I think it’s fair to say that all of us here at AAR review books because, well, we love books. We love reading them, talking about them, hearing about them, writing about them and enthusing about them to others. But when a novel you’ve really been looking forward to, written by an author you admire and whose work you enjoy turns out to be disappointing, it’s hard to sit down and face the prospect of laying out all the reasons the book doesn’t work.
But that goes with the territory, and I can’t tell you how much it pains me to say that The Duke, the latest instalment of Katharine Ashe’s Devil’s Duke series was quite the disappointment. I loved the first two books, The Rogue and The Earl (I awarded both DIK status) and had hoped for more of what I’d found there – a tightly-written, well-conceived plot, intriguing and engaging principals and an intense, character-driven romance … perhaps my expectations were too high, but I didn’t find any of those things here.
The story begins some five years before the principal events of the previous books take place. Aramantha Vale, younger sister of Emily (heroine of The Earl), lovely, vivacious and keen to do something with her life, travels to Jamaica to marry her fiancé, a young clergyman. Just a couple of days after she arrives, there’s a terrible hurricane, during which she makes the acquaintance of a handsome young naval officer, Gabriel Hume, when they are forced to take shelter together in a cellar. While her fiancé works to repair his church, Aramantha volunteers her services at the hospital, where she is surprised and pleased to meet Captain Hume once more. As the weeks pass and the two spend a fair amount of time together, attraction sparks between them, something Aramantha recognises guiltily, but cannot help. By the time Gabriel’s orders come through, they have agreed she is to call off her betrothal, and he asks her to wait for him to return; but when, not long after Gabriel’s departure, she receives news of his death, she is utterly heartbroken and goes through with the wedding. Not long after this, she discovers that reports of Gabriel’s death were greatly exaggerated and hears he has shacked up with a woman in Montego Bay.
Almost six years later, the now-widowed Aramantha journeys from Jamaica to Scotland in search of a dear friend, Penny, who fled the island suddenly for no reason Aramantha can discern. Arriving in Leith, she begins hearing tales of the Devil’s Duke, a devil-worshipping abducter of innocent maidens who resides in a remote castle in the Highlands. When this satanic figure is identified to her as none other than Gabriel Hume, now the Duke of Loch Irvine, Aramantha is almost amused that people could be so gullible as to believe such rot – but when she does eventually find her friend, she is near death after giving birth to a son, and her last words are of the Devil’s Duke.
Aramantha remains in Scotland (as readers of The Earl will already know) because she wants to know the nature of the connection between Gabriel and Penny and to find the father of Penny’s child. She gets a job at the Inn near his estate at Kallin, but isn’t able to effect entry to the castle, even though Gabriel knows she’s there and he suspects she knows he knows. But when they meet at an assembly, and she insists he invite her to his Highland estate at Haiknayes, her intention is to discover the truth about her friend and the rumours surrounding Gabriel – although once there, when she can’t avoid him or run away from him, Aramantha spends most of her time with him having roundabout, slightly suggestive conversations that never go anywhere. All the rumours that have circulated about Gabriel in the previous books are explained away with a snap of the fingers, because of course he’s done nothing remotely evil. Then, at around the 80% mark, there’s a sudden elopement, a ridiculous blackmail plot is thrown in, Aramantha’s plan to thwart it and save Gabriel is even more ridiculous, he refuses to let her save him but it doesn’t matter anyway because the blackmailer is a coward, they all go home, The End.
I suspect that the problems I found with the storytelling and characterisation can be put down to one thing; Ms Ashe has tried to cram in too much in terms of plot and historical detail and lost sight of the fact that the book is supposed to be primarily a romance. In her author’s note, she explains that she had wanted to write the sort of romance nobody is writing these days; one of those that takes place in exotic locations, includes lots of characters and spans several years. But I can’t help thinking that perhaps she was so focused on her ‘big canvas’ concept that she got carried away by it and neglected other essential elements – plot, romance and characterisation. It’s also clear from her notes that Ms. Ashe has done extensive research into the slave trade and the experiences of slaves in the Caribbean in the 1820s, and that it is something about which she feels passionately. But she tries to shoehorn in too much, so that neither the romance nor the storylines featuring the women who have escaped from truly horrific conditions get the amount of attention they deserve. And I can’t ignore the fact that Ms. Ashe’s prose, something I have called poetic and lyrical in the past veers dangerously close to the purple on numerous occasions.
On top of the confusing story and overstuffed plot, we have a heroine I liked less and less as the book progressed and a hero I’d expected to be a strong, commanding presence, but who mostly just faded into the background. While I could understand – to an extent – Aramantha’s reluctance to get involved with Gabriel again, I couldn’t understand why she seemed to blame him for everything that went wrong between them, is willing to trust practically anyone except him and is prepared to make sacrifices for almost anything – except him. While he is quite swoon-worthy; constant, patient, kind and willing to do pretty much anything for her, she pushes him away time after time, and quite honestly, I think I would have been cheering if he’d told her to bugger off – and meant it.
Much as it saddens me to say it, I really can’t recommend The Duke to any but the author’s die-hard fans and those who want to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the Devil’s Duke. I will read the next book in the series (The Prince) and will continue to read Katharine Ashe’s novels, but this was a huge disappointment and I’m absolutely gutted.