Having reached the conclusion earlier this year that I was never going to get around to actually reading the Maiden Lane series, I decided to listen to the books instead, which proved, on the whole, to have been a good decision. I thoroughly enjoyed books 1-4 and, I think like many devotees of the series, was rather disappointed when I saw that book 5 (Lord of Darkness) had been recorded using a different narrator. But I wanted to continue listening to the series and thought I’d give it a try. That turned out to be the first audiobook ever that I couldn’t finish, which was due entirely to the fact that listening to that particular narrator was akin to listening to nails scraping down a blackboard.
I was therefore pleased – and somewhat apprehensive – when I saw that Duke of Midnight (book 6) would be using a different narrator, and hoped Claudia Harris would be an improvement upon the last one. That has fortunately proved to be the case.
The hero of Duke of Midnight is Maximus Batten, the powerful Duke of Wakefield whom we learned, at the end of Lord of Darkness is the third of the trio of men who have assumed a harlequin’s motley and roamed the foul and dangerous streets of St. Giles by night. Wakefield first appeared in the second book in the series (Notorious Pleasures) and came across as an autocratic, haughty, and unpleasant man with an obsession which he would pursue at any cost. In this book, he’s still very much the same man, although we now get to know the reasons for his obsession, and given he’s the romantic hero of the story, we also get to see a slightly softer side of him through his relationship with Artemis Greaves, a well-born young lady who has fallen on hard times and who now lives as a lady’s companion.
I’m sure the similarities between Maximus and another masked (or, rather, caped) crusader will not go unnoticed by anyone who reads or listens to the book. He’s incredibly wealthy, he saw his parents murdered when he was a child, he has an old family retainer who knows of his secret identity, and has a hidden cave beneath his townhouse and the neighbouring streets.
Our eighteenth century Batman, like his twentieth century counterpart, feels responsible for his parents’ death and has spent much of his life searching for their killer, a search which has led to his obsession with ridding St. Giles (and London in general) of the gin palaces that did so much harm to the poor. He is still fighting in parliament by day to get bills and votes passed that will bring the full weight of the law to bear on those manufacturing the spirit illegally and, by night, he trawls the streets looking for clues as to the identity of the murderer.
It’s on one of those trawls that he encounters Artemis Greaves who, against her better judgement, has accompanied her cousin, Lady Penelope Featherstone, into St. Giles at night in order to win a bet. They are rescued from robbers by the mysterious Ghost and, from the start, Maximus is intrigued and attracted to Artemis, who he senses is not quite the meek, biddable servant she appears to be.
But Maximus cannot afford such feelings towards Artemis. He’s got his future mapped out and it most certainly doesn’t include the sister of the infamous Viscount Kilbourne – a man consigned to Bedlam and suspected of the murders of three men. Maximus is going to do his duty to the dukedom and marry the wealthy, beautiful (and vapid) Penelope Featherstone. He doesn’t love her, but aristocratic marriages rarely involve such emotion and, having decided the matter, Maximus doesn’t give it another thought.
Or rather, he tries not to. Because of her position as Penelope’s companion, he is constantly thrown into Artemis’ company and the attraction between them begins to deepen. Artemis is one of the few people able to see past the trappings of wealth and title to the unhappy and tortured man that lies beneath Wakefield’s forbidding exterior. She is also one of the very few people who have worked out the identity of his alter-ego.
When Artemis receives word that her brother, Apollo (Kilbourne), is close to death, she begs Maximus to use his influence to have him released from the asylum. In her desperation at his refusal, she threatens to expose him as the Ghost of St. Giles. While furious at her effrontery, Maximus cannot help feeling a grudging respect for this woman who is little more than a downtrodden servant, but who is so determinedly fierce as to be prepared to go toe-to-toe with one of the most powerful men in the land.
As the story progresses, the Ghost receives help from an unexpected quarter in his search for the mysterious highwayman he now knows murdered his parents, while Maximus pursues Artemis almost against his better judgement, and even while he remains steadfast in his determination to wed Penelope.
There’s no question in my mind that the star of this book is the redoubtable Artemis Greaves. Life has dealt her a poor hand – she was born a lady, but due to her father’s instability and poor handling of the family finances, she is now dependent on her cousin for her livelihood. Yet she refuses to be weighed down by circumstance, opting instead to make her own choices rather than to allow herself to be subsumed by the life path which seems all that is open to her. Even though the choices she makes may end up causing heartbreak, she reasons that they are still her choices and not ones she has been forced to.
Even though we are now acquainted with the reasons which lie behind Maximus’ arrogance and ruthlessness, I never really warmed to him and found him difficult to like. On the scale of alpha heroes, he’s definitely an alpha-plus, but even though there were glimpses here and there of humour in his dealings with Artemis, and of some degree of compassion in his actions towards Apollo, I still thought he treated Artemis poorly, insisting on his determination to marry her cousin, and sometimes using that fact to deliberately wound her. In his favour, however, I will say that his devotion to his sister Phoebe was rather touching.
Claudia Harris is a narrator I haven’t come across before and a look through Audible indicates she’s a newcomer to the world of audiobooks. If that’s the case, then she has acquitted herself very well, as I found her narration to be well-paced and her characterisations to be appropriate and clearly differentiated. Penelope was given an annoying, high-pitched, little-girl voice which suited her down to the ground, and Maximus was gruff and very abrupt. The male characters, as well as other aristocrats and servants, were all delineated using a variety of vocal timbres such as nasal drawls and harsh, clipped tones and it was easy to tell the three principal female characters (Artemis, Penelope, and Maximus’ sister, Phoebe) apart. I have to admit, however, that while I think Ms. Harris successfully portrayed Maximus’ harsher side, I don’t think she was as successful in her performance of Maximus, the lover.
In fact, I’m compelled to say that I found the romance in the story to be somewhat lacking and I’m not completely sure if that’s due to the writing or the performance. Although Maximus and Artemis have been continually thrown together and even embarked upon a little flirtation here and there, I didn’t get the sense of two people who were forging an emotional bond. Elizabeth Hoyt is a writer renowned for her ability to build and maintain a high level of sexual tension and to write very sensual love scenes but I felt something was missing in this instance.
Ms. Harris’ speaking voice (used when she was reading rather than acting the characters) is somewhat strident and has rather a hard edge. While I did think this gave her performance a good deal of clarity, I think it hampered her ability to convey the softer side of the hero. It seemed to me that Maximus sounded much the same when he was in bed with Artemis as he did when he was talking about the evils of gin or discussing the search for his parents’ killer. There were a couple of occasions, such as when he finally tells Artemis about his parents and, later, when he shares his unsuccessful encounter with the man responsible for their deaths, that Ms. Harris very convincingly conveyed a real sense of Maximus’ suppressed frustration and despair. But when it came to the love scenes, there was very little tenderness in the tone she employed for him and as a result I wasn’t convinced about the depth of his feelings for Artemis.
To sum up: I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed the performance when it came to Ms. Harris’ interpretation of the majority of the characters, but I can’t do more than give this audiobook a qualified recommendation based on the issues I’ve discussed above.
Book Content: B
Steam Factor: Glad I had my ear buds in
Genre: European Historical Romance
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Duke of Midnight was provided to AudioGals for review by Hachette Audio.