The Soldier’s Scoundrel is one of those rare début novels that is so accomplished in terms of the writing, characterisation and storytelling that it’s difficult to believe it’s someone’s first book. Cat Sebastian has penned a story which combines a wonderfully written and very… well, romantic romance with a dash of mystery and topped it off with a healthy dollop of relevant and cleverly interwoven social comment and a well-researched historical background.
A former thief, con-artist and gentleman’s gentleman now turned investigator, Jack Turner takes as his clients those people who, because of their gender or social station have no other way of securing justice – women and the poor. He is expecting his latest client when a gorgeous but angry man bursts into his office demanding to know why his sister, Lady Montford, has just paid Jack the large sum of two hundred pounds. Jack has no love for the aristocracy, and bridles immediately, recognising the man as Captain Oliver Rivington, younger son of the Earl of Rutland.
Owing to a serious leg wound, Oliver has sold his army commission and returned to England where he hopes to settle into a life of quiet predictability, free from the chaos, upheaval and frequently appalling behaviour he witnessed in the army. The lawless actions of many of his comrades following victorious battles sickened him and he has thus looked forward to being in England, a country where due process is valued and the law upheld. So the idea that Jack has used less than legal means in order to help Lady Montford does not sit well with Oliver, no matter that whatever Jack did has freed her from the unwelcome attentions of her abusive husband for the past two years.
Jack refuses to answer Oliver’s questions and Oliver refuses to leave – so Jack waves him to a dark corner while he speaks to his new client, one Mrs. Wraxhall, a young, attractive woman who is the victim of a blackmail attempt. Realising that Jack is likely to resort to illegal means to gather information about the case, Oliver begins his own investigation, determined to help the lady retrieve her missing letters without resorting to breaking the law. Over the next couple of weeks, the men encounter each other a few times, and while Jack remains brusque, he nonetheless finds it increasingly difficult to resist Oliver’s charm and good nature.
Jack’s enquiries lead him to the conclusion that he is going to have to travel to Mrs. Wraxhall’s Yorkshire home, making him even grumpier than usual – he’s a Londoner born and bred and hates leaving the city. Oliver suggests they travel together; his family home is not far away from their destination and he believes he could be of some use when it comes to ferreting out information. Jack grudgingly agrees that a pretty, well-mannered aristocrat might be able to open doors closed to him, so he accepts Oliver’s invitation to drive them there, admitting to himself that his motives are not exactly pure. From the moment they met, there has been a strong pull of attraction between the two men, even though Jack has tried ruthlessly to tamp it down. Oliver Rivington is far too good-looking, too wealthy, too well-bred and too… everything, but that doesn’t mean that Jack is averse to taking him to bed. It’s not something he does often, and he is certainly not interested in any emotional entanglements, but a few quick rolls in the hay – those, he can do and is looking forward to.
For his part, Oliver is just as strongly attracted to Jack, and even though he is not comfortable with the idea that Jack will resort to criminal activities if he needs to in order to get his job done, he soon comes to realise that Jack lives by his own code of honour. Oliver is quick to realise that Jack’s gruffness is a cover and a way of keeping people at arm’s length, and finds that he wants to break through those barriers and show Jack that he’s worthy of love and affection.
So far, this probably sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill story; aristocrat-falls-for-someone-from-wrong-side-of-the-tracks – and to an extent that’s exactly what it is. But what sets this book apart from so many others that use the same trope is the quality of the writing and the superbly crafted relationship between the two protagonists, which is funny, sexy, tender and gorgeously romantic. In spite of their difference in station, there is a beautiful equality to Jack and Oliver’s relationship, and I loved their playfulness when together. Ms. Sebastian has done a brilliant job in developing their romance, so it’s easy to believe that here are two people who have something more going on between them than merely lust or attraction. After their initial mistrust, there’s a refreshing honesty to their association and a true depth of feeling that is conveyed through their words and actions.
I was delighted when I saw The Soldier’s Scoundrel was coming to audio, but apprehensive when I saw an unfamiliar narrator listed. A quick search at Audible shows Gary Furlong has sixteen narrations to his credit (five of which are joint narrations) – and I am happy to report that, apart from a couple of fairly small issues, he does justice to this terrific book. The best part of his performance overall is undoubtedly his interpretation of the two main characters. He gives Oliver an appropriate aristocratic drawl when called for, and is equally good at putting a suitable degree of gruffness into his portrayal of Jack. He conveys the warmth, humour and affection that permeates the dialogue between the two men incredibly well, and brings their relationship to life in such a way as to give the listener the sense that these are two well-matched people who understand and appreciate each other for who and what they are.
His female character voices are decent for the most part, although he doesn’t have to sustain any of them for a great length of time. There’s no falsetto and not much of a raise in pitch; instead, he performs the women by means of a change in timbre, often adding a slightly harsh edge to the tone.
The minor issues I mentioned boil down to two things. One is that at times during the narrative portions of the book, Mr. Furlong speaks a little too fast. Not so fast as to make him difficult to understand, but noticeably rushed. The other issue is that for some reason, he has given Jack a slight northern accent, although it’s made clear in the text that he was born and bred in the London slums, AND that he has deliberately lost his cockney accent and now speaks with the sort of ‘public school’ accent that Oliver uses. I accept that accents are a useful means of differentiation for any narrator, and that in many books, such things are not specified so a narrator can ‘get away’ with giving a character an accent. But that’s not the case here and it’s a very obvious short-cut, especially when Mr. Furlong then goes on to give other lower-class Londoners similar (northern) accents. He gets a metaphorical wrist-slap for that.
But with that said, his strong portrayal of the two central characters and his ability to convey finely nuanced emotion are good enough to allow the listener to overlook those faults and enjoy the story. For a relatively new narrator, Mr. Furlong has the knack of connecting to the characters he portrays and, as a result, forging a connection with the listener. Ms. Sebastian’s next book – about Jack’s flamboyant brother, Georgie – is due out early in 2017, and I would certainly hope that Mr. Furlong’s services are retained if it’s also made available in audio format.
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance (M/M)
Publisher: Harper Audio
The Soldier's Scoundrel was provided to AudioGals by Harper Audio for a review.