Book Review

Review: Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare

I have been looking forward to this book for weeks – possibly months – but was a bit hesitant to read it because I loved the last two Dare novels, A Lady by Midnight and Any Duchess Will Do, so much that I was afraid this one wouldn’t measure up.

This is a really silly thing to worry about – it’s a book, get on with it – but I was trepidacious. I loved the last two books so much, I was being ridiculous about starting this one.

So, short answer: this novel wasn’t the same, but that’s not a bad thing. This book is unique and different, a distinctive sort of historical romance. It’s a sort of novel that is at times self-aware, almost like it’s winking at the reader and sharing a secret. I’m glad I read it and I liked it, but I don’t think it’s a step up from the past two, which are some pretty fantastic historical romances. It’s a step to the left (and later some pelvic thrusting but it’s a romance so you expected that, I presume) and a different space entirely.

I don’t think Dare can write a romance that isn’t unique, as she’s got mad skills at creating clever characters and scenarios that invite empathy and emo-tingles. But with this one, I didn’t get the emo-tingles as I did with the previous books.

Izzy is the daughter of a famous novelist who has recently died, leaving her with nothing. Her late father’s books are famous – so famous that there are re-enactment groups all over the country – but Izzy herself is down to one last hope: a letter that invited her to a castle as she’s inherited something. She arrives at said castle, and upon seeing its decrepit condition and the surly, scarred dude inhabiting it, after a few days of no food, she faints.

Said surly dude is, of course, the surly duke who owns the castle – so he thinks. But then the inheritance is revealed: the castle belongs to Izzy. Surly duke, aka Ransom, thinks this is hogwash, but since he hasn’t looked at or even opened his mail in months, it may not be hogwash at all. So Izzy refuses to leave, Ransom can’t bring himself to throw her out, and the two of them have to figure out who owns the castle, how it came to be sold and then inherited by Izzy, and of course, the more personal questions, such as why is he a surly duke and why does Izzy have nowhere else to go.

This book seemed more fanciful than the Spindle Cove series in part because of the degree to which the hero and heroine are in isolation. First it’s the two of them in the castle, then the vicar’s daughter comes by, plus Ransom’s valet, then a group of re-enacting fans of Izzy’s father’s books (yes, historical LARPers are all up in this story). The number of people around them grows, but these two people are very much alone in personality and in circumstance. Whereas Spindle Cove was about the community as much as it was about the hero and heroine of each book, this story has two characters by themselves a LOT of the time. Given that Izzy is nearly 30, I think her lack of chaperone wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows, but once the vicar’s daughter moves in, propriety is more obviously observed – and STILL they are alone a lot.

A note about the vicar’s daughter, Abigail. I really liked her as a character. It would have been the easy route to take the beautiful, charming, persistent girl who is practically perfect and make her horrible, evil, deceitful and mean, but she’s not. She’s generous and a good friend for the sake of being a good friend. I liked that the beautiful “competition” wasn’t an instant enemy for Izzy.

Izzy is the focus of the story – she grows, she changes, she learns when she’s made mistakes in judgment and she owns her errors in a very honest manner that I admired. Her history is revealed in pieces, and understanding the source of her hopes and her disappointments develops her as a character. The book is all about Izzy finding and making a home for herself, and finding someone to care for, but more importantly, someone to care for her appropriately.

Ransom is pretty much a standard grumpy, isolated, brooding surly-duke throughout the book, and seemed very similar to other surly-dukes I’ve read. While Izzy is a unique sort of heroine, I think, Ransom is not so original, and there’s less done with the standard mold of his character to re-invent or refine his character into something new. He had a sad childhood like Izzy, but his was the standard cold, distant dad who instructed everyone to show him no affection, leaving room for Izzy to be the soft touch of comfort in his life.

And with Ransom, I really, really struggled with his very rapid, almost too-quick turnaround. He goes from being a vulgar boor whose sexual advances on Izzy made me distinctly uncomfortable (there is more than one note made in the text that reads, “EW DUDE NO STOP THAT”) to a supportive, loving, amorous swoon-bag in about a chapter. It was so quick of a turnaround, I was disappointed by it’s ease. Where Izzy needed to reveal herself and some painful truths about her past in order to have an open and trusting relationship (both of these characters are hesitant to trust anyone for very different but equally painful reasons), Ransom needed to admit he was wrong and change his actions and his perspective – and those changes came about too quickly for me.

And my GOD, this guy wants to have sex in every inopportune, marginally dangerous and certainly compromising location ever. I am surprised Ransom wasn’t all, “Izzy, we need to go check the flagpole on the top of the turret. Together” But when they started anything amorous, the invisibility cloak would descend, even if they were in a hallway or swinging from the flagpole (they didn’t actually swing from the flagpole).

But there were many fun parts, too, which also contributed to the fanciful quality of the book. I loved the little nods to classic historical romances, including (I think) stories from Julie Garwood, Laura Kinsale, and Jude Deveraux. There are nods to classic movies, romantic comedies, and many, many works that have inspired fandoms. I mean, come on, there are LARPers running around the countryside in homemade armor. All of those little nods and winks give the book a very contemporary feel, which added what I suspect may be a bit of inaccuracy to some of the events, but also a very silly and friendly sense of humor.

Like I said, this is a unique historical. It’s not super angsty, trying to rip my emotions out of my ears slowly. It’s not super sweet because both characters have real and sometimes painful problems – either physical, emotional or both. It’s not all sparkling comedy and effervescent fluff, either. Izzy is dealing with poverty and with maintaining a legacy for her deceased father that includes repeatedly lying about how her childhood really was, and the fact that she’s an adult while the rest of the fans surrounding her father’s stories views her as a child, the centerpiece of that fairy tale world.

But oh, there were some truly lovely parts, too. Even with my irritation with Ransom’s development, the writing sets this book almost on a different scale. Yes, I disliked certain parts of it, but there were other parts that were so incredibly lovely, it smooths the edges off the ones I disliked.

Here are some of my highlights:

It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain – the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.


Later, when the inheritance is revealed:

“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”


Still later:

One of his pectoral muscles twitched angrily. As if registering an indignant harrumph.

AW YEAH. It’s the cousin of the Pec Pop of Love! THE PEC POP OF IRRITATION!


“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.


And, possibly my favorite:

“I didn’t know they allowed barristers to spend their free time tromping about the first in makeshift armor.”

“Why not? We spend our work days wearing long black robes and powdered wigs.”

Was this as jaw-drop, emo-tingle magic as the last two? Unfortunately, no. If those are books I gave As to, this one is a solid and very respectable B+. And there are also so many things I didn’t mention, some which I wasn’t sure if it was spoilerly to do so, and others which I had to edit out because otherwise this review would have been 50,000 words long. There’s a LOT going on in here.

I think this is a truly unique historical that will appeal to readers who aren’t often historical fans. This story captures both a distant time period, and the present day, reflecting it in the characters – with a story and a parallel set of references beside it that grow together until the meaning of both is intertwined and layered into something I haven’t read before. This is a romance that is also a little bit about the community around romance, and all the many, many people who believe in it and have their fondness for it in common.

I rarely if ever address reviews to the author, but Tessa Dare, I See What You Did There. High fives.

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Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare

January 28, 2014

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Tessa Dare says:

    Gah!  I have to break my Prime Directive, which is to never comment on reviews of my books. (But come on, we all know the Prime Directive is broken more frequently than romance heroine hymens, so.)

    Anyway, I won’t be able to sleep at night if I don’t admit that this line:

    “I didn’t know they allowed barristers to spend their free time tromping about the first in makeshift armor.”

    “Why not? We spend our work days wearing long black robes and powdered wigs.”

    Was entirely Courtney Milan’s. 

    And now… *poof*  I was never here.  This never happened.

  2. 2
    PamG says:

    I enjoyed the review and will undoubtedly get the book as it’s Tessa Dare, however there’s this square bracket at the beginning of the 5th paragraph. . .  It’s a closing bracket and I read it as a letter J.  Let me just say that I was a bit taken aback at this newest trend in naming heroines.  I was so relieved the second time Izzy’s name was mentioned.

  3. 3
    Maria F says:

    @PamG: I read it that way, too! Shared your relief.

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    LOLOL – I was just about to correct that but now I think I have to leave it! Wait, I’ll go cross it out.

    Sorry about that – stray character, clearly.

    @Tessa who isn’t here: I was wondering if that was the case – seemed a very Milan joke! Barristers, the original cosplay badasses.

  5. 5
    Dora says:

    I really love Tessa Dare’s stuff. She just has such breezy, snappy dialogue and narration that makes me read with a smile on my face. I’m not as huge a romance fan as some of y’all (I usually need it to be the secondary focus alongside, say, Buffy-style action, rather than the driving force of the narrative) but Ms (Mrs?) Dare’s stuff is always a win for me because it’s so effortlessly enjoyable it’s like sitting down to listen to a story from a close friend. Comfort reading fo’ shizzle.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    @Dora: YES – that’s true for me, too. I love the dialogue and the narration, too. It really is like listening to a friend. Isn’t it funny how some writers can craft writing that is so friendly and welcoming? I love that. Definitely part of what makes something “comfort reading” for me.

  7. 7
    Heather S says:

    Based on your comment, SB Sarah, I motion that you do a “What’s Your Favorite Comfort Read?” post. :)

    Since I started reading romance with “Lord of Scoundrels”, “Bet Me”, and “Unclaimed”, the bar for what I consider “good” is set extremely high. *sigh* However, I’ll have to read some more of Tessa’s books. I did read “Any Duchess Will Do” and enjoyed the banter and the fact that the heroine wanted to open a library of naughty books. LOL

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    @Heather S: Ah, comfort reads. I loooove them. I love them so much, I commissioned an illustration about them. :)

  9. 9
    EmilyD says:

    I am so excited to read this book. Can I admit to not being the biggest fan of the emo-tingles so your review makes me even more excited? A Week to Be Wicked was my favorite of the Spindle Cove books (I enjoyed them all but that one was a home run for me). So I’m thinking this is going to be right up my alley.

  10. 10
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    Awwww, I love Tessa Dare! I can’t wait to read this one. I’ve been so curious about it ever since she teased it during the Any Duchess Will Do book club chat. I’m having a bit of a rage-y day at work, so I might have to barricade my office door and start this book during my lunch break.

    Thank you, technology gods, for the gift of instant gratification.

  11. 11
    Tamara Hogan says:

    Tessa Dare is an auto-buy for me; I just love her voice.

  12. 12
    JaneDrew says:

    This sounds like a lot of fun, but I’m completely confused about one important thing. When exactly is this set?

  13. 13

    So we went out for Thai food a couple nights ago and had “larb” (ground meat salad stuff), and it clearly made me unable to figure out what LARPers are. Some sort of reenactor, but what?

  14. 14
    LenoreJ says:

    Since Texas has shut down due to 1 millimeter of sleet I am curling up with my books. Tessa’s is next! Can’t wait! And in the meantime, thanks for the Rock’s pec pops of love. The Rock rocks: all that muscle & a sense of humor. *sigh*.

  15. 15
    Nicole says:

    @Anna Richland – LARP is “Live Action Role Playing”

    I’m glad this book lived up to the hype – I have it on my wish list and I’m tempted to say “screw work related reading, get in a bubble bath with a glass of wine and relax.”  We’ll see if my brain or my heart wins out.

  16. 16
    DonnaMarie says:

    So looking forward to this one. I have love Tessa since she inserted the Old Spice reference into her first Spindle Cove book. Swoony love and pop culture in a historical, so yummy.

    And just gotta say @Lenore, Texas comes off all cowboy resourceful and tough, but geez, what a bunch of wimps. It was -7 with a wind chill of -25 when I left for work this morning. Once it “warms up” (that would be anything above zero) we’re getting more snow. And you gotta get at least a foot of snow to get a snow day.

    At least you’ve got a good read to get you through.

  17. 17
    denise says:

    sounds divine!

  18. 18
    Kelly S says:

    I second/repeat all that @DonnaMarie said.  Except I left for work later in the day so temps were warmer at -2F with wind chill around -20f.

    Also, the Old Spice reference will always be a favorite!

    I’m really looking forward to reading this!

  19. 19
    Heather S says:

    Come to Texas in the middle of summer, when it’s over 100 every day for weeks and even months at a time. Then we’ll talk. >:D

  20. 20
    redheadedgirl says:

    I totally stayed up way too late last night to finish, and it just gave me Happy Book Sighs and Happy Book Giggles all over the place. 

  21. 21
    Cat C says:

    I devoured this on the day it came out. As I do with Tessa Dare—she’s more than just an auto-buy for me, she’s a read-everything-she’s-ever-written-including-the-free-excerpts-on-her-website. (A Week to Be Wicked may be my favorite book; I see wayyyyy too much of myself in Min.) I enjoyed it, but not as much as the Spindle Cove books. Probably because I am the kind of fan that keeps to myself and likes to stay in the fictional world and thus gets annoyed by visible fan communities, like the one in this book. That’s just my misanthropy showing, definitely won’t apply to everyone! I loved Izzy & Ransom, and am a huge fan of all the alone time. (A Week to Be Wicked is particularly obliging in this respect.)

    Anyway, my bringing this up is a little awkward, since I LOVE that it hasn’t been mentioned yet…


    (And here’s the part where I say well-meaning but potentially problematic things, apologies in advance!) the hero has low vision. And I love that it’s part of who he is but doesn’t define him or his story by any means, and it’s not even obvious in his first point of view scene, and that it hasn’t come up in the review, and so of course it’s awkward that I point it out now. But I think it’s a really cool thing to do on Dare’s part.  I’ve been seeing disability come up more and more in recent romances—Hugh’s leg in Julia Quinn’s THE SUM OF ALL KISSES, Phoebe’s impaired vision in Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane Series, and various things I won’t mention because spoilers-ish in Mary Ann Rivers’s contemporaries. (Those are just off the top of my head, sure I’m missing some!) I find this helps make romance characters more diverse and interesting, particularly since genre conventions, especially in my favorite subgenre of historicals, tend to limit options for romance characters with regard to sexuality and race.

    END SPOILER (& end comment)

  22. 22

    I think this is the first time I’ve ever bought a book the day it came out.
    Tessa Dare is my favorite historical romance author.

  23. 23
    DonnaMarie says:

    @HeatherS, challenge accepted. I was in San Antonio during one of those endless 100 degree stretches. I had a great trip then came home, walked out of Midway airport (which was completely out of cold beverages at 2:00 pm due to our piddling 98 degree heat) and got slapped in the face with 88% humidity = 20 degrees more than San Antonio.  We get it at both ends up here.

  24. 24
    Bea says:

    I was sooo looking forward to this book. Ive read everything Tessa wrote, I adore her writing, her sense of humor, the emotional connection between the leads. She has written some of my all-time favorite male charachters (Colin, Lord Payne and Spencer Dumarque). And Minerva from A Week to be Wicked is one in a million! I’d love to have her as my BFF.

    This weekend I won’t be taking any calls and don’t you dare come to my house. I’ll be devouring this book!

  25. 25
    DonnaMarie says:

    And not in a the good way. ;)

  26. 26
    Amanda says:

    Loved it.  Loved it loved it loved it.  Loved it.  Whenever I read Tessa Dare, I always have to read parts of it out loud, just to savor the way it sounds.  The raindrop part was a must read for me.  So much good.

  27. 27
    Shannon says:

    The story-telling is delightful and the quotes are just a few of the delightful tidbits.

    The LARP angle bothered me slightly.  I never knew if it was mean-spirited making fun of people who fall in love with characters and plots or a fun-loving way of embracing fandom. 

    That said, it’s fun read.  The epilogue does mention reivews.

  28. 28
    appomattoxco says:

    I listened to the audio book and really loved it. I would never have thought a love story based around fan culture would work in this period but it did.

  29. 29
    moviemavengal says:

    I just finished it this afternoon, and I loved it. 

    Frankly, I find the almost a fairy tale but with a modern wink aspects of it very refreshing.  It is something really unique that I haven’t read three million times already.  Nary a ball in sight, either.

    I can see the point that Ransom changes seemingly on a dime, but Tessa Dare has forced circumstances where he has to come up to scratch quickly.  It had a wacky Rom Com feel to the way it all came together in the end, and I really enjoyed that.

  30. 30
    jane says:

    a cute story that i read pretty quickly. not sure if i would keep to reread, but it was a good story. i kind of wished that the incompetency hearing wasn’t a bit more- i thought it was ridiculous that these two people could declare a duke insane but . . . still a good story.

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