Warner Forever, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61425-4
Historical Romance, 2004
Julie Anne Long’s debut effort The Runaway Duke is impressive for both good and not-so-good reasons. It’s impressive in how well-polished the prose and the conversations are, as well as how well-defined the heroine and the hero are as characters with depths. It is also unfortunately impressive how this book stops being so good as it moves on towards its conclusion, where the secondary characters (the villains, mind you) eclipse the main characters completely. Also, if you cannot stand a hero overusing a “cute” term of endearment to the heroine to the point of overkill, brace yourself because Connor Riordon uses “wee Becca” on Rebecca Tremaine so often that that phrase starts to become comparable to the sounds of nails on blackboard.
The plot of the story also gives me some problems because this is one of those unbelievably coincidental situations where the hero apparently knows everybody and has slept with everybody that matters in this story, only he somehow doesn’t know that. This is a “Please don’t tell me, you slept with my grandmother too?” story, heh.
Roarke Edward Connor Riordan Blackburn is the heir of the Duke of Dunbrooke but when he was mistaken for his dead comrade Roddy Campbell during the battle of Waterloo while Roarke Blackburn was presumed dead, Roarke took the opportunity to walk away from his old life. Today he is Connor Riordan, a mere stablehand at the household of the countrified Tremaine family. He knows the youngest daughter Rebecca very well – she’s ten years younger than he is but over the years he has come to enjoy her company, her inquisitive nature, and sense of humor. She’s seventeen when this story takes place so don’t worry about this being some underaged love thingie, by the way. When Rebecca is compromised during her attempt to play some kind of trick on her sister Lorelei and the man she is infatuated with, Rebecca finds herself engaged to marry the man, Lord Edelston. Connor impulsively agrees to take Rebecca and run, especially when he knows rumors about Edelston’s less than wholesome ways and he can’t bear to see vivacious Rebecca die inside, trapped in a loveless marriage to a man bound to be cruel to her. Alas, love will complicate what is essentially a simple “deposit her at his aunt’s place and he’s off to America” plan.
One thing that really stands out about this book is the well-developed characters. Not one character here is a stereotype nor do the characters come off like typecasted people playing out their designated roles perfunctorily in this story. Rebecca is an intelligent heroine who does what she does in this story with her eyes wide open as much as they can be, given her sheltered background, and she’s smart. I like her. I like Connor at first too especially when he gains depths by realizing how by merely walking away from his responsibilities that he ends up inadvertently leaving his burdens to other people. The guilt and the growing up he does make him a well-rounded character indeed. Unfortunately, Connor becomes a nag towards the end of the story, lecturing Rebecca and other people just because he’s developed a conscience – he comes off like some annoying born-again zealot who thinks he now knows the answer to everything in the universe.
The sheer number of coincidences in this story also perplexes me. What, so the woman chasing after Rebecca and Connor turns out to be the wife of Connor’s brother… and also Connor’s first mistress? And what is that all about, the fact that every available woman in this story is in love with Connor? I know Connor is supposed to be this hot and sexy fellow, but I can’t help but to wonder whether Ms Long is probably too in love with her own hero and is overdoing his appeal to womankind a little too much. The fact that everyone adores Connor and every woman wants a piece of him, coupled to his never lacking for anything in his life (certainly not money and respect) and his tendency to nag and judge everybody around him towards the later stages of the story, makes Connor come off like an insufferable know-it-all who has everything and the cake.
I find myself more vested in the villainess, the well-written three-dimensional Cordelia who has fought through sheer tenacity and ruthlessness from her origins in the gutter into becoming the jewel of Society. Sure, she’s plotted murder and what not, yadda yadda yadda, but compared to Rebecca and Connor who at the end of the day have their birthrights and wealth to fall back on, I find Cordelia a far more intriguing character. Even Edelston, her lover, who is also well-written with unexpected depths, ends up being more interesting than Connor to me. I find myself wishing that I can read the story of Cordelia and Edelston one day.
Perhaps that is the problem I have with this book. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the problems faced by Connor and Rebecca can be magically solved by Connor embracing his birthright. It’s just that simple. Everyone is ready to fall over his or her feet to adore and worship Connor because he is The Man. At the end of the day, there is really no actual suspense in this story because no matter how big the problems that Rebecca and Connor face can be, they have money, friends, and respect that are theirs because they are, after all, born with silver spoons in their mouths. Maybe it’s just the bourgeoisie in me but I find it hard to believe that at any point in this story our two main characters are actually in any danger apart from a broken nail or two.
On the other hand, I can and will honestly admit to actually rooting for Cordelia in this story to come up on top. Unfortunately, Cordelia ends up feeling ashamed for what she has done that caused Connor and his suddenly unbearable mantle of self-importance and condescending judgmentalism to look at her in contempt. I have to go, “No! Damn it, Cordelia, you’re better than this. He’s just a stupid rich brat who’s had fun running away from his responsibilities and now that he decides he knows everything, he has appointed himself the King of Everybody! To hell with him!”
Ms Long does a lot of other things right in this book. Rebecca’s parents are actually nicely fleshed-out characters who aren’t cruel in shackling Rebecca to Edelston, they are just misguided and they learn their lesson just in time. Lorelei is no typical Prettier Sister stereotype – she also has depths and her own love story is nicely done too without overshadowing the main relationship in this story. The Runaway Duke is certainly a very impressive debut and I suspect many readers will enjoy this book more than I do.