Book Review

The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran


Title: The Duke of Shadows
Author: Meredith Duran
Publication Info: Pocket Books 2008
ISBN: 1416567038
Genre: Historical: European

Book CoverHello. I’m here to keep you on track.

Oh, shut up. I can ruminate on whatever the hell I want.

Yeah, but someday you’re going to hog all the bandwidth on the internet.

Coooool. *starts making plans*


*sigh* FINE.

What would be the screenplay version of Sarah Reading The Duke of Shadows?

*peeking through fingers* “oh, shit oh shit, oh no….”

*tight sensation in chest at depictions of violence* “fucking hormones….”

*train stops, people get off* “SHIT. That’s my STOP. MOVE IT you door-blocking jackass.”

*peeking through fingers* “Oh, shit oh shit this is not good….”

*trying to stop self from turning pages too quickly* “Slow down, dumbass, the pages aren’t going anywhere.”

So you liked it?


Best historical you’ve read this year?


So what worked for you?

There were so many elements of this book that worked marvelously, like effortless harmony so flush with style that you can’t separate the individual tunes woven together.

Such as?

You’re a real pain in my ass. I was getting there.

The setting is incredibly vivid, as I was introduced to India during the Empire through Emma’s eyes, and since she is a bit of the stereotypical iconoclastic heroine who doesn’t fit in her own world, her overly modern sensibilities were a clear vehicle through which I, as the reader who knows little of the time period, could approach it. Things that bothered Emma, such as the society within the society, the absurdity of “pretending we’re all in England when we’re not,” the limitations on women, all of it gave me a greater understanding of the location, and the people within it, particularly Julian.

Duran’s use of color and symbolism is particularly deft, and simply marvelous. She references varying shades of color both in the reality of the madness in the Indian mutiny, and in the layers of color in Emma’s paintings which reflect that madness. Moreover, the use of the globe, which is a pivotal scene referenced by several reviewers, was particularly touching to me because it illustrated the dichotomy inherent in Julian: the world is so small it fits under your hand, and it brings them together through chance. But the world is so big that breaking it causes a wide range of rippling repurcussions, both literally and figuratively, and its size can get in the way of them finding each other again until it is almost too late. That scene alone is exquisite in its art.

And speaking of art, Julian was a work thereof. He was a tremendously heroic hero, but Duran crafted him with flaws that almost take the better of him, until his core of nobility pulls him back. He’s a dreamboat.

So what didn’t work for you?

Emma. She was innocent, then angry, then tortured, then angry some more, and much of the time I felt while reading the book that I was missing the key to understanding her. I didn’t actually feel a great deal of empathy for Emma when I probably should have. On one hand, I could certainly understand her reaction to the horrors of what she lived through, but her behavior often seemed superficial and angry – conveniently so for the plot – more than deeply, deeply troubled. From her enigmatic conversations with Julian that didn’t reveal any subtext or sparkle that hadn’t already been covered, to her hanging-by-a-thread sanity that came and went with the needs of the story’s resolution, Emma remained an enigma when I would have wanted to rely on her as a protagonist more.

Further, the villain, Marcus. He’s racist, he’s evil, he’s abusive, and he’s so completely dissolute that while Emma mentions kindnesses in the past, and more honorable behavior when they were younger, I never see even an inkling of it. There were no nuances to his behavior – he was just plain bad. He was two out of three in the Trifecta of Evil Villain, in fact.

Just Plain Bad isn’t always a bad thing – sometimes the polarity of Knowing Your Evil can be reassuring and appropriate in a story. But given the rapidly shifting and ambiguous heroism and justifications of violence in the setting amid uprising, oppression, mutiny and murder, a starkly Just Plain Bad hero was a detriment to the story.

If Julian were a food, what would he be?

Mine. My food in my lunchbox, please. Wait, I didn’t mean for that to sound dirty.

You didn’t?

No comment.

So what’s your grade, and why?

B-. A “B”-range book because I couldn’t put it down once she and Julian were both located in London, and because the depictions of violence were heartbreaking and haunting. Further, because Julian was tortured and noble, and though he didn’t change so much as come to own himself and the power at his disposal in both of the cultures that shaped him, his journey was fascinating. Julian was marvelous, and did things I wished heroes in other historical novels would do, including beating the ever living shit out of someone who truly deserved it, and being vindicated for doing so. YUM.

A minus because the villain was Just So Damn Evil, and because Emma was often wooden, stereotypical, and a cliche of trite composite heroines of historical romance. Part virgin, part iconoclast, educated yet showing an absence of that education at key moments, I didn’t relish the scenes that featured her solely as much as I did any and all that revealed Julian. I’m going to be thinking of the hallway in his home from the end of the book for a long time – a simple description that reveals so much about that character.

Duran’s strengths, however, with development and care, could yield future novels of impeccable quality. The Duke of Shadows was often uneven, but those parts that were marvelous were even better than the heights of other books, which shows the talent Duran can wield, but also highlights the flaws to greater detriment. Either way, I will watch for her next novel.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Robin says:

    I love your description of the globe scene, Sarah.

    I’ve been trying to figure out what it is with both the first part of the book and with Emma that didn’t work for me, and I think it’s that there’s a distance—narratively, I guess—I feel from her most of the time.  It’s especially prominent for me in the first part of the book (Jane had a very apt metaphor involving a scarf, I think, but I can’t recall it now). 

    I know there’s a fine line between portraying a heroine who doesn’t want anyone to get too close and a narrative that keeps its distance from her.  I wanted the narrative to break through that distance in ways that it didn’t a lot of the time.  Now when it did . . . WOW!—raw and nearly overwhelming like those scenes in Kinsale’s Seize The Fire when Sheridan is trying to bring Olympia back from the brink, living link an animal outside on the ground. Which meant I missed it all the more when the distance re-established itself.

  2. 2
    fiveandfour says:

    Your thoughts parallel mine to a marked degree, though it took me awhile to figure out that the thing that most kept me from madly adoring the story was Emma.  In Part I, during the scene on the roof at the Maharaja’s, she thinks something to herself (trying to keep things spoiler-free here, but hopefully that wasn’t *too* vague) and it seemed sometimes as though she was determined to keep that attitude throughout Part II out of some weird kind of stubbornness. As in, “I told myself this is what I would do, so therefore I must do it regardless of what the facts have revealed”.  It all translated to me to a treating Julian with a kind of cruel coldness that I didn’t think he deserved and which she should have realized he didn’t deserve as soon as he told her his side of things.

    However, there were many marvelous moments throughout and I found the story well worth the read despite my misgivings about Emma.

    There have been some terrific first efforts out lately like this one that have me really excited for the genre; I’m looking forward to watching Duran develop.

  3. 3
    Arethusa says:

    Yay, I bought it and, yay, it was good. I tend to consume my romance fairly uncritically compared to other genres so I all I can contribute is, “Yipeee! Another historical author-autobuy!” I really loved all those scenes set in India. The stuff at the end with the traitor sub-plot got a bit hokey for me but I still closed the book with a satisfied sigh.

  4. 4
    Nadia says:

    I finished this one yesterday, and I loved it. Maybe because the book I read right before it was A Restless Knight, so compared to that mediocrity, it was refreshingly compelling.

    But poor Emma, she really went through a Perils of Pauline phase, didn’t she? I mean, how many horrible things can happen to one young woman? Drownings and beatings, and insults, nearly raped and terrorized, and then living with the guilt of a horrible crime. Poor Emma! Give the girl a break, for heavens sake!

    Speaking of the horrible crime, I like that Julian figured it out within a few minutes. Don’t you hate it when you know the answer to a mystery, but the main character doesn’t? Like you just want to shout at him, “Read the Urdu! Where do you think it came from!” But no such frustration with this book. Julian was a clever boy and got it right away.

    I’ll admit the villain was pretty one-dimensional, but what the heck. I still really liked the book.

  5. 5
    JaimeK says:

    “Best historical you’ve read this year?

    Nope.  “

    What is the best you have read this year?

  6. 6
    Phyllis says:

    Just guessing from my feeble memory that she’d say that the best historical was “Spymaster’s Lady” by something-or-other Bourne.

    I’d say this was a really close second and that I maybe even liked it better.

    I didn’t love Emma, but I actually thought she was really well written as a depressive with post-traumatic stress disorder. I do agree that her education was mentioned and then she sometimes acted TSTL. but all she had was all book larnin’ and art lessons, not hand-to-hand combat or even Urdu lessons, so I gave her a break. She can’t be smart at everything.

  7. 7
    Kim H. says:

    I went a lot easier on Emma, I think.
    I can’t discount what some off the nightmarish experiences she went through must have done to her.  I’d have collapsed entirely just after the scene with Anne Marie and her companion.  I went back to that passage several times before moving on.  It was so brutal, and the title of the painting depicting it – “As I laughed”.  I can’t imagine how someone is to cope with something like that afterward.

    I liked the way that Duran makes use of Emma being an artist.  The descriptions of her obsession with painting and how she perceives the world – through the eyes of an artist – are very evocative.  And there is such a strong sense of place to the portions of the story set in India – the India Emma sees.  The people (good & bad) places, textures & colors, smells, clothing – you name it – are all so very vibrant and alive because you can feel Emma’s perceptions of them.  London, by contrast, is very one-dimensional and gray, but very much in keeping with the way the story (and Emma) evolves.  It reflects so well how her experiences in India have altered her; the loss of her own vibrant qualities, and Julian’s grief & anger over that loss.  The painting she does of him when she first returns from India, and the changes she makes to it when she starts to bloom again, because of him – so allegorical.

  8. 8
    Aaron says:

    I hate shadows!

  9. 9
    Marie says:

    I just finished Duke of Shadows and I completely agreed with your assessment—Julian is a perfect 10, and Emma is good with occasional flashes of TSTL. 

    But really, not my main complaint with the book.  I just finished Duke of Shadows and Marjorie Liu’s The Last Twilight this weekend (also well-written, fast-paced, and with some awesome characters) and the same thing drove me nuts about both.  I generally hate books where the heroine gets raped.  Rape terrifies me, I don’t like having it in my romance novels (Nora Roberts’ Divine Evil made me physically ill on an airplane once).  However, I am SOOOO sick of books where the heroines make it out of horrifying situations, where all the women around them are raped, and somehow they stay untouched in at least that one way.  It puts so much more weight on rape over every other type of horrible experience. 

    In Liu’s book, the heroine is unspeakably tortured—everything BUT rape.  Ridiculous, given that it’s set in the DRC and everyone *else* gets raped.  In Duran’s, Emma somehow miraculously escapes rape multiple times and gets through months missing in India unscathed in this one all-important way.  If you are going to have your heroine stranded in the Congo or India, in the hands of people raping everyone else in sight, what makes her special?  If authors create these situations, I would much rather see a book where she IS raped and still manages to have the HEA, despite being “damaged.”  So I guess that’s my question—what do the smart bitches think of this issue?  Is having your heroine be raped akin to killing a dog in a movie—a just don’t go there—or does it show an irritating squeamishness when writing about such situations that disrupts the plot of many romances and dodges the opportunity to take on tougher themes of healing?

    For me, the “every trauma but rape” approach reminds me of the virgin widow thing.  My favorite example was a historical (title sadly long gone) I read back in the day where the heroine’s creepy ex tried to force her to have anal sex (he couldn’t get it up for “normal” sex)—so she could be horribly traumatized and yet magically a “virgin” widow to the hero’s surprise!  For me that is the point at which the plot device is too obvious.

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