Narrated by Alex Wyndham
Anyone who – like me – appreciates Historical Romance that has a firm emphasis on the “Historical” will find a great many things to enjoy in this new audiobook version of Stella Riley’s A Splendid Defiance. Set during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, the novel tells the true story of the small garrison of around three hundred and fifty men who held the strategically important Royalist stronghold of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire in the face of overwhelming odds, and many of the characters who grace its pages are people who actually existed.
Skilfully interwoven with the story of the castle and its defenders is the glorious (but fictional) slow-burn romance between Justin Ambrose, a cynical, acerbic captain in the King’s army and Abigail Radford, whose brother, Jonas, is a leader of the local community and a die-hard Puritan. The romance starts very slowly – so anyone who expects the first kiss between the hero and heroine to happen in chapter three is going to be disappointed – but builds steadily throughout and is all the more believable as a result. Justin and Abigail begin the story as strangers and the author allows their relationship to develop in a manner that feels perfectly realistic, considering he’s a serving army officer with duties to perform and Abby lives a very restrictive life controlled by her harsh zealot of a brother.
Their first meeting is an inauspicious one, and takes place when Justin comes across a couple of his men – who are more than a little inebriated – trying to press their attentions on a young woman garbed in the severe style of a Puritan. He sends the men on their way, sees the girl safely home and thinks nothing more of it. Their next few meetings are equally brief, accidental and – for Justin – unmemorable, but things between them undergo a sea change after Justin is badly wounded while on a mission and Abigail, wanting to repay a kindness shown to her younger brother, Sam, insists on visiting and tending him.
As their friendship grows, Justin comes to realise that there is more to Abby than her dowdy clothing and self-effacing, dutiful manner would suggest, and decides to foster the spirit of rebellion he senses lies dormant beneath the surface. He asks her to meet with him in secret, well aware that his wish to spend time with her is born of his desire to get one over on Jonas; but it’s not long before he starts to enjoy her company for its own sake. Abby has lived a very sheltered life and is fascinated by Justin’s tales of his travels abroad, also displaying a keen intelligence when their talk turns to politics and the current state of the kingdom and the war. As the weeks pass, Justin comes to realise that in Abby, he has found someone who offers the sort of comfort and understanding he has not experienced since the death of his mother when he was a child. And Abby is blossoming before his very eyes; her horizons broadening, her confidence growing… and her feelings for Justin turning from dazzled infatuation with the only man ever to take an interest in her into a deep, abiding – and hopeless – love.
I first read A Splendid Defiance around thirty years ago when it was first published and it’s remained one of my favourite historical romances. I re-read it regularly and each time, I think – “surely it can’t be as good as I remember it” – and every time, I discover that it’s exactly that good. While the historical background is extremely well-researched and incorporated into the storyline, it’s the love story and the superb characterisation that bring me back to it time and time again.
The slow pacing of the romance within the overall context of the story allows listeners to become fully acquainted with both protagonists and provides a realistic time-frame for Abigail to grow from the timid, downtrodden girl we meet at the beginning into the young woman who is ready to defy her obnoxious brother in order to pursue the life – and love – she wants. It also affords plenty of time for the author to develop the undercurrents of romantic tension that have been steadily building between Justin and Abby, so that by the final section of the story they’ve reached boiling point. Ms Riley is one of those authors who has the knack of creating the most delicious sexual tension between her heroes and heroines, and who can do as much with a look or a touch as some authors can do with a full-blown sex scene. The love scenes in A Splendid Defiance aren’t very explicit, but they’re beautifully romantic and sensual – and worth waiting for.
But it’s Justin Ambrose who is the real star of the show, and if there’s anyone out there who has read the book and hasn’t finished up by being head-over-heels in love with him… well, I haven’t met them yet. He’s a complex, guarded man, and it’s clear that there’s something in his past that has hurt him deeply. He can be difficult to like at times, using his sardonic wit and sharp tongue to keep others at arm’s length; his temper is unpredictable and he has a bit of a self-destructive streak. But he’s also a man of integrity and honour with a great capacity for tenderness and compassion that he doesn’t often display. He’s a good soldier and an exceptional leader of men; and Ms. Riley doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the less pleasant aspects of his job. Because, as he says – “when something needs to be done, I do it.” The fact that he’s also sexy as hell doesn’t hurt, and I freely admit to being a complete sucker for a hero with a dark past and a tongue that can wound at twenty paces.
And added to all that, you have the superb narrating talent that is Alex Wyndham – and for anyone reading this who has already listened to him, I won’t need to say any more. But just in case there are fans of historical romance audiobooks out there who haven’t heard any of his other narrations, I’ll tell you why you’re missing out and should go and listen to him immediately.
It’s not just that he has a beautiful voice – although that’s perfectly true. He’s also extremely accomplished technically, and is a superb vocal actor; his pacing in both narrative and dialogue is excellent and he differentiates very effectively between characters, employing a variety of pitch, timbre, tone and accent according to the age, station and gender of whomever is speaking. A Splendid Defiance has quite a large number of male secondary characters, and every single one of them is distinguishable from the others; from Ned Frost’s youthful tenor to Jonas Radford’s blustering, Oxfordshire-accented bass and Hugh Vaughan’s Welsh lilt. It doesn’t matter whether the men are all in a scene together, or with just one other person; each of them is immediately identifiable, and because they’re so well characterised in both writing and performance, the listener always knows who is speaking. There are fewer female characters and other than Abigail, none of them get a great deal of “screen time”, but again, they’re easy to tell apart from one another. Jonas’ wife, Rachel, speaks with an audible sneer, Hannah Rhodes’ speech is characterised by a slow and deliberately seductiveness and Nancy –the tart with a heart (!) – is chipper and no-nonsense.
The character of Justin Ambrose does most of the heavy lifting in this story, so his portrayal was always going to be crucial to the success of the audiobook. Adopting a resonant baritone a tad deeper than his normal speaking voice, Mr. Wyndham somehow embodies all the complexities of the character, switching effortlessly between irascibility, tenderness, exasperation and humour – sometimes in a single speech. Through it all, there’s no question that this is a man accustomed to command and to getting things done. And he’s equally good in the more tender and romantic moments, when he imbues Justin’s words with a sonorous intimacy that might just have been a little bit knee-weakening at times ;)
It’s going to come as no surprise when I say that I’m recommending A Splendid Defiance wholeheartedly. If you’re looking for a richly detailed story, a beautifully developed romance and a compelling, devastatingly attractive and unforgettable hero, it’s all here. Throw in a marvellously nuanced performance by one of the best narrators around and you’ve got a listening experience to savour over and over again.
Book Content: A
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in, but at the tame end
Violence Rating: Escalated Fighting
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Stella Riley
A Splendid Defiance was provided to AudioGals by Stella Riley for a review.