Untamed is one of those rare books that I suspect most readers, after having read it, will not forget anytime soon. After all, how often does one encounter a cross-dressing duke as a hero? This book has burned itself pretty far into my memory, but I still found it wickedly hard to grade. On the one hand, the author tells a very unusual story and she plays with gender and other ideas in ways that one doesn’t often encounter in any kind of fiction. Then again, the book is not without its flaws, some of which rate as more than minor quibbles.
At the beginning of the book, Kit is staying with her sister Lydia, a beautiful woman who has married well. Even though Kit is older than the average Society miss, the plan is for her to have a London Season. However, the combination of her age, her awkwardness in company and her sister’s cattiness aren’t doing much to enhance Kit’s prospects. Her background is most politely described as “shabby genteel,” so suitors can’t expect much by way of dowry either, one suspects.
It all begins to change one night when Kit encounters a mysterious stranger. They have an electrifying conversation and then Kit, after witnessing a somewhat icky seduction scene between said stranger and their hostess, suddenly realizes that she has been speaking to the infamous Duke of Darlington, a man with a notorious reputation. Since he is rumored to be involved with her married sister, Kit confronts him and after a series of events, the two end up traveling together to Kit’s home in the country. Adding to the oddness, Darlington elects to travel as a woman and holds himself out to Kit’s family as Lady Rose. The eccentric Lady Rose brings a new liveliness to the household, and so we caper along, wondering how Kit and Darlington will end up together – not to mention when someone will finally notice that Lady Rose isn’t exactly a lady.
There’s a lot going on in this book, so I’ll start with the good stuff. Untamed is Anna Cowan’s debut, and it’s already apparent that she has a very distinctive voice. Her writing flows well, and she not only uses very poetic language, but she tunes it well to her characters. Darlington speaks with overblown phrases and playful wit that can distract Kit and the reader both from getting to know the real man. The practical Kit, meanwhile, puts her words together much more bluntly.
And then there are the images Cowan creates. She not only takes readers to Regency London, but she paints a picture of early 19th century rural England that is far from romanticized. We see the dire poverty into which Kit and her family have sunk, and Kit’s arrival home with Lady Rose made me think of Cold Comfort Farm, albeit without the cutting satire.
The relationship between Kit and Darlington is an odd one, and one that I suspect will polarize readers. Cowan definitely plays a lot with gender roles in this book as we have a very strong heroine who pretty much runs the household and a hero who not only cross-dresses, but who has such almost stereotypically ladylike manners that his cross-dressing can go unsuspected. For my part, I found the exchanges between these two fascinating, if sometimes a little painful to read. On the one hand, I wanted to find out Darlington’s secrets and learn why he wanted to cross-dress or why he had some of the other odd quirks that he does. However, his defense mechanisms can be manipulation and verbal cruelty, and even if one realizes he is himself a wounded hero, this can still be hard to read.
In addition, while I found the interplays between Kit and Darlington intriguing, I also at times felt disconnected from the story. Darlington uses his words to push people away and this applies to readers as well sometimes. And then there were the little details that could knock a reader right out of the story. Calling the cross-dressing, sometimes quite convincingly feminine duke “Darlington” seemed a little too obvious to me, but naming Kit’s brother-in-law Lord BenRuin was just hilariously bad. Then there was the ending. It’s over the top, and just felt way too contrived. After some of the deeper scenes of the middle, where we see Kit and Darlington peeling back the layers of each other’s secrets, the climax of the book really was something of a letdown.
As mentioned above, this book is a hard one to grade. The flaws are obvious and difficult to ignore, but even so, the author takes some real risks in her plotting and characterization and she does so at least well enough to make one want to keep reading. And the fact that I really did want to keep reading until the end is enough for me to grant it a qualified recommendation.