Desert Isle Keeper
I’m not a royal-watcher, and as a rule, I’m not a fan of royal romances. Of those I’ve read (and that isn’t a large number) the only one that really worked for me was Lilah Pace’s His Royal Secret/His Royal Favorite duology, and a big part of that was because the author had taken care to set the story in an AU (alternate) but recognisable contemporary Britain in which all the important things (like the two world wars) still happened, but the royal line had taken a different direction. When I read the synopsis for Miranda Dubner’s début novel The Spare I was intrigued by the storyline and pleased to see that the book is also set in carefully constructed AU. I decided to give it a try, and I’m very glad I did.
HRH Edward Nicholas William Desmond Kensington, second son of Queen Victoria II – and the eponymous spare – arrives, somewhat apprehensively, at the Royal Opera House to attend a performance at which his mother, his sister Alexandra, and various other society luminaries will also be present. Handsome, suave, charming Edward is the real ‘people person’ of the next generation of royals; he’s always been the one to deflect unwanted attention with a quip or able to turn an awkward conversation with a well-placed question or anecdote, and going to a royal gala is nothing he hasn’t done a hundred times before. But this time is different. A couple of weeks earlier, he was forcibly outed when a tabloid printed a photograph of him, taken when he was at university, which clearly shows him in an embrace with another man. This is his first public appearance since the story broke, and while he knows all too well he’s going to be the subject of hushed gossip and hurriedly-stopped conversations, he doesn’t know how bad it’s going to be. He’s bisexual, and his family is aware of it; and while he wanted to come out, he knows there was never going to be a good time for him to do it and has been holding off for the sake of his family, which has suffered enough scandal in the past decade due to his parents’ divorce, the first ever involving a reigning monarch – but the rainbow cat is well and truly out of the bag now and the fallout has to be dealt with.
The Palace communications team is, of course, keen to mitigate the damage, and they suggest Eddie squashes the “ugly rumours” by being seen with a suitable (and carefully vetted) young woman he could believably form a “long connection” with. Even as he knew this was going to be the likely response, and that he has no alternative but to do what is being asked of him – just like he always has – internally, he’s railing against the frustration that he can do nothing about the invasion of privacy he’s suffered, the demand that he continue to deny who he really is – and that he still has to hide the fact that for the last eight years, he’s been in love with a former SAS officer by the name of Isaac Cole. Who happens to be his principal protection officer. His bodyguard.
The first part of the novel offers readers a good insight into the relationship between Eddie and Isaac (although I can’t deny I’d have liked it to have been fleshed out a little more), and offers a bit of their backstory and an explanation for exactly how and why they have become so close. Isaac is every bit as gone for Eddie as vice versa, but he’s never been anything but professional around him, has never overstepped any boundaries… until the night a bomb goes off at a high-profile London club – with Eddie in the middle of it.
I’m not going to give more specifics about the plot, because there’s a lot of it. The synopsis for The Spare talks more about the romance between Eddie and Isaac than about anything else in the book, but after the bombing, the focus widens and it becomes more of a family drama. Eddie and Isaac are at the heart of the story; even when they’re separated for a chunk of the second half, the depth of their longing for one another is always there in the background – but there’s a lot more going on than just their romance. One of the people Eddie has been trying so hard to protect from the media spotlight over the years is his older brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, who has recently been pretty much ordered to leave the job he loves with the RAF and come back to join the circus (the real royals refer to The Firm; here, it’s The Circus, which is a good alternative!) and who is quiet, reserved and not as well-equipped as Eddie to deal with life in the goldfish bowl of media attention. There’s his sister Alexandra, whom the media has labelled self-absorbed and empty-headed, and his complicated, conflicting feelings about his father, whose addictions and infidelities eventually led to the end of his marriage, but whom Eddie can’t quite bring himself to hate. All these other storylines are really well done and all the characters – from the principal players down to the smallest bit-parts – are superbly fleshed-out, making it easy to become invested in them and their stories. I ended up loving the book, but I realise it may not work as well for others because of the wider focus than one normally expects in a romance.
The author has obviously done her homework (her author’s note is well worth reading), looking into the way the Royal Family works and various customs and protocols (and has adapted some of them in a way that makes them perfectly plausible), but unfortunately this makes the Americanisms – fall, fawcet, trash, diaper, ass – seriously, this sentence: “A bunch of politicians who think I’m an idiot are going to surreptitiously stare at my ass” will make any British person wonder why a bunch of politicians are going to stare at a donkey; using “school” to mean higher education and describing Isaac as a “upperclassman” – stick out like sore thumbs. It’s a shame, when Ms. Dubner has clearly worked very hard on giving the novel the ring of authenticity, to be let down by things like that, but I understand corrections will be made in future editions.
There are places where the book could have done with a stronger editorial hand, a few scenes that didn’t seem to accomplish anything or go anywhere, and perhaps a couple that could have been reserved for later books (the author implies in her author’s note that there could be more to come).
Ultimately however, I really enjoyed The Spare and raced through it in a couple of sittings. It’s sharply observant, especially when it comes to the workings of today’s media and how vicious it can be; it’s funny – the banter is fresh and witty – and there are some incredibly poignant moments, some of them coming from a quarter you’d least expect. The plot does get a bit soapy towards the end, and there was one thing that I side-eyed hard, but in the end, I was enjoying the book so much, I decided to go with the flow.
Part romance, part family drama, The Spare may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it worked well for me in spite of its flaws. I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more from Miranda Dubner.