I’ll admit to some trepidation when I picked up Royally Matched. There seems to be a current fad for fake-British royals in romances, in which authors seem to think it’s okay to mangle British history and geography just so they can employ the trappings of the monarchy in their stories. For her Royally series, author Emma Chase appears to have carved up the UK to create the kingdom of Wessco (which sounds like a supermarket chain). I gather it has ties to England and Scotland that go back to medieval times – so where is it? A rock in the North Sea? A bit of Scotland that has somehow become independent, referendum notwithstanding? I’m sorry, I know this is a rom-com and most people probably don’t care, but I live here (the UK, not a rock in the North Sea) and things like this BUG me!
Anyway. In the previous book, the Crown Prince, Nicholas, stepped aside from the succession in order to marry the woman he loved, leaving his younger brother Harry Henry as heir to their grandmother, the formidable Queen Lenora. Henry has always been the “other” one, the rebel who likes to party long and hard, the one who doesn’t care about tradition and rules – and the one most likely to fuck up. But now, he’s faced with the prospect of becoming king one day, and he’s not adjusting at all well.
Having been hauled over the coals – again – by the Queen (who is awesome, by the way) over whatever most recent exploit has landed him in the doggy-doo, he is sent to remote Althorp Anthorp castle to kick his heels and to seriously consider how he is going to handle the future burden of kingship. I can understand how a grown man and former army officer would react badly to being sent to the naughty step, but instead of acting like a grown-up and using it as an opportunity to reassess his life and decide what he needs to do, Henry instead decides to throw the equivalent of a temper tantrum and take up the offer made him recently by an American TV producer to star in a special “royal” edition of Matched – a reality dating show I assume is a not-so-thinly disguised version of The Bachelor.
Our heroine is Lady Sarah von Titebottum. Yes. I can’t believe it either. I will charitably assume it’s meant to be funny, even though it’s the sort of name you’d have heard on the Benny Hill Show back in the 1970s. Sarah is a mild-mannered, virginal librarian who loves her job, but is terrified at the prospect of having to deliver a paper at an upcoming symposium. She declines to take part in Matched, but her mother makes it a condition of her sister’s participation that Sarah goes along as chaperone – and when she realises that it will mean she can get out of the symposium, she is delighted at the prospect of having six weeks to herself in a remote spot and agrees to go along.
Sarah and Henry meet while the crew is setting up a shot, and Sarah is immediately struck by Henry’s open, friendly demeanour and sense of humour. He finds himself liking this bespectacled, bookish young woman – a rare occurrence for him, as most of the time, he sizes up women as potential bed-mates – and when later that night, he is unable to sleep because of the noise coming from the cameras installed in his room, Henry ends up knocking on her door (she’s not a contestant so there are no cameras inside) and asking if he can spend the night there. After the obligatory argument about who has the sofa and who has the bed that ends up with them sharing the bed – platonically, of course – they chat companionably before dropping off, and this becomes the norm for them during the duration of the filming. We’re told that over the next few weeks, they spend this time between waking and sleep talking and learning more about each other, but we’re not privy to any of it, so I’ll have to take the author’s word for the fact that they talk and become closer as a result.
We all know where this is headed, and I do give Ms. Chase credit for some excellently conceived and written scenes along the way, most notably the one set at the airfield in which cast and crew watch a coffin being carried off a military transport plane. It’s here that we are first shown that Nicholas’ assessment of his brother’s capacity for generosity and love is accurate and that Henry really is the sort of man to inspire it in others.
The conflict in the story arises from two things. First, Sarah’s insistence that Henry is a Willoughby (a handsome, charming, unreliable playboy) while she wants a Colonel Brandon (steady, trustworthy and reserved but with a heart of gold). Lucky Sarah; as she comes to know the real Henry beneath the devil-may-care exterior, she realises that he possesses the sterling qualities of the latter while being as gorgeous and sexy as the former. The second is completely artificial and drops like an anvil from a great height when Henry tries to get out of his contract to complete filming. I actually thought, at one point, that Ms. Chase was going to have Sarah stand her ground, confident in Henry’s love for her and was getting ready to applaud her for doing something different – but no. She goes down the path of contrived-eleventh-hour-drama, and left me impatient to reach the end.
Royally Matched is one of those largely fluffy rom-coms that are riding the wave of popularity at the moment, and I suspect that I made it to the finish line rather than giving up due to the spectacular performance delivered by Shane East. As I’ve already said, the lack of information about the setting bugged me, and I am going to take issue with the “com” half of the rom-com label. I remember smiling and laughing quite often while listening to Ms. Chase’s Tangled, but Royally Matched was full of such obvious attempts to be funny that it was painful. Most of the time, those attempts were so utterly juvenile (such as the heroine’s name and the comments about Broccoli Balls) that I felt embarrassed for the author.
The best thing about the book – apart from the narration – is the characterisation of Henry. Given that, for the first couple of hours, I thought he was a bit of a dickhead, I was surprised and pleased at the way Ms. Chase gradually reveals him to be a far more decent and complex character that it first seems and I ended up liking him a lot. While being handsome, rich and outwardly confident, on the inside, Henry terrified at the prospect of ruling and feels deeply inadequate to the task. The scene in which he overhears Nicholas defending him to the Queen and talking about how people will follow him because they love him is moving, and Henry’s reaction to his brother’s words is one of the first of the key turning points on his journey towards becoming the man his country needs him to be.
One of the reasons I was keen to work out exactly where Wessco was supposed to be has to do with the choice of narrators. Sebastian York narrates quite a few of these sorts of stories, and has worked on several books by this author, so I wondered why he had not been used here. When I started listening, all became clear – much as I adore Mr. York, he can’t do a decent English accent to save his life, whereas Shane East is British, leading me to assume that the hero needs to sound as though he hails from my side of the pond. But then, as the heroine is also Wessconian, surely she should also sound British? Andi Arndt is a fabulous narrator and I’ve enjoyed a number of her performances, but her accent is very wobbly and only works about half the time. To give her her due, in terms of the emotional weight and characterisation she’s great, and she has managed to avoid some of the common mispronunciation pitfalls and pronounces words like “can’t” and “bath” correctly, but her accent is inconsistent and sometimes I got the feeling she’d forgotten she was supposed to be doing it!
The thing that saved this audiobook from being a chore was, as I’ve said, the fantastic performance given by Shane East, who narrates something like three-quarters of it. He has a gorgeous voice, his delivery is well paced and expressive and he expertly captures the essence of Henry’s personality – his humour, his flirtatiousness and his insecurities – while also conveying that here’s a guy with real integrity and strength of character. He differentiates well between the fairly small cast – Henry and Nicholas are easy to tell apart, as are Sarah and her sister – and speaking of the latter, his female voices are excellent and among the best I’ve heard. The various ladies taking part in Matched are easily distinguishable from one another, he does “bitchy TV producer” extremely well and based on his interpretation of Queen Lenora, I think he should be next in line for the throne. I went into this thinking that I’d never listened to Mr. East before – but after about ten seconds, I realised that he is in fact a very experienced narrator who records in a wide variety of genres and to whom I’ve listened before and given high praise and grades. I am assuming that Shane East is a pseudonym he is now using in order to record romances – but whatever the case, he’s terrific and perfectly cast.
To sum up – Royally Matched might not have been my perfect match, but I know there’s a huge appetite for books like it and that I’m probably in the minority in finding it lacking in humour and subtlety.
On the plus side, I got to listen to Shane East for something like seven or eight hours ;-)
Narration: Shane East – A / Andi Arndt – B
Book Content: C+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: None
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Royally Matched was provided to AudioGals by Simon & Schuster for a review.