There's two books in this book. The first one, which represents almost the first half of the book, is marvelous. It's slowly developed and tense and there are so many nods to books that have influenced romance. Windswept moors! Cold wind! HOWLING wind! Wind that practically sings a few arias in one scene. Rain and cold and more wind and grass and bleak landscape and dark gabardine and isolation and oh, yeah!
The first half of this book owns its tropes. There's beauty and a beast. There's cross dressing. There's unrequired she's-disguised-as-a-dude romantic fascination. There's a taciturn reclusive duke, a hidden princess, and a sunny, adorably spirited 16 year old son. Seriously. This was a tightly rolled up fatty of all my catnip. The publisher might as well have passed the book-dutchie on the left hand side and pointed me toward a big velvet beanbag chair for the afternoon.
Then it went bad in a hurry.
I get ahead of myself. Here's the plot summary: Emilie is one of three German princesses from the principality of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof. Her father and brother in law have just been assassinated, and the three young women are smuggled out of Germany by their governess/protector/mysterious figure Miss Dingleby.
NB: the names in this book are an exercise in eyebrow raising. The late brother in law? His name was Peter, but he is described as follows:
Poor dear Peter, childhood friend, heir to the neighboring province of Baden-Cherrypit.
The thing about Dingleby and Cherrypit is that they're very silly – and the tone, the prose, and the story isn't meant to be light or silly at all. People are trying to kill Emilie and her sisters. They are trying to escape and, obviously, not be dead. This isn't a silly, fluffy book in my opinion, but between the Dingleby and the Cherrypit, it seems like there's supposed to be some silliness that never materializes.
And the TITLE. How to Tame your Duke? As in How to Train Your Dragon?
If that's the case, ENOUGH ALREADY. I would very much appreciate it if publishing could STOP WITH THE CHILDREN'S STORY REFERENCES in the titles. Just STOP. I realize the author probably had little say in the title but ENOUGH. I find it insulting and infuriatingly condescending to compose romance titles out of children's books and stories.
And if you're NOT going to stop, then bring on HUMPTY DUMPTY DUKE. And MARQUIS GOOSE. And MARY HAD A LITTLE LORD.
Go hard or go home, publishing title makers. Go all the way to sillytown or just stop with the twee children's titles. Thank you.
(Steampunk historical authors – specifically MelJean Brook – please note: there is a beer called Humpty Dumpty Iron Duke. That would be superbly silly as a title.)
Anyway, back to Dingleby and Cherrypit.
Emilie and her sisters (for whom there are sequels planned, of course) arrive in the dead of night to the Duke of Olympia's home – it seems Olympia has been keeping close watch on the young ladies through Ms. Dingleby, with whom he seems to have an intimate relationship. The solution for hiding the princesses is to send them off in disguise to various parts of England.
Emilie is sent dressed as a male – complete with an itchy whisker beard – to Yorkshire, where she is employed as a tutor for the Duke of Ashland's teenage son Freddie, who wants to get into Oxford early and must sit for exams to do so.
All is well for the initial chapters: Emile must adjust to not being a princess, and instead being in that weird between-status world of not quite staff, but certainly not family, either. Freddie and Ashland accept Emilie as “Mr. Grimsby,” and Emilie, who is very bookish, intellectually curious and very well educated, is able to tutor Freddie convincingly.
Emilie, however, is also attracted to Ashland, and that's where the troublesome dual identity begins.
Ashland is married, but his wife ran off over 12 years prior after he came back from the war with terrible scars and injuries, including injuries that cost him one eye and his right hand. Since then, Ashland has lived his life in routine self-seclusion. He rarely goes out, but once a month, Ashland meets a woman at the spa and hotel near their estate.
Freddie is fully appraised of his father's affairs and jokes about them with Mr. Grimsby/Emilie, who is rather aghast and, to her own consternation, jealous. A mix-up occurs while Emilie is dressed as a female – as herself, really, which is odd considering her picture is all over the newspapers and she might have been recognized – meeting Miss Dingleby, dressed as a male, and the hotel manager thinks Emilie is the girl sent to spend the next few hours with Ashland.
Emilie has a few opportunities to stop them from bringing her to his room, but she does not resist, and ends up blindfolded and awaiting the duke in his private chamber, unsure what it is he expects but pretty sure she should not be meeting those expectations. Thus the plot between Emilie as a woman and Mr. Grimsby as a man begins, and Emilie stressfully manages both identities, even though Ashland is so taken with her, he asks her to meet him weekly, and Freddie is more than astute enough to notice his tutor's absences once a week.
The beginning of this book, as I said, was marvelous. There is a chicken fight in a bar that charmed the hell out of me. I empathized greatly with Emilie's balance between being afraid for herself and being exhilarated that dressed as a male she has access to experiences that as a princess she'd never considered.
But midway through the book, the story goes off the rails. I can't tell you how disappointed I was. I took the train into Manhattan and read this book on the way in and the way out. On the way in, I was so excited to read it, I practically ran down the aisle to get a seat and start reading. On the way back, after the story had turned to goofyville, I had to lecture myself to finish it, as I was so close to the end – and maybe, maybe it would turn around. Alas, it did not.
The problems are all plot, and the end of character development once the plot takes off. For example, I liked Ashland. He is not unkind, but not eager for company, either. His son Freddie, who calls him “Pater” with affection and amused tolerance (this is the least sullen 16 year old boy in the world and he's really adorable), puts up with their isolation and lack of many friends because he loves his father and is pretty happy most of the time – probably because until the tutor arrives, he can pretty much do whatever the hell he wants.
The setting is wonderful. There's conflict between the warmth of Freddie and the withdrawal of Ashland and the hostility of the landscape, there's Emilie's feelings of attraction for Ashland and her desperation to stay hidden – oh, it's lovely and creepy. There's a lot of gothic in the first half, and really, I was reading it and thinking, “Oh, this is just wonderful!”
But then as I started to ask questions about what was happening, the book changed directions. The story went to hell in a shopping cart, and I was bummed.
First, the changes in Emilie make her into a ridiculous idiot. There are several key scenes where Emilie, who is supposed to be the smart one, is So Overcome With the Passion in Her Pants (or Skirts) that she forgets to tell Ashland something very important. And you see her brain fizzle out in the narration – oh, it's just ridiculous. She's the smart one, the one who has enough education that she can pose as a dude who is a tutor, and she can pull it off. She knows stuff.
But one touch from Ashland or a few minutes of intense staring and she begins to forget to tell him things about her life being in peril, or that she has a very big important news to tell him. It's so frustrating. She had no problem speaking up for herself at other times, but when it's convenient for the plot for her to become a big stuffing-headed nincompoop, off she goes with a first class ticket to Stupidtown. And of course, when things are at their most dangerous, of COURSE she needs one more night pretending to be a woman. By herself. Alone. Because what could go wrong?
Ashland changes from dark, taciturn and angry dude hiding in Yorkshire (Question: are there a lot of taciturn recluses in Yorkshire? Maybe there's a bus tour we can take, like seeing all the homes of movie stars in LA, only with moors, cold wind, and a lot of snarling) to a passionate desperate dude in about 2 chapters. Two hours with Emilie, and he is ready to start his life up again. He wants to find his wife and divorce her, and keep Emilie with him, because he has pent up needs that have been pented for 12+ years and it's about time he started Doing Things again.
His decision to stop his isolation and head back to London to Do Things coincides with the arrival of danger for Emilie. Then he spends the rest of the book being an action hero. His emotional growth in the first half just stops and pretty much disappears. He's Angry Isolated Duke Who is Miserable, then, once the circumstances change, he's Angry Duke Who Must Protect His Woman Even Though He Thinks Is Not Worthy of Her. He calls upon skills he last used in the army over 12 years prior, and with no difficulty sets out determinedly to save the day.
Ashland and Emilie's change in status once her identity is revealed is a challenge, and I get that. Once Emilie is restored to proper status as a princess, to make Ashland her equal requires some doing. He acknowledges that he's not the ideal match for a princess from Germany politically or personally. He's older, he's reclusive, and he's physically frightening to many people (not Emilie of course). His best option to seem worthy of her is his ability to protect her from whomever is trying to kill her and the other princesses. And while he's trying to be Grumpy Superhero, he is also insisting that Emilie marry him, while she refuses over and over and over (*big sigh*) because reasons. Also because plot. And because book has more pages to go.
Ashland is a one eyed, one handed, grumpy recluse superhero, but one of the best parts about him is that his absent hand and eye and his scarred face are, after the initial shock communicated by Emilie meeting him for the first time, treated as matter of fact. He wears a half-mask covering the scarred half of his face much of the time, but when he doesn't, Emilie isn't repulsed or obsessive about it.
Ashland doesn't wallow in his injuries, though they bother him. His missing hand causes him some phantom pain, and he drinks to self-medicate though he tries to limit his intake so as not to become too inebriated on a regular basis. I liked very much that his injuries were a defining part of his character but not the only defining part of his character.
But midway through the book, Emilie turned into a big twisty problem, too. Her motivations in the first half were clear and interesting: hide in Yorkshire in semi-plain sight, live up to her expectations as a male and as a tutor, and stay alive without revealing where she is. Her temptation to grow closer to Ashland was wonderfully done in the first part of the book: they meet in the library at night to play chess, and Ashland seems to like Emilie/Grimsby's company and is happy to have Emilie/Grimsby in his employ.
But I grew frustrated that Emilie tells the reader about things that motivate her only sparingly, such that her actions that depart from Olympia's plan seem too impetuous for someone who is supposed to be thoughtful and intelligent. For example, she says a few times that she was frustrated to the extreme by her life as a princess, where she was a political commodity to be married off for political alliance. But there is so little said or revealed about what caused her to feel that way, and so little revealed about her life before she arrived in England on the run from assassins that her insistence of I WANT INDEPENDENCE NOW DAMMIT seemed thin and weak. I knew she wanted to do something adventurous and reckless, but there was no real development besides a few recollections and moments where she insisted she wanted to do something reckless and adventurous. Therefore, I didn't have any empathy for her when she did. She knows better, and a few instances of “my little sister got to do all the fun things and I didn't” didn't make the risk worth it.
She's frustrated with her life as a princess at odd moments that seem more plot-driven than character-driven, and there is so little said about her life back in Germany that her life prior to her arrival in England is easily forgotten until she has to put her princess dress back on. She has no emotional baggage from her past except when it's a good idea for her to have some.
Plus, there is NO grief. Her father has been assassinated. Her brother in law as well – and she has no moments of grief, sadness, or even loss or the smallest bit of culture shock as she hides, not knowing if assassins have found her, or if the Ashland staff is being paid off to keep the assassins informed. She has very little logical awareness of her precarious position, and that recklessness, which seemed unfounded, combined with the absence of grief and longing for her father, her stepmothers and her sisters (who are hiding, not dead – they're in the sequels) made her seem more and more thin and weakly developed as the story went on, instead of more developed and more real.
My one quibble with the writing, which is otherwise lovely: orgasm= spend. Spend spend spend. They are profligate spenders, let me tell you.
Wait, no, I have a second quibble:
There was no halting the juggernaut force of his journey up her stunned cleft.
Speaking of spending, two afternoons of secret meeting in a hotel room and Ashland is in lurrrrrve. Oh, what lusty instalove there is. His dick is a divining rod, and he has feelings so it must be time to dedicate his life to someone he's known for a few hours. It made me sad. He's going to set mystery Emily up as his mistress/wife/who the hell knows because he is inconsistent in his explanation, but she's going to like it, and that's a promise.
What disappointed me most is that I love some historical tropes, and many of them were in this book. The first half owned those tropes and used them ingeniously. I love heroines in disguise, I love characters who cross-dress and actually pull it off, and I love characters hiding in plain sight. I love a book that is forthright about the cliched plot elements it plans to employ and embraces them.
The problem here was that the initial story was so well done, when it came time for the action and adventure and subterfuge part of the plot – again, a set of cliches as well – they were not so well employed. The characters stopped developing emotionally and started moving around in circles of “We have to get the bad guy!” “I have something to tell you, stop kissing me so I can remember what it was!” and “I can't marry you!” “You have to marry me!” with a side order of “My best use is as your guard so get used to it and also marry me.”
The ending is confusing, and the larger big-bad-assassins chasing the princesses are not caught, because sequels are coming. There are convenient endings to major sources of conflict, and holes in the plot when I thought about it afterward. There's a lot of telling, not enough backstory, and the adventure and the intimacy are not well blended. The first half of the book would have earned an B if it had continued in that same manner and style. The second half was so clunky and awkwardly repetitive that I'd have given it a D if the entire book were like that. So this book gets a C-.