Avon Impulse, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-06-282161-4
Historical Romance, 2019
Oh my god, you may be thinking, there’s an icky woman on the cover of Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise! Has Cat Sebastian abandoned the rainbow dollar that got her to where she is, for the alt-right fascist all-that-is-wrong-with-humanity concept of heterosexuality in her stories? Oh don’t worry, people, the woman isn’t icky, she’s bisexual. Of course, she settles for a man here, because wealthy white dukes trump dangerhair lesbians every time, sorry about that. Hey, don’t give me that look – I didn’t write this book, let’s make that clear.
Verity Plum runs the family bookstore while co-publishing the popular Plum’s Weekly Register, which is a hot seller because of her brother Nate’s fiery anti-government articles. She worries that her brother, who is falling in with the folks that would be considered seditious by the authorities, but she also knows that without his articles, sales of that weekly sheet will likely drop. Still, she doesn’t want Nate to be a martyr, she plans for the day when she can get him out of harm’s way while setting up a Plan B to ensure that they can still have a roof over their heads. Smart and practical, I like this lady already. Her Plan B involves – what else? – publishing naughty novels. Before she can make her debut as the world’s finest publisher of racy books, she will need her BFF John Ashby to help prepare the illustrations. Meanwhile, Ash will eventually learn that he’s actually the son of a duke. Yes, the title is misleading, as Ash isn’t a disguised duke slumming it on the streets – what else is new when it comes to titles from this publisher, really.
As you can probably tell from my synopsis, a lot is happening here – way too much, I feel, for a story that is basically a deluxe-sized novella coming in about a hundred pages shorter than a full-length novel. It suffers from some kind of literary ADHD – the characters flit from one subplot to another before things can really settle in, so in the end, every subplot feels like nothing more than contrived plot device to throw the characters around and about. For example, when Nate departs the scene, it is hard for me to decide as to whether this is a natural resolution to his arc or a convenient way to get him out of the picture now that he has outlived his role as a plot device to force Ash and Verity to get together more often.
The busy nature of the story bleeds into the romance as well. Let’s talk about the good things first, though. I’ll dwell on the not-so-good stuff later.
Verity is a nice example of a practical, sensible heroine who harbors some cynicism when it comes to her ability to have a long-term relationship, and I like how the author has allowed Verity to have loved and lost before – this means that our heroine seems to know very well what she is talking about. She isn’t a sheltered miss who proudly declares without knowing anything that love is icky and she’s never getting married because she wants to lick cowbells forever like some typical romance heroine, and that’s nice. I also love that Verity remains in character throughout. She doesn’t immediately assume that once she is in love, she must get married. Of course in the end they marry – romance novel, hello – but author also brings up options such as cohabitation and other arrangements that make more sense in the context of a love affair between a commoner and a member of the aristocracy. I like this too, it makes the romance feel more authentic and the resulting happy ending even more romantic.
However, because she and Ash spend a lot of time worrying about this and that, their romance is more like a montage of scenes than a coherent romantic arc. This isn’t so bad during the first two thirds or so of the story, as there are some sweet, cute little moments that demonstrate the affection between two people who have known one another so well over the years. However, Ash, who has been a decent if rather beta hero all this while, begins to behave in ways that don’t make much sense. He begins lying to Verity about his duke-y pedigree while embarking on a sexual relationship with her (he knows that she doesn’t cozy up to the noble sorts, understandably so given that she and her brother are all about a fairer sort of system), and when the truth is forced out of him, he just ups and ditches her. Such behavior doesn’t make sense in the context of two people who have known one another so well over the years, and it really sets back Ash’s character significantly in my opinion. If his antics later in the story had been for the sake of conflict, well, it’s not a good move considering how packed with stuff the plot of the story already is.
Still, I do like bits and pieces of this story. There are some good scenes here, some great ones too. It’s too bad that all these things don’t come together as cohesively as I’d have liked. A Duke in Disguise is more about the occasional moments of glory – you will have to decide if this would be good enough to warrant picking this baby up.