Book Review

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

I loved A Duke by Default so freaking much. This is the second book in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series and it focuses on Portia, the best friend of the heroine of the first book, A Princess in Theory. A Duke by Default is fine as a stand alone although characters from the first book do show up. In the first book, Portia was introduced as a party girl who couldn’t stick to anything and who frequently imposed on her friends despite having a heart of gold.

In A Duke by Default, Portia is working on “Project: New Portia.” She has very sensibly launched this project by quitting drinking, finding a therapist, and taking a break from casual sex (not that there’s anything wrong with casual sex, but in Portia’s case it was part of an overall pattern of heavy drinking and lack of commitment that had become problematic for her). Don’t worry if you didn’t meet Portia in the first book. All of her issues are explained or implied in A Duke by Default.

Anyway, Portia takes on an apprenticeship in Scotland with a swordsmith. She’s supposed to learn how to make and use swords in exchange for helping the armory business with its social media game, which is nonexistent. The swordsmith is a very sexy guy named Tavish who immediately dismisses her as superfluous. His brother set up the apprenticeship. Tavish is not a social media kind of guy.

Portia quickly meets a sublime group of supporting characters, impresses the hell out of Tavish, and accidentally discovers that Tavish is the son of a duke (it’s very complicated). In short order the reader learns about ADHD, immigration in Scotland, and how to stir your tea at an aristocratic event (move the spoon in straight lines to stir your tea as opposed to in a circular motion). Portia learns about boundaries and that she’s not a “fuck-up.” Therapy is portrayed in a positive light, which is awesome, and while the press tries to slut shame Portia for her previous casual sex encounters, the other characters refuse to do so. There’s very much an attitude of “Whatever works for you and your partner(s) is fine.”

Meanwhile, Tavish learns, as he puts it, not to be such a “wanker.” By “wanker” I mean that he tends to take the people around him for granted even though he is extremely empathetic towards the larger community. He’s fiercely loyal and protective of people in his life, but he doesn’t always appreciate the hard work they do on his behalf. He also has to make a decision about whether or not to take his place as Duke and how to deal with the press given that he is intensely private.

The book has plenty of plot but the plot is pretty much there so that the characters can react in different ways. Also, the novel ends abruptly as soon as the protagonists resolve their feelings towards one another. The novel is a little overstuffed with people’s issues but all the issues are important and all are handled well. I liked the settings – a gentrifying urban area that’s pushing out long term residents, the armory with its forge, shop, and school, the Ren Faire, and Holyrood Palace as a change of scene. It’s a great combination of gritty, historical, and glamorous. I also liked that the characters demonstrated that urban Scotland is an economically and ethnically diverse place. Tav’s mother is Chilean and his adoptive father is Jamaican, Portia is African-American, and many of Tav’s students are refugees from Syria. Portia becomes fast friends with Cheryl, Tav’s sister-in-law, who runs a food stand called “Doctor Hu’s.” It’s a lovely depiction of a tight-knit family in a tight-knit community.

I liked Tavish very much, but I found I cared more about Portia, who has a complex and well-done character arc. Again, I LOVED it that therapy is presented in a positive light! I was more invested in Portia’s personal growth than in the romance, which is saying a lot, because I was really into the romance. This is such a solid book – it’s tear-jerking, it’s inspiring, it’s sexy and romantic, it’s interesting (sword history!) and it’s funny. I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

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A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

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  1. Deianira says:

    Two thumbs up for this book! I love Alyssa Cole’s characters, & I’ve been waiting for Portia’s story since I met her in “A Princess in Theory” (also well worth reading).

  2. Kathy says:

    Nice to read this review. I’ve read (and complained about) many reviews which criticise issues of historical accuracy and improbability and while I know they are not wrong–*this* was exactly how I felt upon finishing A Duke by Default. I lived it, too! Thanks for helping me feel I am not on my own.

  3. Rin says:

    I’m reading this book now and loving it! So far I’m particularly impressed with the way it’s introducing ADHD and how not being diagnosed when she was younger might have affected Portia in the long term. Can’t wait to see how it all comes together.

  4. Claudia says:

    Ditto to all of the above — I was frustrated though with the abrupt end and a last-minute plot twist I felt unnecessary. It was A plus all the way to the 90% mark.

  5. Critterbee says:

    Love, love, loved this book! I identified with Portia so much, just adored her. I liked Princess in Theory, too, although Portia and Tavish and everyone else just made this book extra.

  6. Anna says:

    I really enjoyed this book – definitely one of the better books I’ve read this year. Great plot, I loved Project New Portia, and Tavish was so adorable/annoying/grumpy/hot that I could barely stand it. I was SO annoyed by the abrupt ending though!!

  7. Leigh Kramer says:

    I just finished this last night and absolutely loved it! It gave me so many feels and I cannot wait to read book 3.

  8. Jolie says:

    I LOVE Alyssa Cole’s books! But I was a bit disappointed by Portia’s character arc.

    Portia finally got closure with Regina, her twin sister. Yet Portia never adequately resolved her parental issues. Portia’s own mother wishing that Portia had gotten sick instead of Regina (and don’t get me started on how Portia finally won the ‘rents approval by snagging a duke) needed to be addressed more thoroughly.

    Despite the rushed ending, “A Duke By Default” is still a satisfying read, which I give a solid B.

    I’m looking forward to “A Prince On Paper”!

  9. Leena says:

    I actually enjoyed this book more than the previous. Until we got to the end. It was rushed and I’m not sure it made much sense. I think Cole often has issues ending her novels. It’s just not enough to keep me from enjoying her work. While I liked the closure Portia had with Regina it felt rather one sided to me. It takes two people to make any type of relationship work. Since we know how Portia’s mother truly felt and that she wasn’t necessarily wrong about how her family viewed her, I would have liked to see how Reggie contributed to that dynamic.

  10. Emma says:

    I mostly enjoyed the book and I loved the characters, the diversity of the cast and the little geeky references scattered throughout (especially Doctor Hu’s). I loved the wonderfully lived-in and ‘real’ feel of Tav’s area and I really liked both Tav and Portia. But I was really frustrated by the liberties taken with some of the ‘Duke’ details, although I wasn’t fussed by the general improbability of the situation.
    The most obvious and niggling inaccuracy for me was the fact that ‘the Duke of Edinburgh’ is very real, very alive and married to the Queen. Calling Tav the Duke of Edinburgh really changed the whole dynamic of the story for me. And some of the details about ‘Royal Dukes’ and Holyrood House just weren’t right and frustrated me so much that I spent the second half of the book constantly checking back and thinking ‘Did I did read that right?’ and ‘Did she really mean to write that?’. I was so hung up on the ‘wrongness’ of the details that I wasn’t really focusing on the characters any more, which was a shame because I really did like the characters.
    I couldn’t work out whether it was a deliberate authorial choice (in which case why not just set this book, like the others, in a fictional country with fictional rules for the peerage) or just poor research. It seems even more pointed when compared to the fact that the other two ‘royals’ are from completely invented countries and the deliberate avoidance of recognisable company or website names (like I might get upset that Portia uses Twitter, Facebook or Uber but not upset that Tav has usurped a title belonging to the Queen’s husband, especially when she’s a guest at the garden party and doesn’t even mention it!).
    Overall I really enjoyed the general plot, the writing and the characters but the rushed ending and those niggles probably knocked it down from an A to a C+ for me because they took me so far out of a story that I was otherwise really enjoying.

  11. Jazzlet says:

    Cole made her hero the Duke of Edinburgh??!!!!???!?!? The absolutely last thing most British women are going to associate with the DoE is romance, bigotry, racism, Trumpian levels of tact yes. Romance no.

  12. CarrieS says:

    OK here’s the deal, in the book Tav is the illigitamate son of the previous Duke of Edinburgh. The spot in the book is currently held by Tav’s cousin, David Dudgeon, who is super Trumpian. Tav can take a payoff and leave David to it, and that is very much Tav’s preference, but he hates David’s anti-immigrant policies and general mindset so he thinks he should fight for the dukedom so he can better stand up for the rights of immigrants (and others, but the immigration issue is the main focus in the book).

    As God is my witness, I do believe I’v read so many historicals that the fact that there are ACTUAL DUKES in REAL LIFE barely occured to me.

  13. Ms. M says:

    Not just any duke, either. Prince Philip is probably the highest profile duke in the UK (save maybe the Duke of Cambridge).

  14. Hazel says:

    @Emma: Wow. That’s a major inaccuracy. And entirely avoidable. Why would an experienced author make such a mistake? I’m amazed.

  15. Hazel says:

    I suppose it’s telling that an experienced reviewer didn’t even notice.

  16. CarrieS says:

    I looked at some other reviews (something I usually don’t do) to see what came up, and most of them did what I did (shrugged and said “fiction” and got swept up in other catnip). However, for those who found it jarring, it was REALLY jarring and it totally makes sense that that would be the case. I dropped the ball here in terms of consistency because usually when I read a historical that isn’t accurate I point it out so the reader can make an informed choice, and the same standards should be applied to contemporaries. I think this book is a particularly good illustration of the challenges contemporaries face with believability. In this particular case I treated the Duke storyline the same way I treat historical romance dukes (they are everywhere, lines of succession don’t make sense, people marry outside of their class and are still dukes, the hero and heroine are unchaperoned often, etc). But in other contemporaries I’ve been taken completely out of the story by realism issues. Once I was taken out of a story completely for the exisitence of a certain tiramisu. So I should have bumped this book down to a B for the Duke thing (also the abrupt ending).

  17. Hazel says:

    Thank you for acknowledging that, Carrie.

    I’m not sure if I’ll try this book, although I did like one of Cole’s historical novels last year.

  18. Lisa F says:

    Yep, this is one of my favorite books of the year. Excellent plotting and a great romance, though yeah – those details are a bit troublesome!

  19. Heather T says:

    Duke of Edinburgh? SERIOUSLY? I want to like Alyssa Cole, I really do, but these unforced errors make her books unreadable for me. I read a Prince in Theory, but there was a ridiculously glaring error about whether people flying on private jets have to go through security (BTW, they don’t) and that is now the only thing I can remember about that book.

  20. LauraR says:

    Ok, here is an issue I had with the story. I read a lot of historical romance and in those a son has to be legitimate in order to inherit a title, not merely be older. Tav’s mother was not married to his father so how could he inherit the dukedom in place of his cousin?

  21. Melanie says:

    @LauraR, I noticed that too, as well as the Duke of Edinburgh thing. I also read a lot of historical romance, as well as a lot of history, and yes, I thought there was going to have to be some explanation that Tav’s parents had in fact been married but had gotten divorced, or something like that.

  22. Marlene in PDX says:

    I really enjoyed this book and gifted it to a friend, but we both have a question: how does an illegitimate son inherit a duchy over a legitimate male relation? This would seem to fly in the face of British aristocracy’s primogeniture laws. Has Alyssa Cole ever addressed the issue?

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