Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Duke in Question by Amalie Howard

 Amalie Howard is one of those authors where I really respect what she does, but I don't actually end up liking most of what she writes. So far, my favorite book of hers has been BEAST OF BESWICK (which I loved) but I didn't like the first two books in the Daring Dukes series much at all. I think my problem with these books is that they fall into the trap that a lot of modernized, feminist historical romances do, in that the heroine is often portrayed as the one-off pioneer of feminism, which ends up making her feel like a not-like-other-girls lead. Also, the heroes in all of these books have just been huge assholes until they see the light, and it felt-- to me-- that the sole attraction between them was sex-based.

I think THE DUKE IN QUESTION is the best book in the Dukes series so far. Most of that is because of the heroine, Bronwyn, who is pretty cool. I liked that she's allowed to be feminine and it's super cool that she's an informant/spy for good causes (there's an author's note in the back detailing some of the real life spies her character was based off). The hero, Valentine, is trying to find out who the Kestrel is, but like most men of this time, he doesn't really think much of ladies and so it never occurs to him-- or indeed, any man-- that the person they're looking for could actually be a woman.

For like 2/3 of this book, Valentine's internal dialogue is just about what a moron he thinks Bronwyn is (since he's taken her coquette role at face value). He actually grimaces in disgust at her while she's right there. She's a virgin but he doesn't think that, obviously, and so her first time is bent over against a tree. Even though she wants it, it still feels gross, because Valentine so obviously doesn't respect her as a person. Obviously, once he finds out she's a virgin, he wants to marry her and make it right, but the impulse feels less out of desire and affection and more like someone trying to pay for a piece of ceramic they broke in a shop because they feel reprisal from the salesclerk.

In the last 1/3 it does sort of feel like there's a burgeoning respect between them. Valentine eventually comes to admire her strength, but only after she's proven that she's not like other women. But  Bronwyn's thoughts for Valentine are mostly about how big he is, how manly he is, and how good he is in bed. Even their HEA is sex-based, and I found myself wishing that we could have seen them doing something together that didn't just involve sex. I know there's a lot of "there's too much sex!" type reviews that are written in bad faith, but here it really felt like it was working to the story's detriment. I mean, Bronwyn is supposed to be this amazing spy but then she forgets about this top secret letter she's tucked into her bodice and it falls out in the middle of sexy-times? That kind of buffoonery can get one killed.

I feel bad complaining about so much since I did eventually warm to the book. The representation of PoCs was great, and I felt like the author obviously did a lot of research about spy networks (especially those involving women). But the random passages were characters lectured each others (or themselves) about privilege definitely felt anachronistic, like they were playing to a modern-day audience. And I would have liked the book a lot more if the tension between Valentine and Bronwyn had been allowed to build, and their connection had been based more on the emotional and less on the physical.

That said, it was great to find a book by this author that I did enjoy. I'm curious if this is the end of the Dukes series and she's about to start something new, or if some of the other side characters in this book are going to have future stories explored. Either way, I'll probably be there.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

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