The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their Lover
by Victoria Janssen, historical/fantasy (2008)
Spice, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-373-60526-2
I do love the cover of The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their Lover. It is a tasteful yet cheeky one, reminding me of some kind of ensemble comedy set in the 1800s and starring Katy "I Kissed A Girl" Perry, with the heroine's corset and pearl necklace hinting at some naughty antics taking place between the covers. The actual story is actually far less jovial than the cover would suggest, however. Oh, and while there is a romantic story line featuring a woman and a younger man here, there are plenty of partner swapping as well. There are homosexual as well as heterosexual body contact here, folks, so approach this one with caution if you are not too keen on such matters.
This story is set in what seems like a made-up country full of palaces and nobles. The Duchess in question, Camille, is married to the Duke, Michel, who is an abusive bastard. She is very unfortunate in that her inability to give Michel an heir only makes her his favorite punching bag whenever he gets into a violent mood. When the story opens, a battered Camille is being cared for by her loyal maid Sylvie and the local midwife Annette. Annette points out that one day Michel would go too far and Camille may not survive his "attention". Camille however is one of those abused wives who believe that if they can find that elusive one thing that can please the monster of a husband they have married, things will be fine again. She believes that Michel wouldn't get rid of her and find another woman if she can somehow give him the heir he wants. It's not that she loves Michel, which makes this situation even more tragic, she believes that she has a responsibility, et cetera. It is only when Camille realizes that her husband will see to her death so that he can marry another woman does she accept the fact that she's not getting the medal of valor that she is hoping for anytime soon. Romance heroines, I tell you.
Eventually Sylvie manages to convince Camille that it's best to get another man to knock Camille up and they will then pass the brat off as Michel's. Camille decides that the loyal stable boy, Henri, will be perfect for the job. But in case the plan fails, Camille decides that it's time for plan B - escape with her entourage to Lord Maxime's place. I guess I'm supposed to be glad that Camille even entertained the idea of escaping her husband as a Plan B, given that she's determined to first martyr herself in the name of responsibility to the duchy. I suppose romance heroines cannot be expected to think like a typical sane person who would make the escape plan her utmost priority. At any rate, the whole gang, including Camille's eunuchs Arno and Kasper, will be on the run or else there will be no story.
Were not for the presence of the naughty Sylvie in this story, this one would have been a humorless read full of Camille's angst. Sylvie is a fun heroine who clearly enjoys being on top, below, left, right, and somewhere in between. She makes a great contrast to the morose martyr Camille who only begins making baby steps towards being her own person later into the story. My biggest disappointment in this story is Henri: he must be the most "proper" 19-year old lad ever. I'd think a lad his age would be randy and ready to go when it comes to sleeping with a sexy older woman like Camille, but he behaves more like a curiously asexual boy who performs only on command where Camille is concerned. I'm hoping that Henri will provide some cheeky wit or randy humor, but he's as emo as Camille is morose. The eunuchs are disappointingly flat. There are many characters running around being naughty, but I feel that too many of them are poorly defined.
I have a pleasant time reading this story, although I also feel that there is a half-baked quality to the story, what with so many poorly-developed characters running around that I know and care so little about. Camille's morose personality also taints the sex scenes she is featured in, as for her sex seems more like a duty, or at least something that she places grave import on, than an enjoyable act. Which is why, as I've said, it is a very good thing that Sylvie's bubbly personality is present in this story to give Camille a much-needed counter character. The morose heroine really kills a considerable amount of the fun factor present in this story, but there is Sylvie to balance things out so Camille doesn't affect the story too badly.
All things considered, though, this is a pretty decent effort at historical erotica with a touch of romance from Ms Janssen. The author's misstep here is assuming that the heroine needs a "good excuse" to be having plenty of sex, so I hope she will ditch that silly notion and allow the heroine to let loose and have fun once she takes bigger strides in her writing career.
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