We all know Historical Romancelandia has a surfeit of dukes. However, never has that fact hit me so hard as while reading this anthology. The stories are set in different eras (the earliest is Georgian, the last is late Victorian), but it’s not the idea that these dukes might exist simultaneously that causes the problem. It’s that compiling a book that’s a barrage of back-to-back stories of young, virile dukes, three of whom marry well outside their class, inevitably results in the trope feeling stale. I can recommend some of these stories on an individual level, but you’ll probably have a better reading experience if you don’t read through this anthology all at once.
The Chasing of Eleanor Vane by Sierra Simone
This was my favorite story in the collection. Lady Eleanor Vane is known as a competent, even-tempered manager, so Ajax Dartham, Duke of Jarrell, betroths her to his self-indulgent, irresponsible nephew and heir. Ajax is twenty years Eleanor’s senior, a widower, and, in his youth, the co-organizer of Georgian orgies, so he does not expect to fall for a proper young lady. Eleanor, meanwhile, planned to do her duty and marry the nephew, but Dartham’s heir is as appalling as Dartham is appealing. I appreciated the pacing here, as Simone allows tension to build between the leads during the house party, and also established a connection between them that went beyond sex.
Duke For Hire by Nicola Davidson
A virginal vicar’s daughter walks onto a duke’s estate and hires him to teach her about sex. Look, either you’re willing to suspend disbelief on that, or you’re not. I wasn’t, and consequently this story just felt ludicrous. Even if you can suspend your disbelief, there isn’t any tension in this plot. She hires him. They boink. She has some kinky lesbian aunts so she’s down for everything, like a butt plug. This is also an age gap story – the heroine is thirty and the hero is forty – but the characters aren’t thoroughly drawn so it doesn’t matter. She knows he will not marry her, but we know he will, so you’re just marking time until it happens.
An Education in Pleasure by Eva Leigh
Governess Cecilia Holme discovered sex and sexual freedom when she traveled to the continent with an aristocratic family. When the husband propositioned Cecilia, she fled to England to teach the daughters of the Duke of Tarrington. Then the Duke dies, and their older brother Owen inherits. Nine years Cecilia’s junior, but now twenty-one, it turns out he’s been hot for teacher all along. Cecilia, who misses sex, becomes his sex tutor.
It all hits too fast, with the characters having sex in the first twenty or so pages. The author tells – but does not show – us that the characters had been nursing a forbidden lust, but why not use flashbacks? ‘He won’t marry me’ is once again the only source of plot tension, and honestly? I wish Owen hadn’t married Cecilia, because I didn’t believe they were in love. He needed confidence; she wanted sex. They were a match in the moment but I didn’t see it continuing. In another novel, Cecilia would be the mistress the hero moves on from when he meets the heroine – and I felt she would have been happier that way. The title of this anthology is Duke I’d Like To F…, not Duke I’d Like To Wed. Just let the girl get her jollies and jewelry and a great town house. Not every lay needs to end in a coronet.
The Duke Makes Me Feel by Adriana Herrera
Reviewing this story was difficult because I think it was better than it felt to me after reading two other stories with the same a-duke- could-never-marry-the-commoner-he-has-feelings-for! plot.
Marena Bain-Torres is a biracial apothecary trained in Caribbean plant medicine. Her sister is in a committed relationship with the illegitimate half-sister of Arlo Kenworthy, this story’s duke. The half sister, a midwife, was forced to go into hiding when her client miscarried and she was charged with illegal abortion. Arlo is hoping Marena can help him find her. You can already tell how much more is going on here than in the other stories.
I liked Marena – who is hard-working, dedicated to learning, carrying on the knowledge of her ancestors, and conscious that her reputation is part of her business – and loyal. Arlo, this 1879 duke, is modern-day wish fulfilment: among other things, he supports women’s suffrage and wants to ban fox hunting. On the plus side, there’s effort to justify him being unusual (he was raised by Quakers), and it’s more credible that such a man would buck standards and choose an atypical bride. Unfortunately, the plot is inconsistent. The setting includes a duke who advocates for divorce and is chill about a lesbian biracial illegitimate half-sister, but the primary obstacle to an HEA for our heroine is that “[a] duchess working as an herbalist…could never happen.” That’s where you’re going to draw the line?
Herrera’s prose is fun. When the duke sees Marena in a chemise, “[h]e made a sound that could’ve been yes, but might have actually been tits,” and I laughed out loud. Her descriptions of food are glorious, and reminded me that I have to check out her chef romance, Mangoes and Mistletoe.
My Dirty Duke by Joanna Shupe
Forty-one-year-old Max, Duke of Raventhorpe, is disgusted with himself for lusting after eighteen-year-old debutante Violet. She’s not just someone he’s known since her birth; she’s also the daughter of his best friend. Unfortunately, the more he obsesses about their age gap, the more discomfiting it becomes to the reader.
It’s not the age gap itself that is the problem. Rather, it’s the way the author has the characters react to it. Unlike in the first story in this anthology, where the pair seemed personally matched despite an age difference, this hero seems specifically attracted to Violet’s youth and lack of experience. He nicknames her “little mouse” and calls her “girl,” and notes “Violet was the type of gorgeous woman oblivious to her appeal, which in turn made her all the more appealing.” I hate that trope. “Her innocence – not to mention her willingness to do as he said without question – drove him positively wild.” Eew. “Violet had energized his existence. She made him feel ten years younger.” Which would still be thirteen years her senior, and what happens when she’s pregnant, or ill, or simply turns thirty and can’t serve as your human battery? When Max finally says to himself, “God you’re pathetic, You’re attempting to justify bedding an eighteen-year-old woman,” I nodded a hearty agreement.
I credit Shupe with very well-written sex scenes. Violet’s parents have a historically accurate dysfunctional marriage, the drama of which proved more memorable to me than the main characters’. Shupe’s frank inclusion of STDs in the story is unusual for the genre, but truthful to the history. As always, her prose is solid.
I disliked the story because the age gap was written in such a fetishy way. I can see someone who is into that enjoying this story much more – s0 know who you are before you pick up this story.
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