Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series is, I think, her only one where I’ve not read any of the books, but have listened to all in audio format instead. Normally with long-running series, I find I do a bit of each – read some, listen to some (and in some cases read and listen), but somehow this has been an audio-only collection for me.
The first four books in the series were most ably narrated by Ashford MacNab, so when, for some unknown reason, the publisher decided to change narrators after Thief of Shadows, I was both puzzled and disappointed; and I know I wasn’t the only Maiden Lane devotee to feel that the quality of the performances in the following outings had taken a nosedive.
So I was delighted to see Ms MacNab returning to the series for Book 7, Darling Beast. She understands the characters, their world and the nature of these stories very well indeed, and she’s brought back a key element that I felt was missing from the last two audiobooks – the romance. Of course it’s there on the page, but a narrator has to be able to translate those emotions successfully without over – or under-doing them (as was certainly the case with the audio Duke of Midnight) and I don’t just mean in the actual love scenes. It’s about allowing the characters’ feelings to shine through the words and giving them the right emotional emphasis, and those things were most definitely lacking in the previous two Maiden Lane audios.
Much of Darling Beast takes place in and around Harte’s Folly, the pleasure garden owned by Asa Makepeace which was burned down at the end of Duke of Midnight. In that book, the heroine, Artemis Greaves, was desperate to secure the release of her brother Apollo from Bedlam, where he’d been incarcerated after having been falsely accused of the murder of three friends four years earlier.
Rescued from the asylum by Artemis’ husband, the Duke of Wakefield, Apollo – Viscount Kilbourne – is now hiding out in the ruins of the pleasure garden while simultaneously working on its restoration. An aristocrat he may be, but his passion is for landscaping and he’s certainly not afraid of getting his hands dirty.
Lily Stump is one of London’s most celebrated actresses, known principally for performing breeches roles. Because she had an exclusive contract to perform only in Harte’s theatre, its destruction means that she has no means of earning a living, especially as a rival impresario has made it impossible for her to find work anywhere else. To help her out, Asa – who is known at large as Mr Harte – allows her to move into a couple of the undamaged rooms with her maid/companion, her seven-year-old son, Indio, and his dog. When Indio announces one day that there’s a monster living in the garden, Lily is naturally dismissive, until she stumbles across him, massive, shaggy-haired, most definitely NOT handsome, and sadly mute. Because this huge beast of a man cannot talk, she immediately assumes he is mentally deficient – something which Apollo, completely in command of his faculties but left unable to speak after a savage beating, finds rather amusing.
Because he’s in hiding, and has no idea if Lily is to be trusted, Apollo allows her to continue to think he’s simple-minded and nothing more than one of the labourers engaged to work upon the garden. But after Apollo saves Indio’s dog from drowning, Lily begins to see that there’s much more to him and to realise that she’d been wrong in her assumptions. From then on, Apollo starts communicating in writing, and as he gradually begins to regain the use of his voice, is able to tell Lily his story – although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s the heir to an earldom.
He is determined to prove his innocence and track down the real culprit, but when his hiding place is discovered and he is forced to run, Lily despairs of seeing him again. Weeks later, she is shocked when Apollo appears, well-groomed, well-dressed, and every inch the man of substance, at a house-party where she and her small acting troupe have been engaged to perform.
She struggles at first to accept that Viscount Kilbourne is the same man she’s been falling in love with but Apollo is completely unconcerned with their difference in station. He’s the same man underneath the clothes, and he’s the man who loves her, and that’s all that matters to him. But Lily has a secret of her own, one which will eventually lead to her having to make a devastating choice.
Darling Beast has a gentler feel than some of the other books in the series, and I think that’s because while there is a mystery to be solved, it’s not an action-packed yarn in the way that, for example, the books that featured the Ghost of St. Giles were. And that’s not a criticism – I actually enjoyed the fact that it was a little less busy with more time to concentrate on illuminating the characters and developing the romance.
Apollo is the epitome of the gentle giant, a hulking great man with an artistic soul, whose essential kindness shines through in his interactions with both Lily and her son. I admit that I’m not a great fan of the use of the “moppet” (children and/or animals) as a shorthand method of showing that a character is a good person, but Ms Hoyt makes it work. Lily is a successful woman, both independent and clever, and the attraction between the two of them is palpable and just leaps off the page.
Ashford MacNab’s narration is a vast improvement on the performances of the narrators used for Books 5 and 6. She differentiates characters through the use of a variety of different timbres and accents rather than through pitch, although she does adopt a slightly lowered pitch for most of the male characters. The narrative is performed with intelligence and sensitivity and her characterizations are, for the most part appropriate and successful.
Narrating an audiobook in which the hero is mute for around half the story probably presents a unique challenge, and Ms MacNab has opted to perform Apollo’s written-down speeches using a similar tone to the one she eventually adopts once he regains his voice. I felt that this was perhaps a little too nasally at times, but it wasn’t something that bothered me to a great extent. I did, however, notice a few other things that bothered me more. For instance, Lily’s companion and maid, Maude, appears in the first chapter, speaking in a broad West Country accent – yet the text specifically states that she’s from the North. The next time Maude appears, she has a Northern accent and I can’t help wondering why that error wasn’t corrected.
With a long-running series in which many characters pop up in several books, it must be difficult to find different ways of voicing all of them, but even bearing this in mind, I have to take issue with Ms MacNab’s portrayal of Phoebe Batten, who has appeared in previous books and who will be the heroine of the next one. Phoebe has acquired a lisp, which I don’t believe is indicated in the text, and sounds as though she is a child rather than a young woman. If Ms MacNab is engaged to narrate Dearest Rogue, I’m sure she’ll make an adjustment accordingly, but given that it’s very clear in this book that her hero – Captain Trevillion – is already rather smitten, it makes for slightly uncomfortable listening when Phoebe sounds like an eight-year-old!
But that’s for the future. For now, Darling Beast is a terrific addition to this series, and in spite of the reservations expressed above, I thoroughly enjoyed Ashford MacNab’s performance and hope she’s back to stay.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: B and Book Content: B+
Unabridged. Length – 9 hours 41 minutes