Zebra, $3.99, ISBN 0-8217-7831-5
Historical Romance, 2005
Sally MacKenzie’s debut effort The Naked Duke fits the description of a bad but also enjoyable book. If you can enjoy the campy humor in this book, you may be in for a rip-roaring good time. Ms MacKenzie can’t plot for peanuts judging from this book, but she can tell an entertaining, well-paced tale.
Get ready for the “What on earth?” moments because here they come. Sarah Hamilton travels all the way from Philadelphia to the estate of the Earl of Westbrooke on the account of a promise she made to her dying father. Naturally, she has to travel alone. Tired, she tries to get a room at an inn but is turned away by the innkeeper because he assumes that the tired and unkempt woman must be some prostitute. Hmm, shouldn’t a prostitute look a little glamorous to attract the customers? Anyway, Sarah is stupid enough to accept the invitation of a drunken man to sleep in an apparently vacant room. She wakes up in bed with a naked man. This man, after making some moves on her, reveals himself to be the Duke of Alvord. That is after they have an audience to their compromising situation. James Runyon, the Duke, insists that Sarah has to marry him now.
Why would James want Sarah as a wife? It turns out that James’s cousin Richard is not just the obligatory evil cousin, he is a villain in every sense of the word. I don’t know how James can assume that Richard will stop trying to kill him once he is married and with children – as opposed to Richard trying to blow up the family carriage one evening – but logic isn’t a strong point in this story. Just like how Sarah, destitute and alone in a foreign country, refuses to marry a rich man because she’d rather be independent and look for employment on her own. She is also not pleased with James’s reputation as an infamous seducer. Soon she will not even have that reason once the truth about his monastic past comes out but yet she will insist on turning down his wedding proposal.
Sarah is a complete mess, the most obvious contradictory trait of hers being that she’s the daughter of a physician but remains completely clueless about her body or sex. She also, bizarrely, knows how to fight off thugs in the streets but at the same time she will insist that she is unattractive because she has red hair. Her constant self-depreciation, ridiculous ignorance, and her remarkable inability to string together a logical decision will have driven me nuts long ago if James isn’t her foil in the sense that he is sweet and stupid patient with her. However, he spends more time lusting after her instead of telling her that he loves her, which prolongs Sarah’s stupid show even longer than necessary.
The villains of this book are potentially offensive – Richard is an outright psychopath who keeps raping or trying to rape prostitutes as well as Sarah, and he has many homosexual deviant accomplices to can make some readers throw up their hands in disgust.
But throughout it all, Ms MacKenzie writes with a steady hand when it comes to pacing. Her voice generally consistent (but her dialogues are on the modern side) and engaging enough to keep me reading. It is very hard to define what makes a bad book a campy read because I believe it is all up to the individual reader. Some will find humor in the sense of absurd they experience while reading this book, others won’t. All I can say is: proceed with caution, people.