Desert Isle Keeper
The Duke of Shadows
I read The Duke of Shadows for the first time some years ago – before I started reviewing – and I remember being blown away by the quality of the writing, the richness of the setting and the passion and intensity of the romance. I don’t get much time for re-reading these days, but I decided one was in order prior to reading and reviewing The Sins of Lord Lockwood (Lockwood is a major – and very intriguing – secondary character in The Duke of Shadows), and I was once again awed by the author’s talent and this wonderful book which was, incredibly, her début. As I didn’t write a review the first time around, I’m going to do that now – and award this book the DIK status it so richly deserves (and unaccountably did not receive when it was reviewed by AAR upon release).
It is 1857 and the British have ruled India – by fair means or foul (mostly foul) – for many years. Trouble is brewing, but for the majority of the British contingent, who are unable to conceive that anything could challenge the might of the Empire, it’s business as usual and continued obliviousness to the rumblings of disquiet around them. Only one man among their number dares to posit that the country teeters on the brink of revolt and that British lives may soon be endangered – but he is derided and his views dismissed, even though he is an English peer. Julian Sinclair, Marquess of Holdensmoor, is one quarter Indian which makes him someone who lives on the fringes of both English and Indian society. His Indian blood renders him ‘not quite the thing’ among the insular, rule-bound English, who look on him with disdain and suspicion in spite of his being the heir to a dukedom – while his English blood causes the same reaction among his Indian family.
Emmaline – Emma – Martin was travelling to India accompanied by her parents in order to marry her fiancé, an officer in the East India Company, when tragedy struck. Their ship was wrecked and Emma is one of the few survivors. The death of her parents – which she witnessed – has, naturally, affected her profoundly, but of more concern to Delhi society is the fact that she was rescued and transported to her destination on a ship full of rough sailors, so her reputation is now irretrievably tarnished. Emma’s fiancé, Marcus Lindley is handsome and charming, but as Emma has known for some time, does not believe in confining his ‘charms’ solely to his betrothed. Meeting him again for the first time in years, the scales fall from Emma’s eyes completely, and she sees him for what he is; arrogant, spiteful, dismissive of her intelligence and clearly only interested in her dowry. Emma, a spirited and determined young woman, means to break things off with him as soon as she can.
Emma and Julian Sinclair meet at the party being held to celebrate her engagement, where they quickly enter into a wryly humorous conversation and declare themselves to be the black sheep of their respective families. Emma doesn’t know who this intriguing, darkly handsome guest is at first, until she is steered away by Marcus who did not trouble to hide his animosity towards the other man. Marcus criticises Emma for speaking with Julian, telling her that he is pretty much a social outcast owing to his mixed blood – at which point she realises he is Marcus’ cousin, and that Marcus detests him because Julian is next in line to inherit the dukedom Marcus believes should be his.
After this initial meeting, we witness the slow awakening of attraction between Julian and Emma, two social misfits who gradually discover that they have more in common with each other than with those around them. When Julian’s dire predictions come true and Delhi erupts into mutiny and violence, he manages to get Emma away, and the pair head to Sapnagar, from whence Emma can make her way back to England. Ms. Duran does an outstanding job here of building a beautifully tender, passionate and intense emotional connection between the couple as they travel through burned-out villages and battle sites along their journey to safety. The descriptions of the landscape are wonderfully vivid, the pacing is superb and the romantic and sexual chemistry between Julian and Emma just leaps off the page. There is no question whatsoever that these people are kindred spirits and meant to be together – but fate has other plans, and it’s not until the second part of the book (set four years later) that we discover the truth behind the lies and unwarranted interference that cause both of them so much heartbreak.
I really don’t want to say much more about the plot from here on in; things get dark and angsty, and it’s obvious that Emma is still suffering the effects of her ordeals. She is filled with rage and feelings of betrayal and is determined not to allow herself to fall for Julian again given the magnitude of his deception; and Julian, who has somewhat reluctantly picked up the pieces of his life (and is now the Duke of Auburn) is truly knocked-for-six by Emma’s sudden and completely unexpected appearance in London. Misunderstandings lie heavily between them and fortunately Ms. Duran doesn’t allow them to go on for too long; yet even after Emma learns the truth (that Julian didn’t betray or deceive her), she is still unwilling to risk her heart again and is determined to leave England to pursue her artistic studies in Italy. While I understand that Emma is suffering from what we’d probably recognise today as PTSD, I did find her insistence on continually rejecting Julian to be the one discordant note in what is otherwise an outstanding novel. Julian – who has carried a huge burden of guilt from their time in India – realises that what Emma really needs is a friend, someone to talk to who shared many of her experiences, and he sets out to be just that. Gradually, he is able to break down her resistance and show her that he will always be there for her
The Duke of Shadows is an incredibly well-crafted, complex and powerful story that gripped me from first page to last and isn’t one I’m likely to forget in a hurry. The author does a fabulous job of depicting the narrow-mindedness, prejudice and cultural insensitivity that dominated the society of the British Raj, and her descriptions of places and events are incredibly vivid, putting the reader right in the centre of the picture. I’ll admit to being slightly less taken with the second part of the book, and to finding Emma on the verge of becoming unlikeable, but it’s testament to the author’s skill that I was able to understand her pain and her anger even as I didn’t like what it was doing to her and to Julian. Ms. Duran’s portrayal of a young woman who has experienced more tragedy in her life than anyone should have to is superbly multi-faceted; Emma evokes the reader’s sympathy while retaining a steely determination that has clearly supported her in dark times but which could also prove to be her own worst enemy.
Julian has been on my list of top romance heroes ever since I read the book the first time, and I’m pleased to say he’s still there. He’s gorgeous, clear-sighted, compassionate and deeply honourable; and when it comes to Emma he’s most insightful and understanding. He isn’t going to give up on her or let her give up on them, and his patience is justly rewarded.
At a time when the market is simply flooded with predictable, anachronistic wallpaper historical romances, it’s a real pleasure to read something like this, a shining example of what can be achieved in the genre. The Duke of Shadows is, in spite of the small reservations I have expressed, a fantastic read full of warmth, tenderness, humour, pathos and, at times, emotion so raw that it’s almost painful. If you’ve never read it – grab a copy now. If you have and haven’t found time to re-read it, then maybe it’s time to remind yourself just how great historical romance can be in the hands of an author as talented as Meredith Duran.