Narrated by Derek Perkins
The Highlander is the third book in Kerrigan Byrne’s popular Victorian Rebels series, a dark, richly woven tale of a man trying to come to terms with his brutal past and a woman who has been so horribly abused that she has become a shadow of her former self.
The eponymous Highlander of the title is, to give him his full name, Lieutenant Colonel William Grant Ruaridh Mackenzie of the Her Majesty’s Highland Watch, Marquess Ravenscroft and Thane of Clan Mackenzie of Wester Ross. He is also a widower of some ten years with two teenaged children, Rhianna, seventeen, and Andrew, thirteen – and has, after years serving his country, finally decided to settle at home and look after his extensive lands and estates. He’s known to be a brutal man and a fearsome warrior – he isn’t called the ‘Demon Highlander’ for nothing – but he struggles every day to keep that side of him in check. He is the son of a violent man, one who thought to mould his sons in his image by forcing them to violence and sin at a young age. The book’s prologue goes to some dark places as we learn exactly what the previous marquess expected of his sons and how Liam took it upon himself to save them.
A huge brute of a man, Liam’s army career was a long and bloody one, and he carries the physical and mental scars to prove it. He seemed to court death during his time in the army, believing the devil should have his chance to claim him in penance for all the sins, crimes and atrocities he has committed during his forty years. He’s harsh, ill-tempered, jealous-natured and quick to judge, yet he loves his children dearly and wants to do right by them. Recognising they need more of an education than has so far been provided, he writes to his sister-in-law, Lady Farah Blackwell (The Highwayman) to ask her to engage a governess who will be able tutor them in deportment and manners as well as the usual subjects like French and Geography.
Farah fulfils Liam’s request admirably, recommending Miss Philomena Lockhart as a most suitable candidate, but Liam is absolutely not expecting this governess to have a body made for sin and a tart manner that challenges him and fires his blood equally. In fact, from more or less the moment Miss Philomena Lockhart enters his employ he’s practically a walking erection (!) – but he is determined to keep his hands off her and her luscious curves and behave appropriately, no matter how difficult.
For her part, Miss Lockhart is astonished to discover her new employer is a large, ruggedly handsome man who radiates virility rather than the elderly retired gentleman she had envisaged. But she can’t afford to become distracted by Liam’s obvious attractions – she has to keep focused on her job until such time as it is safe for her to come out of hiding. Listeners may recall that she is really Lady Philomena St. Vincent, the Viscountess Benchley and that she had an important secondary role in the previous book in the series (The Hunter). For five years, she has been stuck in a miserable marriage with an abusive husband, and because she helped to expose the viscount’s sister as a murderess, he had her locked away in an asylum where she has been beaten, subjected to horrible ‘treatments’ and indignities and mistreated on a daily basis. She is on the verge of being raped when the cavalry arrives in the form of Dorian Blackwell, Christopher Argent and Inspector Morely, who get Mena away to safety and then take steps to have the place closed down.
While the book is named after its hero, the story is more about Mena and her growth from a woman used to being beaten and cowering in submission to one who can stand up for herself and shows her rediscovering her identity and sense of self as an individual. I applaud the author for the way she shows just how few rights women had at the time the book is set, and how so many of them were forced into terrible situations with no prospect of escape or recourse to justice. So whereas the previous books gave us a couple of very broken heroes, this one gives us a broken heroine. That isn’t to say that Liam’s issues are ignored; deep down, he fears becoming a sadistic bastard like his father, and is also haunted by the tragedy that ended his first marriage – but he seems – to an extent – to have made his peace with his past in a way that Blackwell and Argent had not until they found and accepted love.
The romance is well developed – in spite of the insta-lust on Liam’s part – and Ms. Byrne pens a love story full of tenderness as well as passion as these two wounded souls become closer and eventually admit to the nature of their feelings for each other. The prose verges on the purple at times, and while this isn’t my favourite of the series so far, it’s nonetheless entertaining and Ms. Byrne doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to showing how helpless Mena was, or to just how far Liam will go in order to protect those he cares about.
I suspect that a good part of my enjoyment came as a result of Derek Perkins’ superb performance. I’ve listened to him a number of times over the past few years and on the whole, have enjoyed his narrations. But he’s now a firm favourite and his work here clearly shows just why his performance in The Highwayman was worthy of the Audie for best Romance this year. In fact, he’s even better in The Highlander – I can’t fault him.
I frequently bemoan the lack of good male narrators of historical romance in particular, but Mr. Perkins has really come into his own as a performer of romance audiobooks and is definitely among the very small group I’d call excellent. I’m not talking about the technical aspect of his performance (pacing, differentiation, accents etc.) – although that IS very good – it’s more that he clearly demonstrates an understanding of what is required of a narrator in this particular genre. He recognises that listeners want to hear the emotion in his voice, that performing love scenes with confidence and conviction is essential if they’re to be taken seriously and he knows not to go over the top. I recently listened to The Hating Game, in which the narrator, while good, didn’t quite capture the essence of what romance listeners want to hear. Listening to this shortly afterwards really highlighted the difference between someone who understands romance and what it requires of a performer on an instinctive level and someone who doesn’t. And Mr. Perkins really gets it.
As I’ve already said, this is a highly technically accomplished performance, and I wanted to single out the narrator’s portrayal of Mena in particular. His female voices here are spot on; he doesn’t resort to falsetto and with a slight raise in pitch and softening of tone, presents all the women in the story – including Rhianna – in a way that sounds plausibly feminine. He’s also a dab hand at a Scottish accent, and I particularly like that he can use it in differing degrees, adding either a gentle lilt – as for Liam – or a thick brogue; and the Indian accent he employs for Jani (Liam’s Indian valet) is very good indeed – it can be a difficult accent to sustain without it straying across the line into caricature, but Mr. Perkins makes it sound easy.
Anyone following this series will definitely want to pick up The Highlander, and while it works as a standalone, if you haven’t yet sampled Ms. Byrne’s darkly romantic tales, you might consider starting with The Highwayman, which remains my favourite of the set so far.
Book Content: B-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Graphic
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Tantor Audio
The Highlander was provided to AudioGals by Tantor Audio for a review.