has been listed as the narrator of several Julia Quinn romances being released in December (Splendid, Dancing at Midnight and Minx), in order to get an idea of her abilities and performance style.

The result is a mixed bag. It probably didn’t help that the story is unoriginal and the heroine made me want to wring her neck for pretty much the entire (seemingly interminable) fourteen hours and forty minutes of the audiobook. And I couldn’t help thinking that Ms. Rayner’s crystal-clear tones – while not unpleasant – are rather too bright for a romance. I kept expecting her to shout “jolly hockey sticks!” à la Joyce Grenfell whenever things got heated, difficult or angsty.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Mistaken for a Lady (Knights of Champagne #5) by Carol Townend

mistaken-for-a-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Wearing his ring again…

When a shocking revelation reveals Francesca’s illegitimacy, she worries for her marriage to Tristan, Comte des Iles. Her heart in tatters, she awaits her husband’s return… Will he request an annulment or give their union a second chance?

Duty has kept Tristan from his beautiful wife’s side for far too long, but the memory of her touch is seared into his soul. Now, with malevolent forces working against them, it’s more important than ever for Tristan to show Francesca that he’ll never let her go!

Rating: C

I used to read a lot of medieval romances, but for some reason haven’t picked up so many lately, which is one of the reasons I decided to read Carol Townend’s Mistaken for a Lady the fifth book in her ongoing Knights of Champagne series. Another is that it’s set in and around Brittany and I’m a sucker for stories set in France. It’s a decent read, but feels at times as though it’s romance-by-numbers; we’ve got a couple estranged by circumstances, a heroine who is insecure and doesn’t know where she stands, a hero who is used to bottling things up and keeping secrets (one of which is a doozy) and a villain who goes through the motions of being villainous but who never comes across as particularly clever or menacing – and ultimately I felt as though I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces didn’t quite fit neatly together.

Around a year or so after her marriage to the handsome, gallant Comte Tristan des Iles, his young wife Francesca finds herself left to her own devices when her husband is called to the service of the Countess of Brittany. These are troubled times for the duchy, which is under threat from both France and England (Brittany was an independent state until the middle of the sixteenth century), and as one of its premier knights, Tristan is needed to play a key role in subduing a rebellion and then helping to keep the peace.

But a planned absence of a month or two stretches into two years. Tristan is sent to England on a mission and when he returns, court politics continue to keep him away from home. During that time, Francesca, who had believed herself to be the daughter of the Count of Fontaine suddenly discovers she is not (I am guessing that this happened in Unveiling Lady Clare, the second book in the series), and that not only is she not nobly born, but she is likely illegitimate, too. While Lady Clare treats Francesca with courtesy and kindness, Francesca is horrified at the thought that she has married Tristan under false pretences, and leaves Fontaine because she feels it inappropriate to remain there. When, during the period of Tristan’s absence, he fails to answer any of her letters, she becomes more and more convinced that he regrets their marriage and will want it annulled.

When Tristan is finally able to return to Francesca, it is to deliver the sad news that the man she regarded as her father is on his deathbed and has been asking to see her. Tristan is annoyed, to say the least, that his wife is no longer residing at Fontaine and believes the fact that she has abandoned their home there indicates that she must have decided that their marriage is over.

Around the first third of the book is basically each of them thinking that the other wants an annulment but not directly saying so. I can understand that not having seen or communicated with each other for two years is partly to blame, and the fact that they didn’t really know each other all that well before Tristan left (in spite of having been married for more than a year) won’t have helped, but I can’t deny that the continual repetition of their assumptions as to what what he/she must have been thinking without either of them actually voicing those thoughts was frustrating.

Fortunately, however, once they embark on their journey back to Brittany things improve, and Francesca and Tristan begin to actually talk to each other. They find out that the other did not receive any of the letters they each sent, and Francesca broaches the subject of her newly discovered lack of nobility (and dowry) and posits the idea that Tristan must surely now want a wife who can bring something to their marriage more than just herself and an uncertain lineage. But Tristan insists he doesn’t want another wife and is more than a little surprised at the strength of his desire to keep Francesca with him.

Francesca, however, remains doubtful. She has realised that she is a different person to the naïve girl Tristan married and that if they are to make a life together, then things are going to have to be different to before. Tristan is a man used to command and to keeping his own counsel; and she realises that if there is no trust between them, then their mutual attraction and delight in their physical relationship will not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Early on in their journey, Tristan notices that their small party is being followed. He suspects he knows by whom, but not why; he takes on some extra guards for the rest of the way and they eventually arrive safely at the Castle des Iles, where a whole new set of challenges are going to face him and Francesca as they try to repair their relationship.

As I said at the beginning of the review, there are interesting elements to this tale, but the book as a whole doesn’t quite hang together, and I struggled to maintain my interest in it. While I liked the setting and am usually a fan of second-chance romances, a lot of the uncertainty around the central relationship here feels overly drawn-out and the journey towards the HEA just isn’t compelling. The villain is introduced early on and makes appearances here and there throughout, but never feels integral to the story; and while there is some interesting historical detail, most of it is given in obvious info-dumps and “as-you-know-Bob” conversations. I liked the fact that Francesca recognised things between her and Tristan needed to change and that he was keeping secrets that perhaps he needed to talk about, but didn’t like her method of drawing him out, which was to keep poking and prodding him in a most unsubtle manner. However, my biggest problem with the book is that neither of the protagonists is particularly interesting or engaging and there is no real spark between them. I can forgive much in a romance in terms of the plot if the characters pull me in and the chemistry is there, but sadly, neither of those things is the case here.

I’m not averse to trying more books by this author, but unfortunately can’t really recommend this one.

The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

The Kings Man audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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.

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The Highlander’s Bride by Amanda Forester (audiobook) – Narrated by Mary Jane Wells

the highlander's bride

All Highland warrior Gavin Patrick wants is to get back to his native Scotland. Before Gavin leaves the battlefield, he’s given a final mission – escort Lady Marie Colette to her fiancé. Under no circumstances is he to lay hands on the beautiful heiress…no matter how desperate the temptation.

Forced to pose as a married couple to escape from France, Gavin and Marie Colette find themselves thrown into peril…and each other’s arms. As the danger mounts, so does forbidden passion. It isn’t until Marie Colette is taken from Gavin that he is forced to decide if he is willing to lose the woman who stole his heart or jeopardize his honor, defy his promise, and steal her in return.

The Highlander’s Bride may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: A- for narration; C+ for content

I don’t have a very good track-record with Highlander Romances. I haven’t read or listened to a great many, it’s true, but those I have read have tended to have identical plotlines (boy-meets-girl-from-opposing-clan, boy-and-girl-hate-each-other, boy-and-girl-fall-in-luurve – that sort of thing), so I’ve been wary about choosing review titles with the word “Highlander” in the title. In fact, I’d seen The Highlander’s Bride on our regular list of new releases and ruled it out – until I saw Mary Jane Wells listed as the narrator. She hasn’t let me down yet, so I waded in, thinking that even if the story was disappointing, I’d at least be able to enjoy her performance.

The story turned out to be a predictable one, but was enjoyable nonetheless. The romance simmers with sexual attraction and longing, although the obstacles that are necessary to every romance are somewhat flimsy here and I could have wished the two protagonists had been little less blandly “nice”.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Captured by a Laird by Margaret Mallory (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

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THE DOUGLAS LEGACY

The Douglas sisters, beauties all, are valuable pawns in their family’s bitter struggle to control the Scottish Crown. But when powerful enemies threaten, each Douglas lass will find she must face them alone.

CAPTURED BY A LAIRD

Haunted by his father’s violent death, David Hume, the new laird of Wedderburn, sets out to make his name so feared that no one will dare harm his family again. The treacherous ally who played on his father’s weakness is dead and beyond David’s vengeance, but his castle and young widow are ripe for the taking. The moment David lays eyes on the dark-haired beauty defending her wee daughters, however, he knows this frail-looking lass is the one person who could bring him to his knees.

Wed at thirteen to a man who tried daily to break her spirit, Lady Alison Douglas is looking forward to a long widowhood. But when the fearsome warrior known as the Beast of Wedderburn storms her gates, she finds herself, once again, forced to wed a stranger. Alison is only a pawn to serve his vengeance, so why does this dark warrior arouse such fiery passion and an unwelcome longing in her heart?

With death and danger looming, these two wounded souls must learn to trust each other…for only love can save them.

Rating: B- for narration, C for content

Albert Einstein defined insanity as being the act of “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well, I’ve said several times that “Highlander” stories aren’t really my cup of tea, yet I still read and/or listen to the odd one or two and end up saying the same things, which, in the light of the above quote, probably says more about me than anything else.

Or perhaps I’m just an eternal optimist and hope to find one that works well for me.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

To Marry a Scottish Laird by Lynsay Sands (audiobook), narrated by Kieron Elliott

marrylaird

Highlander Campbell Sinclair is no stranger to battle, so when he sees a lad attacked by bandits, he jumps into the fray. He didn’t count on being stabbed. Grateful to the boy for nursing him back to health, Cam offers to accompany Jo safely to his destination. But when he accidentally comes across the lad bathing in the river, Cam discovers that Jo is actually Joan . . . with the most sinful of curves.

Joan promised her mother that she would deliver a scroll to the clan MacKay. But traveling alone is dangerous, even disguised as a boy. When a Scottish warrior lends his aid, she is more than relieved . . . until he surprises her with lingering kisses and caresses that prove her disguise hasn’t fooled him. As their passion ignites, will the secrets of the scroll force a wedding . . . and lead to a love she’s never known?

Rating: Narration C+; Content D

To Marry a Scottish Laird is a simple compromised-into-marriage story, which is normally one of my favourite tropes in the genre of historical romance. The problem is that while in some cases simplicity of story leaves ample room for character development and relationship progression, neither of those things are apparent in this book. The storytelling is unsophisticated to the point of dullness, there is no chemistry between the two protagonists and the author resorts too often to cliché in both characterisation and plot, so that I came away from this audiobook feeling as though that was ten hours of my life I’d rather like to have back.

Campbell Sinclair is travelling home from a sojourn in the North of England when he happens upon a lad being beaten up by three brigands. Cam is able to rescue the boy and kill or wound his attackers, but not without cost to himself. He is stabbed in the back, and would have died were it not for the care given him by the boy, who – fortunately – turns out to be a healer. Introducing himself as Jonas, the boy explains that he is on his way to deliver a letter to Laird McKay (?), and as soon as he is well enough, Cam offers to let the boy travel with him, as the MacKay lands lie not far from his own home.

A couple of days later, Cam inadvertently discovers that Jonas is, in fact, Joan, which puts a whole different complexion on things, namely that Cam has trouble trying not to think about what she looks like without her clothes on. The journey, which would normally take a few days, is slowed down because of Cam’s injury, and this allows the pair to get to know each other, exchanging stories and confidences along the road.

One stormy night, after he’s well on the way to recovery, Cam finds it impossible to resist Joan’s charms any longer. She’s still under the impression he thinks she’s a boy, so her first reaction to finding herself being soundly kissed and enthusiastically fondled is one of horror. But when Cam quickly makes it clear he realised the truth about her some time ago, she gives him the green light. At this point, I was tempted to rewind to see if I’d missed anything, because this first sexual encounter comes almost completely out of the blue, with no real build-up. One minute Cam’s trying to shelter Joan from the rain and the next he’s ripping her clothes off! And she goes from “what’s he doing?” to “oh, okay, time to lose my virginity” in about ten seconds flat. It also makes no sense given that both characters have spoken about their desire not to marry or have children – yet they have sex with no thought for consequences until after the horse has well and truly bolted several times over.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals