by Juliana Gray, historical (2013)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26566-6
Say what you want about Juliana Gray, but she's certainly not going to let anyone call her stories boring. For How To Tame Your Duke - the first in her new series - she decides to lasso in the cross-dressing heroine trope and add in stuff that reminds me of everything from Jane Eyre to The Phantom Of The Opera. Too bad the glue holding all these things together is nowhere as strong as it should have been.
In 1889, there is still a kingdom called Holstein-Schweinwald-Hunhof, which I guess was either laughed out of existence or eventually forced by the UN to change its name to something simpler, like Lithuania or Andorra. I would refer to that kingdom as Huffaw-Huffaw-Guffaw from now on, because I refuse to short-circuit my brain by trying to remember how to spell that name.
Anyway, like all fictitious tiny kingdoms are wont to experience in romance novels, Huffaw-Huffaw-Guffaw is currently in throes of political instability because the king and the eldest daughter's husband were killed. The only natural thing to do is for the princesses to flee the kingdom and hide in England, as we all know that
England deliberately screws up these nations England is the benevolent defender of all that is good in the world. That way, the villains would, instead of focusing their resources on establishing a dictatorial playground like only idiots would, sensibly channel their finances and energy into tracking down the three women and kill them.
The princesses - one good and proper, one quiet and studious, one adventurous and feisty - and their baggage flee to the protection of the Duke of Olympia, leaving behind their country which would stagger from the loss of the three stereotypes. The Duke is not only a dabbler of family curses and cunning matchmaker of wayward children (if you have read the author's previous series), but is now a dabbler in secret agent stuff as well. I'm sure the third book in this series would bear the revelation that space aliens from Mars are behind the whole Huffaw-Huffaw-Guffaw conspiracy thing, and the Duke of Olympia would reveal that he is also the head of UK's secret Men In Black division and teaches the hero of that book how to use a photon cannon like Iron Man.
So, the Duke of Olympia has a plan. To protect the princesses, he would separate them and send them off - in disguise, of course - to places and situations that they have never been in. Without anyone to watch their backs 24/7, because clearly discretion trumps common sense. So, our heroine Princess Emilie - the studious and cautious one - ends up pretending to be a guy, Mr Grimsby, and is sent by Olympia to be the tutor of Freddie Russell, the son of Anthony, the Duke of Ashland. Emilie earns the friendship of Freddie when they end up on the same side in a tavern brawl shortly after the story begins, and Emilie continues to work her magic, charming her employer and the household staff. She clearly has impressive princess genes that program her to perform wonderfully in situations that a typical princess rarely finds herself in.
No one can tell that she's a woman until she accidentally loses some whiskers that she has glued to her chin, so either those must be magical whiskers pulled out from Olympia's very talented rear end, or Emilie is one, er, homely woman whose charms are on the masculine side. Since Emilie manages to convince Ashford that she's the hottest bunny this side of the country, merely by reading to him (don't ask), it can't be that she has an Adam's apple or a natural tendency to grow facial hair. It must be those magical whiskers.
So, can Emilie and Ashford find love despite the fact that he believes her to have a penis and he is badly scarred on one side of the face? Would the villains from Huffaw-Huffaw-Guffaw find Emilie and delete her from the gene pool before she has the chance to bear Ashford's baby? Would Emilie ever come to a right conclusion throughout the course of this story? Would the author switch things up in the third book with aliens, ghosts, or werewolves? Stay tuned!
Everything about this story is a hot mess, but I have to give the author credit: the story still manages to be pretty entertaining. Very little makes sense, but the author delivers a bouncy narrative and comedy that works most of the time. Ashford is also a very appealing hero - he was been dumped by the wife after he came back from India with his scarred face, but he held on to memories of better days with that woman and even remained faithful to her. I don't understand why he holds on for so long and for so hard, but there is a rather romantic "okay, he's probably dumb to do that, but it's actually quite sweet, really" feel to the whole thing.
His romance with Emilie is very superficial, though. He wants her because she's the first woman that doesn't run the other direction after seeing his face. As for Emilie, she wants him because he's so hot, scarred face and all, and she's looking for a hot train to get a ride on as her way of showing the world that she is an independent woman. Take that, people who expect her to remain demure and virginal just because she is a princess! She doesn't consider the implication of riding on that train - not even the possibility of bearing a brat out of wedlock - so her determination to be Her Own Woman, unfortunately, is just the latest of the overused "I just wanna go wild" excuse used by romance authors to get their heroines to put out to the hero and then spend the next few hundred pages wailing that they can't marry those guys.
Perhaps this would be tolerable if Emilie is as smart as she is said to be, but this creature is incapable of coming to even one correct conclusion about anything. She's just carried along by other people, and when she does do something - putting out to Ashford, for example - she'd spend the next few pages feeling various degrees of regret. The romance is already so superficial, and now I have a heroine who shows little sense of maturity. These two may just drift away from one another after the whole novelty of shagging the hot married scarred guy whose wife is MIA is gone.
I'm also not sure why the author has to include a scene to confirm that the hero's previous wife is absolutely, positively, 100% slut incarnate. Perhaps this is to kill off any leftover warm feelings Ashford may have for that woman, but this also seems like a rather contrived effort to get me to see Emilie is a better light. I've never liked the "let's turn the heroine look better by making all the other women she is competing with into sluts and whores and worse" thing, so this moment has me rolling up my eyes. Ashford's previous wife must be a harlot, but Emilie is still dumb.
The author also, for some strange reasons, ends the romance arc earlier than expected, and spends the remaining chapters of the book padding things up with external drama involving people wanting to kill Emilie. The drama is pretty pedestrian and even predictable, and Emilie, already in a dingbat in my eyes, becomes an even bigger dingbat when she starts accusing the wrong people of being the enemies. Her role in the story is reduced to being "that thing everybody must protect from the bad guys". I wait for her to use even once that keen intelligence she is said to possess, but Emilie remains that sack of potatoes everyone must carry, protect, and save all the way to the last page.
To conclude: nice hero, nice comedy. Everything else is a mess and the heroine is a dingbat. I hesitate to call How To Tame Your Duke a good romance story, but still, its flaws are often unintentionally hilarious, adding to the general merriment of the tale. Like I said, at least it's not boring.
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