Book Review

The Duke’s Wager by Edith Layton

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Title: The Duke's Wager
Author: Edith Layton
Publication Info: Signet 1983
ISBN: 0451201396
Genre: Regency

Shop Indie BookstoresI stayed up until way past my bedtime finishing this book, and even now I’m still pondering it, while also kicking myself for not having read it earlier. This book, in a word, is exquisite.

Regina Berryman finds herself in a terrible position: she’s penniless, innocent, and unprotected after the deaths of everyone in her family who might have provided for her without somewhat nefarious motivation. Moreover, due to her upbringing with a somewhat cloud-headed feather and a secretively bluestocking radical governess, Regina has the intellectual curiosity and conversational ability of a man.

Yet instead of being tiresome – Oh! I wish to ride astide and fight and sneak in to that place where men pummel each other and no one will notice I’m a girl if I wear breeches! Whee! – Regina is endearing. She’s clueless and innocent, but catches on pretty quick, especially when, focused solely on visiting the London Opera for the first time in her life, she understands by intermission that she’s chosen to attend on a night frequented by the demimonde, with mistresses fishing for new protectors, and Lords Boner with a few extra thousand doubloons looking for their next sexual conquest.

When Regina realizes that she’s been led astray by her maid and by her own blithe curiosity and social ignorance, she leaves immediately, but on her way out, she is spotted by the Duke of Torquay and the Marquess of Bessacarr, both of whom are rakes who absolutely must have been clad in Teflon for all their bonking proclivities, and who decide they want Regina as their own.

The narrative plays with themes of honesty, trust, and most of all, truth. The plot itself is so braided with twists and turns I am not sure how much I can reveal about the ways in which Layton plays with those themes without revealing the unpredictable resolution of the plot.

What I loved best and reread several times were the conversations between Regina and Torquay. Torquay makes no effort to hide his intentions: he wants Regina to be his mistress, and her honesty and frank assesment of his motives and methods throw him totally. The scene I return to in my imagination is of Regina and Torquay, sitting on a fence, talking away the afternoon because he appreciates her brain even as he’s scheming to get in her pants (or skirts) and she is unwillingly captivated by him.

Bessacarr’s dialogue with Regina, and his own inner monologues (which were considerable – something I attributed to the style of the Regency published during the 80’s, which is when this book came out) are equally curious, and worth rereading, especially as he tries to figure out what he’s going to do to thwart Torquay’s horny intentions and advance his own cause.

The way in which the three characters resolve conflicts with their own honor reveals much about the transactions of marriage at the time: how much is security worth, if one is an unprotected woman? How much would one sell or give away for the knowledge of safe harbor? And how much are appearances really worth against that question of security?

Layton’s ability to subtly reform a character slowly and deliberately (using one of the tried and true methods of revealing his childhood and how shitfully bad it was. No one can be a miserable little boy without growing up to be a fractured rake with a wounded heart of some shining metal or another) is powerful, and as I realized she was turning the tables on what “good” and “bad” meant among the characters themselves, and I became suspicious as to who the hero and the villain really were, I was thinking to myself, “How the hell did I miss reading this book? Because holy damn hell. This is a puzzle of awesome.”

The edition I bought features The Duke’s Wager and Lord of Dishonor, so I’m already pages into the next one, while still flipping back to re-read passages from the first. I have another book to point to when someone asks me for older romances that remain part of the foundation of the genre. The Duke’s Wager is demonstrative that Edith Layton had some serious chops when it came to characterization and plot development.


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN

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  1. 1
    Iasmin says:

    This sounds like a great book to take on my vacation…if I could stand to read it in bite-sized chunks, savoring each little taste.

    Who am I kidding. Really good books get devoured in a sitting.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    I literally hid in strange places to find 10 minutes to read more of this book, and the next one in the two-book set. I’d set my iPhone timer to remind me to come out of hiding, but it was so good, I had to nomnomnom at every opportunity.

    I wish it were available digitally. I’d send it to Jane to make up for some of the other things I’ve sent her in the past. Heh.

  3. 3
    Melissa says:

    I have the original Signet versions of these books.  I think The Duke’s Wager is one of the titles that convinced me to stick with the line and read all I could get my hands on.  Layton proved you could write a darn good book and not need sex to keep things interesting.

    Now that I know it’s been reprinted, I’m going to get the version Sarah has.  Because I must have a reading copy to keep my originals from falling apart any further.  :)

  4. 4
    Jill Shalvis says:

    I haven’t read a regency in FOREVER but your review on this one made me order it up from Amazon.  Love it when you do all the work and find me new books to read.

  5. 5
    Sarah says:

    Niice, this definitely looks like something worth looking for.  I usually hate double books, but if the first is this good…

    And word on the annoyance with most of the stereotypical “bluestocking” women in Regencies.  I also love that it wasn’t her “dear papa” that raised her to be an essentially modern woman, but an absent father and an awesome governess!  I kind of hate the cliche that women in that day were only smart because their fathers made them/allowed them to be so…

    Also, this is random but I wanted to comment on it somewhere that my work filter does not block SBTB, but blocks Dear Author.  For “Malicious Content.”  But not a website with “Bitches” in the title.  Oh well, just thought that was kind of funny…

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    Also, this is random but I wanted to comment on it somewhere that my work filter does not block SBTB, but blocks Dear Author.  For “Malicious Content.”  But not a website with “Bitches” in the title.  Oh well, just thought that was kind of funny…

    Don’t tell anyone, but I am in the same boat. I find it hi-LARIOUS.

  7. 7

    The Duke’s Wager is one of the best Regencies ever published.  When Ms. Layton died it was a true loss to the writing and reading community.

  8. 8
    Sarah says:

    Haha, I’ll never understand the randomness of filters – it doesn’t block YouTube, but it blocks Facebook…

    Also, the original cover of The Duke’s Wager (with EL standing next to it) was in the pictoral (?) tribute to Edith Layton that you linked to!  It looks like your cover just flipped and cropped the image – I guess it gets points for consistency?

  9. 9
    MaryK says:

    This is a great book.  It’s been a while since I read it, and I just realized the hero/villain aspect reminds me of the Bill/Eric question in the Sookie Stackhouse books – and explains why I’m on Team ****.  I must’ve read this in the formative years of my romance reading career!

  10. 10
    willaful says:

    I adore this book! I love most of Layton’s traditional Regencies, in fact. False Angel is perhaps my favorite.

  11. 11

    I love this book.  One of my favorite Romances ever.

  12. 12
    whistledom says:

    Your wonderful review made me want to read this book. I haven’t tried any of Edith Layton’s books but The Duke’s Wager seems like the perfect book to start it with.

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. 13
    Bc says:

    I stopped by the UBS yesterday and was very happy to find this so I jumped right in.
    Anyway, I’m about 70 pages in and am having a lot of trouble continuing. The “heros” in this story are two of the most loathsome, despicable characters I have ever read. Their attitude toward women and their sense of entitlement is perhaps a tad too accurate for the times they lived in and the only remotely likable character is the heroine they both intend to victimize. I find the idea of believable redemption far fetched for either character at this point.
    I have to admit Layton’s writing is very good; I know she set out to create two people who make my teeth grind.

    This is bound to get better right? Sarah wouldn’t lie to me.

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    Bc: Yup. Both are loathsome in the beginning, and the interaction with the heroine forces one of them to reexamine himself, and reveals more about the both of them re: their public and private personae. Keep going – I hope it turns for you the way it did for me!

  15. 15
    Janine says:

    Count me as another one who loves this book!  The one I was rooting for ended up with Regina, but I wasn’t always sure he would.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it too.

  16. 16
    Bc says:

    Thanks Sarah. I do agree that they both become better people over the course of the story but I didn’t come away with the same enjoyment of it.
    It was an engaging read and I powered through it in a few hours so major props to Edith Layton. I can also see why Sarah and others love it but for me it was about a B.

    Do I believe the hero is on the road to redemption? Yes. The problem for me is that he spends about ten minutes being a decent human being to Regina rather than the selfish, self-loathing tool bent on completely destroying her life and thats enough for her to accept him. What?
    I feel cheated by the dearth of interaction between the h/h leading to their HEA. It almost feels as though it stopped three or four chapters from the end and I missed out on the resolution.

  17. 17
    Iron says:

    I just finished reading this book straight through.  I guess I forgot that romances can be so well written.  It reminded me of Heyer.  What contemporary author is writing at this level now?

  18. 18
    SonomaLass says:

    I recently read my first Layton, To Wed A Stranger.  It was wonderful.  Very different from this one, in that the main couple marries at the start of the story, so “marital relations” are part of the complication and resolution of their HEA, there’s never any competition for the role of hero, and I liked both characters very much.  But here she was also playing with how one defines one’s identity, and her characters (especially our hero, who has slightly more POV than our heroine) have long introspective thoughts about the nature of love and marriage.  I was captivated, and I feel bad that I didn’t read anything by this wonderful author before her death.  She is a reminder of all that was good about older Regency writing!

  19. 19
    Vaughan says:

    I LOVED THIS BOOK ZOMG. I read it back when it was newly published in the 80’s, by accident—it was my first Regency (my second was “Red Rose” by Mary Balogh, another fantabulous book—didn’t I luck out?). And it was so freaking good I’ve been reading them ever since, trying to find others that could live up to it, but alas, writers of Layton’s calibre are both few and far-between.

    Somehow, she manages to take a common trope and make it not-awful, not-cliche, not-trite. Her characterization is what does it; her characters are nuanced and feel natural, like they could actually have existed; her hand is invisible behind the puppets she created.

    Regina’s resigned awareness of ugly reality, without becoming downtrodden by it; Torquay’s weary and tarnished honesty; and the test of which of them truly, really loves her—all were brilliantly done. I can’t give this book enough <3’s.

  20. 20
    Sasha says:

    I concur with the recommendation of False Angel – it was even better than The Duke’s Wager (in my opinion). 

    But my favorite Edith Layton set is her trilogy, Illusion of Love, Game of Love & Surrender to Love.  The 1st and 3rd of those trilogies were so perfect – I have read and re-read them over and over (I’m on my 4th set of the trilogy – I read them when they were first published and haven’t been without a set since). 

    The other Signet authors who are consistently amazing were Barbara Hazard (Disobedient Daughter) and Joan Wolf (A Kind of Honor & Margarita).  Their Signets equal Edith Layton’s and Mary Balogh.

  21. 21
    Susan/DC says:

    I loved this book.  It’s one of the few triangles where the answer wasn’t obvious by page 10 (Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant is another, and it is equally fabulous).

    However, I was disappointed in the book where the loser in this triangle gets his own heroine because it begins almost precisely the same way:  she is a much younger innocent but he mistakes her for a courtesan.  Sheesh, you’d think he’d have learned his lesson.

  22. 22
    MaryK says:

    I was disappointed in the book where the loser in this triangle gets his own heroine

    I was disappointed in the sequel, as well.  By the end of this book, I didn’t think the loser deserved a heroine.  I may’ve read them too close together.

  23. 23
    Caz says:

    I’ve never come across Edith Layton before, but on the strength of this review, decided to have a look to see what’s available. Sadly, it seems that most of her books are out of print in the UK – The Duke’s Wager is available from Amazon Marketplace at ridiculous prices, so reluctantly, I’ll have to wait until it’s reprinted. BUT – even though this one isn’t available as an e-book either, there are some available, and I’m currently reading “A Bride for His Convenience”, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, and heartily recommend.

    How on earth do we get publishers to publish books here as well as in the US??

  24. 24
    willaful says:

    I agree, the sequel does not show the character as having learned from his previous experience, which is very disappointing.

    I came so close to not even reading this book because of the lack of sex scenes. [blush] And I remember commenting after I read it that it really showed how to current requirement for sex in Regencies really changed plotting, because I didn’t see how Layton could possibly have written this book if now typical sex scenes were included—it would have made the outcome obvious. Then I thought of that new book that’s out right now, A Hint of Wicked, which I haven’t read yet but it sounds like a love triangle that does include sex.  Genres can change on a dime sometimes. ;-)  (Though sex scenes would still have badly impaired the ending of TDW, in my opinion.)

  25. 25
    hapax says:

    I was disappointed in the sequel, as well.

    Hmm.  For a different perspective, I read THE DISDAINFUL MARQUIS first (it was one of my first romances, in fact) and loved loved loved it.  It’s still one of my comfort reads.

  26. 26
    willaful says:

    It’s a perfectly good book in itself, just disappointing as the follow-up for that character.

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