Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-285397-4
Historical Romance, 2019
I would like to believe that whoever gave this one the title Anything But a Duke must be poking fun at the tendency of the romance novels from the publisher these days to have the word “duke” in the title. I also tend to overestimate the intelligence and sense of mischief of people in marketing departments, so there’s that. Change my mind, people, I’d be waiting.
“She wants his money; he wants her honey!” is a common theme in romance stories, and this one is all about that, although as usual be assured that Diana Ashby wants money for reasons completely unrelated to craving wealth for the sake of being a rich lady. No, our heroine only wants the independence to spend her life in her laboratory, creating mechanical devices that she is confident will change the world one day.
Alas, with her father, another inventor, dying and leaving them destitute, she needs money ASAP to make sure that her family doesn’t have to start a deeply discounted prostitution business or something equally heinous. Of course, she can’t marry, as it’s love or death for her, and hence she hopes Aidan Iverson will plunk in a lot of money for an untested, unproven prototype of hers. We’d call her device a vacuum cleaner today, but given that our darling is a romance heroine and hence her intellect is automatically suspect, that thing will probably explode and kill somebody the moment it is plugged in.
Aidan is like, er, he’d rather marry well. You see, he’s a self-made man who has lots of money and powerful friends (you all better buy these men’s books or you will make the author pout, people), but he believes that he will really, really be respected only when he marries a blue-blooded lady. Diana is not a prostitute, however, so she will never marry any man who doesn’t give her everything she wants in the name of love. She will never, never say yes until the page count is almost up, although her USB slot is always open to be plugged so long as she has the hots for the man. Seriously, it’s the present year, and romance authors still act like prostitution is bad when those ladies are getting paid for a socially ruinous enterprise; these heroines are giving out for free without caring that they are courting social ruination. Where is the logic?
Anyway, that’s it. If it resembles every other formulaic historical romance out there, yes, it is exactly what it seems to be. Still, formulaic romance novels aren’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as the stories are entertaining. This one has a bigger problem than being a cookie-cutter romance: it is a “Who cares?” story. Similar to the previous entry in Christy Carlyle’s The Duke’s Den series, this one elicits a shrug of indifference way too easily from me.
There is no sense of urgency or suspense here. Initially, Aidan says that it is almost impossible for a man to marry so high above his station, and yet, when he decides that he’d like to tap some of Diana’s honey, he forgets his initial hesitation and pursues her as if he were her equal. Diana never seems to consider even once that he’s beneath her – instead, she becomes fixated on the notion that he is too good for her, that he deserves someone better than her, and I have no idea why she thinks this way. Even then, that issue is quickly resolved. Aidan says that he needs to locate his missing mother and sister, but half the time he seems to barely recall their existence as he’s too busy going through the same old ballroom-courting-meeting motions with Diana. Same with Diana – her family needs money, but half the time she acts like her only worry in this world is that she is horny but she can’t have Aidan forever as she knows better than anyone that she isn’t good enough for him. These characters say that they have issues, but they sure don’t act like they do, and as a result, I find myself wondering why I should care when these two clearly seem not to.
Another reason why Anything But a Duke is a bore is that I am never once convinced that Diana is a passionate inventor. Now, say what you want about Amanda Quick, but her early romance stories feel sincere and genuine because her characters embody their passions sometimes to the point of overdoing it. Think: when the heroine of Deception claims that she is a scholar of geography and maps, the author has Olympia Wingfield behaving genuinely like someone consumed by her obsessive interest. Olympia lives, breathes, and dreams of the things she is crazy about. Here, Diana seems to remember that she’s an inventor only on occasional days. Replace her interest in inventing gizmos with an obsessive need to collect and lick pebbles, and the story would still be the same with some cosmetic changes here and there.
In the end, everything about this one feels like the result of the author going through the motions to deliver something to meet the deadline. The main characters behave more like plot devices than anything else, but the plot elements in this story are all barely baked and rarely interesting. Even when Aidan reaches the conclusion of his hunt for his mother and sister, what could have been a heartbreaking moment is quickly shoved aside for an incongruously upbeat happy ending. Like I’ve said, nothing here feels like they should matter in any way.
So, anything but this one, then.