Narrated by James Langton
As a big fan of Grace Burrowes’ historical romances, I was doing the happy dance of joy when I saw that at long last, more of her novels were going to be made available as audiobooks. My dance was even happier when I saw that Tantor had retained the services of James Langton as her narrator; he is someone I always enjoy listening to, and I feel he really ‘gets’ the author’s very individual and sometimes quirky writing style.
The Heir is Ms. Burrowes’ first published book, and is also the first in her eight book (plus handful of novellas) Windham series, which focuses on the lives and loves of the three sons and five daughters of the Duke and Duchess of Morland. The books fall into two groups; the first three are subtitled The Duke’s Obsession (so named because of Morland’s desperation to see his sons married) and the other five are collected together as The Duke’s Daughters… which I suppose is self-explanatory.
As anyone who has read other books by this author will be aware, Ms Burrowes has created a huge canvas – which a friend of mine aptly named “Burrowesworld” – across all of her books. The Windham series and the Lonely Lords series feature many recurring and cross-over characters, and while in many cases, it isn’t absolutely necessary to have read other books in either series, I can’t deny that my own enjoyment of The Heir was enhanced by the knowledge I’ve since gained about characters such as the Marquess of Heathgate (Gareth), the Earl of Graymoor (Andrew), Viscount Amery (Douglas) and Viscount Fairly (David), who are the heroes of books 6-9 of the latter series.
The eponymous heir of this book is Gayle Windham, the Earl of Westhaven. Although he is the Windham’s second son, he became his father’s heir when his older brother was killed in the Peninsular War. Westhaven is a very responsible young man and a dutiful son; he has single-handedly turned around the failing family fortunes, he is up to his eyes in the running the family’s many estates and business interests and he is the repository for everyone else’s troubles; but his relationship with his father has become increasingly strained because of Morland’s almost maniacal desire to get Gayle wedded, bedded and filling his nursery.
Westhaven maintains his own establishment in London and has opted – most unfashionably – to remain there throughout the summer when most of the aristocracy will have departed for their country estates to avoid the heat of the city. But for Gayle, staying in town is something he hopes will afford him some respite from his father’s constant nagging about finding a wife and give him some time to himself.
At the beginning of the story, his attempt to help his new housemaid out of a fix is misconstrued and results in his being smacked with a poker by his housekeeper, Anna Seaton. Having rendered the earl unable to attend to his mountain of work, and in the absence of his secretary, Anna ends up acting as a temporary amanuensis and also cares for him through the injury and a later illness. His is a duty-filled, somewhat regimented existence in which he feels it his obligation to look after everybody – yet he has had nobody to look after him, until, that is, Anna comes into his life and provides the kind of emotional support he badly needs. During this period of enforced closeness, Westhaven discovers that his housekeeper is actually a well-educated, well-read young woman, something which starts him thinking that perhaps there is more to her than meets the eye. Anna is running from something or someone, but even as she and Westhaven are becoming closer, she refuses to confide in him, determined to sort out her own problems and not to add to the burdens of a man already carrying so much on his wide, extremely attractive shoulders.
The story is a fairly simple one, but even though I’m a big fan of this author, I have to say that it’s not one of her best. For one thing, the idea of an earl falling in love with and wanting to marry his housekeeper doesn’t raise a single eyebrow from anyone in the Windham family. Given that Westhaven is the heir to a very prestigious title, that is extremely hard to swallow, in spite of the fact that hints are dropped to the effect that Anna is probably a little higher up the social scale than she appears to be. Westhaven doesn’t know anything for sure, so to all intents and purposes, he is set on marrying a woman of much lower social standing, something that would have caused a massive scandal given the restrictive social hierarchy of the time. And the plot regarding Anna’s secrets and her refusal to trust Westhaven with them goes on for far too long; it overwhelms around the final quarter of the book and I found myself starting to dislike Anna and getting frustrated at her stupidity in thinking she could handle her situation on her own.
Where Ms Burrowes excels, however, is in writing strong characters and relationships, both romantic and familial. The relationship between the three brothers – Westhaven, Valentine and St. Just – is very well written, making clear that there is a huge current of affection running between them through their fond teasing and unquestioning support of each other. She also subtly addresses the fact that they are all still grieving not just the loss of one brother, but two, their younger brother having recently succumbed to consumption. The romance between Westhaven and Anna evolves at a sensible pace; even though the pair of them are attracted to each other fairly early on, the author allows them time to talk and to get to know and understand each other a little before taking things further. The two principals and the key secondary characters are all intelligent, warm and likeable – even the interfering, meddlesome duke eventually redeems himself and I enjoyed listening to him and Westhaven starting to repair their fractured relationship.
As I said at the beginning, I was pleased to see that James Langton (who has recorded the author’s Victorian-set MacGregor trilogy as well as a handful of novellas) was on board for this and the next two books in the series. His slightly husky baritone is very easy on the ear and he has a firm grasp of Ms. Burrowes’ unique writing style; so much so that I tend to hear his voice in my head whenever I’m reading one of her books! His pacing in both narrative and dialogue is excellent; he differentiates extremely well between all the characters, and especially between the brothers, all of whom are clearly distinct from one another. He maintains an Irish accent for St. Just which is consistent throughout, and does a good job with the two villains of the piece, giving one of them such an unpleasant, guttural, gravelly tone that I worried for his vocal cords! I didn’t particularly care for his interpretation of Lord Amery, who sounds a little too old, but that may just be personal preference; and in fact, this would be an A grade performance were it not for one thing. I’ve said before that at times, Mr. Langton doesn’t quite manage to maintain a suitable pitch and tone for the heroine, and unfortunately that’s the case here. For about 85% of the time, his portrayal of Anna is very good. He employs an attractively softened tone and gives her a slight northern accent, which is perfectly acceptable as she comes from Yorkshire. But in moments of heightened emotion and love scenes, the pitch can climb too high, sometimes becoming almost squeaky, and that, together with an exaggerated inflection, makes those moments difficult to take seriously. That really is my only criticism, however, and it’s possible I’m judging him a little harshly because he is such a good narrator and my expectations for his performances are therefore higher than for the majority of the other narrators I listen to.
In spite of that and the issues I’ve mentioned with some aspects of the plot, I did enjoy listening to The Heir and I’m certainly going to be picking up book two in the series, The Soldier.
Book Content: B-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Tantor Audio
The Heir was provided to AudioGals by Tantor Audio for a review.