Desert Isle Keeper
Katharine Ashe hits only high notes in this memorable fourth book in the Devil’s Duke series. The Prince elevates two previously minor secondary characters – and my friends, the pairing is brilliant. He’s an exiled prince of a fictional Mediterranean realm, hidden away in Scotland and biding his time until he can return home; she’s an exceptionally clever and intelligent feminist ahead of her time determined to become a member of Edinburgh’s all-male Royal College of Surgeons. Everything about this union sparkles, from the ultra slow-burn of their friends-to-lovers relationship, to Ms. Ashe’s remarkable characterization of her two complex, flawed and fascinating principals, and the compelling (and mysterious) subplot that runs throughout. I’m an unabashed mega-fan of this author, but The Prince is one of her best yet. Although it’s fourth in the Devil’s Duke series (an offshoot of the Falcon Club series) and familiar characters make brief appearances, The Prince works well as a standalone novel.
Despite the fact that no women has ever been admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons, Elizabeth – Libby – Shaw is determined to attend. Libby’s spent a lifetime learning and practicing medicine alongside her doting doctor father, but she isn’t content to adhere to societal dictates about what she can and cannot do any longer. When The Prince opens, she’s exulting in her successful infiltration of the surgical theater – disguised as a man – until she spots a familiar face in the audience.
When Ziyaeddin Mirza, a famed portraitist in Edinburgh who goes by the pseudonym Ibrahim Kent, first met Libby (in The Duke) he was immediately captivated by her and her beautiful, sensual lips. He hasn’t forgotten them – or her – and when he spots them in the audience of the surgical theater, he’s shocked and curious as to what she’s doing there. He confronts Libby, and although she’s desperate that he not give her away, she doesn’t apologize for her behavior or reasons for attending. Ziyaeddin is sympathetic but doubtful she can pull off the subterfuge and enrol as a student.
Thrilled with her disguise, Libby is determined to repeat the experiment and study at the Royal College. With her father conveniently away in London, she approaches Ziyaeddin and asks if she can live with him. Ziyaeddin can’t help his infatuation with Libby and his attempts to capture her on paper have proved elusive. When she asks if she can live with him, he knows she risks ruination if her identity becomes known, and that controlling his desire for her won’t be easy but he agrees, on the condition that she sits for him and allows him to paint her.
The chemistry between our two principals is intense from the moment they meet outside the surgical theater. But Libby isn’t like any cross-dressing heroine you’ve read before. Ms. Ashe strongly contrasts her characterization of Libby as trainee surgeon – skilled, dedicated, at the top of her class and able to clearly see what lies beneath our skin and bones – with the woman trying and failing to understand simple human relationships. She’s flustered by her interactions with her fellow students (and annoyed by the other star student in her class) but determined to ‘fit in’ with them, and she’s bewildered by her host. Libby doesn’t understand her attraction to Ziyaeddin or why she feels the way she does about him. Her diligent attempts to do so – via science and medical textbooks, which she can usually rely on – fail to provide the answers she seeks, and her desire for him stymies her analytical and scientific mind. He’s kind but enigmatic, and her awkward, honest confessions about his handsome good looks and attractive body, seem to frustrate and anger him. But Libby – despite her frustration over her feelings for Ziyaeddin and his unwillingness to share anything about himself with her – is determined to understand him.
Ziyaeddin is similarly a study in contrasts. He’s frustrated by his long exile in Scotland and consumed with desire and lust for Libby. He longs to return home to Tabir and the family he was forced to leave behind, but circumstances – the complicated diplomatic maneuverings of the British government, and the danger to his family from his sister’s dangerous and powerful husband – preclude him from leaving. Although he’s famed for his talents as a portraitist, he wearies of his reputation as a handsome and exotic curiosity amongst the women and men of Edinburgh – a fascinating object of desire. Ziyaeddin can see the soul and spirit that lies within his portrait subjects – but the one person he struggles to capture is the one he knows best, Libby. Ziyaeddin longs to give into his attraction to her but knows that one day he’ll leave – and that Libby is struggling to understand who and what they are to each other. He’s kind and gentle, firm and strong, and his protective, nurturing – intense – love for Libby is beautiful.
Ziyaeddin and Libby flit in and out of each other’s orbit for the majority of the novel. It’s tortuous watching the interplay between them, knowing how deeply they love and desire each other. Libby presses for more from Ziyaeddin and he resists – knowing he will soon be leaving, but although The Prince is primarily focused on the fraught relationship between Ziyaedinn and Libby, there’s much more to this marvelously engaging novel. Yes, Libby is a brilliant surgeon ahead of her time, but her personal struggles bring the character to life and elevate the story. Today, Libby might be labeled as a high-functioning autistic with obsessive compulsive disorder. But in early nineteenth century Scotland, her struggles are demons and they nearly destroy her. Her demons, and difficulties overcoming them, along with her awkward interpersonal relationships, are profoundly moving and keenly realized by the author. Ziyaeddin’s character is similarly multifaceted – a muslim prince forced to endure the bigotry and not-so-subtle racism of Scotland, he stoically endures it all, waiting for his chance to finally return home. He’s wise and wonderful, good and honorable, and his perceptive and nurturing love for Libby is a highlight of the novel. Ms. Ashe’s masterful characterization of her principal characters (and secondary ones, for that matter) is supremely well done. The love affair between Ziyaeddin and Libby is one for the ages, and perhaps one of my favorite in Romancelandia. Sigh. If this novel doesn’t make you swoon, I don’t know what will.
Multi-layered, complex and wonderfully nuanced, The Prince is – so far – the best historical romance of 2018. Wonderful principals, an engaging storyline – I haven’t even mentioned the secondary plot involving murder and grave-robbing – and Ms. Ashe’s terrific writing, will keep you up late into the night, savoring every page that leads to its charming and perfect end.