Jilting the Duke
Rachael Miles’ début novel, Jilting the Duke is an entertaining and well-crafted story featuring a pair of attractive and strongly-characterised protagonists and a well-drawn set of secondary characters. There is a lot going on – perhaps too much at times – but at its heart are a well-written second-chance romance and an intriguing espionage story, both of which pulled me into the book and which were compelling enough to enable me to see past some of the flaws I’ll discuss later in this review.
Ten years earlier, Aidan Sommerville, third son of an impoverished duke, had to make his own way in the world and had chosen the army as his profession. Having no means to support a wife, he and Sophia Gardiner became secretly engaged before he went to war, but mere weeks after they parted, he was heartbroken to learn that she had married his best friend, Tom, Lord Wilmot and moved to Italy with him. Years later, and following the deaths of his father and older brothers, Aidan became the Duke of Forster and has worked hard to turn his fortunes around at the same time as he continues to work for the British government as a Home Office agent. He has never really recovered from Sophia’s betrayal, and grabs at the chance to revenge himself upon her when she returns to England a widow with a nine year old son.
Sophia has lived quietly in the year since her husband’s death, as dictated by the custom of mourning, but now, she receives unwelcome news in the form of a letter written by Tom before his demise, telling her that he wants Aidan to assume the co-guardianship of their son, Ian. She is naturally fearful that Aidan will want to remove the boy from her care, given that women had no rights over their children, as well as worrying about how she will react to Aidan and he to her. She is pleasantly surprised when Aidan turns out to be conciliatory and not at all desirous of taking custody of her son, but rather makes suggestions which she can see are going to be of great help to Ian as he makes a new life for himself in England.
Of course, this is all part of Aidan’s plan to gain her confidence, seduce her and then publicly ruin her, but even at this stage, it’s clear to the reader that his actions are not at all consistent with such a scheme. His intentions may be very dishonourable, but what Ms Miles shows us is a conflicted man who is still bitter and angry at Sophia, but who loves her as much as he ever did and whose desire for revenge is ultimately never strong enough to overcome the depth of his feelings for her.
Because of her censorious aunt and self-righteous prig of a brother, Sophia has learned to be very cautious about what she allows others to see, so at the beginning of the book is reserved and aloof. I enjoyed watching her gravitate towards Aidan and unbend in his company; and although she holds on to some of her secrets a little too long, she’s a relatable heroine and one I quickly came to like.
At the same time as Aidan is making a place for himself in the lives of Sophia and Ian, he is asked by his superiors at the Home Office to investigate an accusation of treason that has been levelled against Tom, who, in addition to being an authority on botany and author of several highly regarded tomes on the subject, was a British spy. The accusations extend to Sophia, but Aidan can’t believe either of them guilty and agrees to use his renewed closeness with her in order to find out the truth. It quickly becomes clear that the government isn’t the only interested party when one of Aidan’s brothers – the manager of the Wilmot estate – is brutally attacked by a mysterious intruder who is clearly looking for the papers which are believed to be in Sophia’s possession. With Sophia and Ian in danger, Aidan swiftly whisks them away from London intent on guarding them closely while he works to discover the identity of the traitor and to find the coded documents Tom sent to England just before his death.
As I said at the beginning of this review, this is a strong début and I was impressed by the author’s ability to tell a rollicking good story. There are, however, a number of flaws which brought my final grade down, and which I hope the author will be able to iron out as she develops as a writer.
One of the biggest problems is that, at several points in the book, it feels more like the second or third in a series than the first. There is a fairly large number of secondary characters in the story, most of them family members, and it seemed as though I was already supposed to know who they all are and how they ended up with their relative spouses. For example, reference is made to the dramatic events leading up to the wedding of Sophia’s cousin Malcolm and his wife and mention is made of the fact that she has a son and they have a daughter. There’s clearly a story to tell about Aidan’s brother Colin (hero of the next book) and his wife as well. Whereas in many series books, the author sets up certain characters as sequel bait; here, it’s like they’re prequel bait, and while I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued at the thought of eventually reading those stories, the little snippets I was thrown made me feel as though I’d missed something important and distracted me from the book I was actually reading.
The pacing is good, but there is simply too much going on, which again, sometimes made me feel as though I’d missed something. Taken in random order, there is a dead spy-husband, a dead (possibly) spy-brother, a mistress, a secret love-child, secret codes, a ghostly apparition, an evil mastermind… Ms Miles clearly had a plan and organized everything well, but the book would have benefited from some judicious pruning so that she could have concentrated on fewer elements and perhaps developed them more.
Aidan and Sophia make a good couple and there are some nice moments of sexual tension between them, but the actual sex scenes are a little clumsy and therefore disappointing. I get the feeling the author wanted to write them, but was a bit shy of or reluctant to do so – and that reluctance is obvious on the page. Writing sex scenes is one of those things where you either go for it, or you don’t. If you’re going to write a sex scene, then go for it; you have to have the courage of your convictions or your readers won’t be convinced and the whole thing will be one big anticlimax (:P)
In her informative author’s notes at the end Ms Miles says that she has taken care with the language used in the story so as not to use words which were not in common usage at the time the book is set. I always applaud an author for this sort of attention to detail – but Ms Miles, why, when you were so careful with things like this did you fail to weed out the numerous Americanisms that appear? I keep repeating myself in reviews, but in England, we have pavements (not sidewalks), Autumn (not fall), suspenders are worn to hold up a man’s socks not his trousers (the over-the-shoulder-holding-up-trousers-things are called braces) and the only sort of pants worn by men here are underpants, which I’m sure isn’t what you meant when you used the term – they’d be pantaloons, breeches or trousers. If you can research which words might be anachronistic, then surely it’s not too hard to look up which words don’t travel across the Atlantic?
Having said all that, I’m still giving Jilting the Duke a qualified recommendation, because the thing that shines through all those flaws is the fact that Ms Miles is an excellent storyteller. Had she not been, the book would have received a much lower grade, or maybe it would still be languishing in my TBR pile. That it isn’t is down to the fact that she drew me into the story within the first few pages and engaged me sufficiently as to make me not want to put the book down. I will certainly be looking out for the next book in the Muses’ Salon series, Chasing the Heiress, and will hope that some of these weaknesses have been addressed.