Zebra, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-4855-8
Historical Romance, 2019
Oh look, Sabrina Jeffries moves to a new publisher, and Project Duchess is the first book in what is clearly planned to be a long, ongoing series called Duke Dynasty. I know, I know, and I’m not sure why we are referencing a show that is about two years dead at the time of writing. Anyway, back to this one, I hate to say this, but should someone asks me for an example as to why they shouldn’t read anything by this author, I’d shove this book at them.
Here, we have Fletcher, the fifth Duke of Greycourt. The premise of this series is that his mother, Lydia Fletcher, had recently lost her third duke husband, and Grey goes off to the Duke of Armitage’s estate in Lincolnshire to be by his mother’s side in her time of grief. He also goes off there to avoid the machinations of his aunt to get him to marry his cousin, and he falls instead for his step-cousin Beatrice Wolff. There’s a lot of consanguinity here, but I suppose that’s something true to the time? Gotta keep the money and the superior genes within the family, after all! Not that the new Duke of Armitage has much money to play with, though, as the grandfather was a lecherous POS who did a lot of damage to the family finances, and worse, the recently dead fellow drowned and there is a half-baked mystery here to address the obvious “Hmm, this seems suspicious even to a child!”
Despite any potential intrigue in the premise, the actual story itself is a resounding dull dud. Characters here don’t talk, they launch instead into dreary exposition in order to dump information onto the reader. Folks who read this author’s books regularly will certainly be familiar with and even expect opening scenes of the hero or the heroine launching into such “conversations” with a secondary character to dissect motives, behavior, and background so much so that there is little of interest left to discover about the plot or the characters for the rest of the story. Here, though, this annoying gimmick continues throughout large swathes of the story. Instead of letting me make interpretations of the characters’ personality or motives through these character’s actions, the author has these characters lecture non-stop to me in the same manner as the author yelling into my ear using a megaphone. The resulting talk-heavy mess feels lazy somehow.
The hero is the standard “my childhood is blue, so I’ll never love you” cliché prevalent in the author’s typical modus operandi, but because he has a pair of dingalings and hence is allowed to be capable and emotionally steady, he’s not too bad.
It is, predictably enough, the heroine that makes this story as fun to read as it is to spread one’s ass cheeks wide and sit on a rusty iron pike. She is the concentration of everything grating about the author’s formula. Beatrice is very judgmental here, already having made up her mind about the hero being a vile lech after hearing gossip about him, while at the same time being a hypocritical, condescending ass about people judging her based on gossip and hearsay. Despite this, she is desperate to find reasons to put out to the hero since he’s hot, hence when they first meet, she keeps softening after detecting signs of guilt or whatever in his eyes or voice each time he speaks to her. Yes, Beatrice seems to be this uncanny X-Man thing that can apparently sense one’s feelings from what I get in this story. She makes decisions for her brother all the time without informing him, hence she keeps all kinds of secrets to herself as she just knows that her brother will be flailing in guilt when he knows. I love how Beatrice seems to believe that she is some kind of tragic martyr sparing her loved ones from the pain she bravely carries on their behalf – what I wouldn’t give to have her brother laugh at her face when he finds out the truth. Oh, and of course she also puts out while whining that he can’t be with her, she must bravely leave him, et cetera. Beatrice is a shrill, patronizing, condescending, judgmental, and utterly unlikable sack of stupidity who behaves in the most uninspired, clichéd ways.
As for the mystery, it follows the standard pattern of one character (usually the hero, because he is a man and hence superior to every other character in a romance novel – explaining everything from the villain’s methods to the flaws in the methods) to a lesser mensch (usually the heroine, because let’s face it, Beatrice is dumb) and the lesser mensch will behave in exaggerated theatrics to such revelations. Everything is hammered into my head via heavy-handed exposition dumps, easily one of the least interesting ways for an author to tell a story. Even if the mystery is an intriguing one – shocker: it isn’t – the way it is developed kills any way for me to get invested in it.
All in all, Project Duchess is like a bad fanfiction of the author’s usual stories, written by someone who adores the worst aspects of the author’s MO. Practically any book in the author’s back catalogue would be a significantly better read than this. Fans may want to buy this one anyway for completion of their collection, but casual readers may want to pick up one of the author’s past titles instead. This one is just horrible from every aspect, and it just has to be glacially boring on top of all that.