To Love a Duchess
Karen Ranney begins her new All for Love series with a dramatic, gothic-style story about a Scottish secret agent and a battered duchess finding love.
Former soldier Adam Drummond volunteered to work as an agent for the crown after returning from serving in India. Tasked with investigating the actions of his former commanding officer, George Whitcomb, the Duke of Marsley – a man believed to be a traitor and to have caused the deaths of thousands due to his arrogance and stupidity – Adam disguises himself and takes a position in the late duke’s household as Major Domo so that he can look for evidence of the duke’s treasonous acts. When he encounters the duke’s grieving widow, Adam finds it impossible to believe that she could have loved such an evil bastard. But when he prevents her from committing suicide by throwing herself off the roof, he knows that he must protect her.
Suzanne, Duchess of Marsley, definitely doesn’t miss the husband who cheated on and ignored her for years. Lost in the drug-induced haze brought on by the tonic made by her secretive maid, Ella (who has been hired by Suzanne’s powerful politician father to spy on her), Suzanne protects herself by cocooning herself in her room, haunted by memories of her three-year-old son, Georgie, who was drowned along with his father in a fatal bridge collapse. She has kept Georgie’s room untouched as a shrine to his memory ever since.
Adam – determined to protect Suzanne from the strength of her own grief and the swirling spy plot – is desperate to untangle the puzzle of her misery. But will she only distract Adam from his mission? Or will Adam unlock Suzanne’s passion with his gruff but protective nature?
As you can tell from the description, this is one heck of a dark, gothic romance. A lot of terrible things have happened to both our hero and heroine, and sometimes the parade of grief is a little overwhelming to follow through. The brisk pacing helps somewhat, and as the plot unfolds we come to understand both Adam’s mission and the depth of Suzanne’s grief.
I did have a problem with the way the story is structured, though, in that we jump into the narrative two months into Adam’s stay at Marsley House, which means we miss him acquiring the necessary skills to be a major domo; he simply exists in the household and we must catch up with the plot. The plotline concerning Suzanne’s maid – her father’s spy – just sort of fizzles out, and it takes Suzanne over half the book to emerge from her bitter, soggy grief and her addiction to laudanum, so it was hard to get a handle on her as a character. I saw her mostly as a mourning mother instead of Adam’s potential lover for most of the book, and when she does eventually emerge from her drug-induced haze, she’s right as rain with no discernible withdrawal symptoms. Her decision-making is also questionable; I have no idea why Suzanne simply didn’t dismiss Ella; she’s not living under her father’s roof after all, but in her own ducal home.
I can’t end this review without mentioning that the book’s messy statements about Colonial India are muddled, to say the least. While Adam rightly views the ugly, racist, colonialist brutality that the East India Company wrecked upon the country with disgust and contempt, those views are more related to the way in which events have influenced his situation on a personal level, and he is self-centeredly focused on his own pain.
And then there’s Suzanne’s commentary about her father’s attitudes about people of Indian descent: He says: “They’re damn sly, Suzanne – always plotting and planning” but while she doesn’t agree with the comment she “understands why he made it” – because the war caused him to cut off work with the East India Company. When speaking the murder of Adam’s wife’s in a massacre (at Manipora – completely invented by the author but loosely based upon the Massacre of Cawnpore), a group of villagers, rebelling against the brutal colonization by the British, take hostages and then slaughter, and dismember a number of white women and children and dump them down a well before being killed by outraged soldiers who come upon the scene a day later. “My father,” Suzanne says later, “Said it was the treachery of the people.” And Adam never corrects her. The cycle of colonial violence that led to these acts of rebellion and revenge is never properly addressed but is used as a prop for the (white) characters’ angst, which is inexcusable. The only non-white character is introduced thirty pages from the end of the book, and while he influences the plot he arrives too late. This plot point feels too much like over-the-top angst for the sake of it, and I found it distasteful.
To Love a Duchess is a difficult, heavy read, although I would be lying if I said it didn’t stop and make me think occasionally. The romance between our hero and heroine – once Suzanne emerges from her grief and addiction – is the best part of the novel; burning slowly, and filled with tenderness, it’s a sweet respite from the slog of misery. Unfortunately, though, the poor handling of the racial issues and the overly melodramatic plot mean I really can’t recommend it.