Desert Isle Keeper
Lords of Misrule
Stella Riley’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series of books set during the English Civil Wars is an absolute treat for those who enjoy well-researched historical fiction AND historical romance. Each book in the series is grounded strongly in historical fact and the stories Ms Riley layers atop her chosen background are cleverly constructed and closely interlinked with the events of the day, often so skilfully that it’s difficult to see the join. As well as immersing the reader into the world of seventeenth century England, she puts a strongly written and sensual romance at the centre of her books, creating attractive, believable protagonists who really seem to act and think like men and women of their times.
Each book can be read as a standalone, although there are a number of recurring characters throughout and given that the historical events are followed chronologically, I’d advise reading them in order. The first book, The Black Madonna opens in 1639, which is when we first meet Eden Maxwell as a hopeful, optimistic young man of twenty or twenty-one. He is desperately in love with the daughter of a neighbouring family, Celia Langley, and determined to marry her in spite of the warnings of friends and family who say she is wrong for him. Sadly for Eden, they are right. Celia is beautiful, vain and selfish and only agreed to marry him because he was so thoroughly besotted with her that she believed he’d be easy to manage and because she liked being so adored.
Eden’s troubles did not end there, however, for when civil war broke out, the Maxwells and the Langleys were on different sides of the conflict and even though Celia was now his wife, her sympathies were with the Royalists. She bore Eden a son, Jude, and some years later, a daughter Eden knows is not his. Celia eventually ran off with a Royalist officer, leaving her children at Eden’s family home of Thorne Ash, while disillusioned and embittered, Eden concentrated on his army career and rarely returns home.
Lords of Misrule opens in late 1653, around four years after the execution of King Charles I and more than a decade after the start of a series of bloody civil wars that divided England and its people. But regicide has not solved any of the problems that beset the country, and in fact things seem to be getting worse. While there were many factors that led to Charles’ trip to the executioner’s block – unpopular taxes, expensive wars and Charles’ insistence on his divine right to rule – England is still in political and social turmoil, so much so that many of Cromwell’s supporters have begun to ask themselves just what exactly they had been fighting for.
Colonel Eden Maxwell is one of those people. A highly trained and skilled officer, he has risen through the ranks and is now a trusted member of Cromwell’s inner circle. He is currently working for the Secretary of State, John Thurloe, as an intelligencer and cryptographer, but as the days pass, finds being chained to his desk increasingly frustrating. His repeated requests for a leave of absence have been denied and he is stuck in London buried under the mounds of paper generated by reports of unrest, possible insurrection, royalist plots and a myriad of other dull, fruitless tasks – until he receives information of a more plausible plot against Cromwell’s life (there were several at this point in time). One of the suspected conspirators, Sir Aubrey Durand, leads Eden to the city lorinery run by his widowed sister, and in the course of his investigations into the plot, Eden uncovers far more than he’d initially been looking for.
Lydia Neville was contented in her marriage a man several decades older than herself. On his death, she inherited all his property, including the lorinery, which she continues to run successfully and in spite of the constantly expressed disapproval of his relatives, all of whom invade her home on an almost daily basis to try to persuade her to give it up. But Lydia is no shrinking miss and makes it clear each time that she will do no such thing – although her assurances fall upon deaf ears and do not dissuade them from their latest scheme to marry her off to her late husband’s smarmy cousin.
When Eden visits the lorinery, he is pleasantly surprised to find some of his former comrades working there, for the business employs invalid ex-soldiers who would not otherwise be able to find work, regardless of which side they fought on. He is quite impressed by Lydia – or perhaps “impressed” is the wrong word, although she certainly makes an impression upon him by virtue of her strength of character, quick mind and sharp tongue. But what Eden has learned from the men concerns him. Someone has been making threats against Lydia, and those threats have started to get serious. Although she has tried to dismiss them as the prejudice any woman in business might expect to encounter, deep down she knows this is not the case and that she needs help if she is to be able to get to the bottom of them before anyone is seriously hurt – or worse.
Anyone who has read any of Stella Riley’s other books won’t need me to tell them that her plot is impeccably constructed, her characterisation is superb, her research is detailed and extensive and that she writes the most exquisitely ‘romantic’ romances in which the sexual tension between the hero and heroine is built gradually and subtly. There is no repetitive mental lusting and no insta-lust, just a wonderfully developed relationship between two people who are obviously attracted to each other but who have to function in the real world around them and can’t just drop everything while they moon over the object of their affections.
Ms. Riley’s greatest strength – and she has many – is probably characterisation. She has the knack of creating the most gorgeous heroes, men who are physically attractive, of course, but who are also intelligent, honourable, kind and quick-witted with a dry sense of humour and possessed of the kind of competence and confidence which is extremely sexy. Eden is no exception, and readers who have been waiting for his story for the last couple of decades certainly won’t be disappointed now that he’s the centre of attention. His unhappy marriage and the strain it put on his relationship with his family – especially Jude, who is now a teenager – play an important part in the novel, and I loved watching the gradual reconciliation between father and son. It’s not easy for either of them and Ms. Riley wisely shows that there is still a way to go; but what we are shown is touching and very believable. Lydia is a great heroine, a woman in a man’s world who refuses to bow to outside pressure but who has sense enough to recognise that she needs help and isn’t too proud to accept it. There is one time when she makes an unwise decision – even though she’s been warned against it – that leads to near disaster, but otherwise, she’s strong, independent and very likeable, a good match for Eden, in every way.
There is a very strongly-drawn set of secondary characters in the book, some of whom, like Eden’s younger brother, Toby, and his house-guest, Sir Nicholas Austin, we have met before. Toby is a real scene-stealer – handsome, charming, roguish and forever having to step over the pile of women who fall at his feet – can we have a book about him next, pretty please? Fans of Gabriel Brandon from Garland of Straw will be very pleased to encounter him again as he travels to London to take up a seat in Parliament, and at the continuance of the strong friendship between him and Eden. One of those other many strengths of Ms Riley’s I mentioned is her ability to write thoroughly convincing male friendships; and that talent is showcased here in both Eden’s relationship with Gabriel and in his interactions with Toby, which are often funny and, for want of a better word, very brotherly.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what readers can expect to find in Lords of Misrule. There’s a well-conceived and well-executed mystery, a tender, sensual romance, and a fascinating historical background which never feels like too much information or as though one is being given an history lesson. If you’re tempted to start here, I think you could probably do so with minimal effort, but ultimately, all the books in the series are such damn good reads that I’d suggest starting with The Black Madonna. Before you’re half-way through, you’ll want to turn off your phone, ignore your kids/work/friends, lock yourself away and not come out until you’ve finished them all.