Book Review

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore

This is a painful, difficult review to write, as I have to face the uncomfortable truth that I was initially too focused on the book’s glittery bits (amplified by my own excitement around the history of the women’s suffrage movement) to question, deeply or fast enough, its many hurtful messages.

A Rogue of One’s Own held my attention, and that is to say a lot these days. I was happy to return to the early years of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain (the backdrop for the series, A League of Extraordinary Women; this is the second book) and to have the spotlight shine on an activist heroine, and to enjoy the writing.

Ultimately, however, this review is not about what I wanted or hoped a book to be, and is about what a book shows itself to be. Yes, this book had a lot of what is my catnip, but there was also unchecked colonialism, cultural appropriation, depiction of the women’s suffrage movement as the sole purview of White women of means, and homophobia.

Tristan’s valet is Indian, the only POC in the book and not tangentially related to the Suffrage movement. The character is there largely as a reminder to Tristan, the hero, that he squandered his Oxford education, as his valet deeply wishes he could have gone to Oxford, an option that was virtually impossible for him. Tristan has some good insights about the futility of his Army service in Afghanistan, but still plans on writing a book that would garner the support of the Prince of Wales and capitalize on the fact that he is considered a war hero, vaguely promising some criticism between the lines.

The one gay character in the book is an antagonist: spurned by the hero, he turns bitter, petty, and vindictive. The character exists solely as a conduit for a revenge plot when a secret he shares about the hero triggers a chain of events that dominates the last third or so of the book. The secret he reveals is that Tristan, who is White, has a chest tattoo inspired by a Hindu deity. I do not have the fluency to fully unpack the implications of his tattoo, but perhaps it is enough to say that what initially felt to me a poorly handled appropriation is all that, plus deeply offensive and hurtful to those who have experienced, again and again, the othering and the fetishization of the same select few aspects of their culture.

I want to believe that the issues that I pointed out here were not intended to come across as they did. And, bafflingly, most of it might have been avoidable from a narrative standpoint. Ultimately, though, intention is as irrelevant as my hopes for the book, because the demeaning messages are in view. Looking the other way, even if in the name of catnippy enjoyment to get me through challenging times, is reinforcing these hurtful, harmful messages.

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A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore

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  1. FashionablyEvil says:

    Is it possible that part of the review is missing? It seems like there might be a section that gives some context about the plot or characters that’s missing?

  2. JessK says:

    I always appreciate when a reviewer can set aside what they personally enjoyed about a book and take a look at its impact on the world. Thank you for this one, Claudia! What a shame that a book with a feminist heroine and gorgeous cover couldn’t deliver, but maybe this will get back to the author and she’ll do better next time.

  3. Patsy says:

    @FashionablyEvil I think the overall offense of the book took over any enjoyment of the plot for the reviewer. However, this is getting consistently good reviews on amazon and goodreads, so if you want that context, you can find it there.

    Claudia, thank you for this review. Between this and “The Duke’s Princess Bride,” I’m incredibly disappointed in the blindspots of editors.

  4. FashionablyEvil says:

    @Patsy—I totally get that certain elements of a book can ruin it for a person, but I think it’s important to position them in an effective review. This is a romance about suffrage but there’s no mention of the romantic arc or the suffrage movement? I’m good with coming down on the side of “the problems ruined the rest of it for me,” but I can’t even tell what the rest of it was from what’s here.

  5. Jen says:

    What a bummer because I liked the first one so much.

  6. arden says:

    @fashionablyevil sorry racism isn’t a hard pass for you but the truncated review makes the point that the rest doesn’t matter when the core is rotten

  7. Joyce says:

    I enjoyed it. It didn’t raise the issues for me that it did for you. I have a problem with assigning F ratings that could cost an author their livelihood. Couldn’t there be some other indicator besides an F? I don’t even think they assign F’s in school anymore because they are destructive, not constructive. If your goal is to enlighten an author, surely there is a better flag to fly?

    Please don’t take me down…my Covid nerves are shot.

  8. Escapeologist says:

    This reminds me of the Lisa Kleypas book that got an F grade for racism. Lisa apologized and pulled that scene from the ebook.

  9. Ellen says:

    Hey Joyce – this book has tons of rave reviews on goodreads, amazon, and even other major review outlets. An honest assessment by 1 reviewer of what personally constitutes a failure for them is in no way “costing the author her livelihood.”

    Reviews are for readers, not authors. All of the POC and queer readers who could be harmed by the content in this book deserve to hear that it could be harmful, and an F is a pretty effective way to flag that!

    If your covid nerves are shot, imagine how shot the nerves are of people who deal with problematic shit like the stuff in this book all the time.

  10. Gail Wood says:

    I liked the first one very much, so I really looked forward to this one. I could not finish it, though I sincerely tried. But I could not even….. sigh…..

  11. SB Sarah says:

    @Joyce – the following is said with utmost calm and candor:

    Reviews here are for readers, not authors (unless those authors are looking for books to read, in which case, they’re readers). The goal is not to enlighten an author, nor to be constructive. We aren’t part of the publishing process; we review the finished product. The way I see it, both as a reader/reviewer and also as an author, the book is done. There is very little about it that can be changed (except in rare cases) so there’s little point in attempting to tell an author what to do with a book they might have finished 18 months ago or more. Likely they and everyone else are working on something that will be out in 2022.

    And again, speaking for myself as a reader and reviewer, and also the person who edits the reviews here, a review is to inform a reader where they might like to spend their prospective minutes and dollars, and what to expect if they choose a title to read. In this particular case, a reader will encounter some hefty offensive racism, cultural appropriation, White centering if not outright Supremacy, and harmful content that may (and has) upset and hurt people.

    As far as a review costing an author their livelihood, no one person (or site) is the final word on a career or even an individual book. We don’t have that kind of power. I can yell about a book for a straight month, but that doesn’t make it a best seller. Our goal here is to connect readers with one another and with the books they might want to read; to reach that goal we’re going to be honest and candid about what we find in a book, whether it’s terrific or terrible.

    If our assigning and using F grades is upsetting for you, that’s good information for you to have. We might not be the place for you, and that’s okay. There are many, many other locations to find reviews and discussion of books, and if you look elsewhere, I hope you find the ideal community for your readerly tastes.

  12. Leigh Kramer says:

    The goal of a review isn’t to enlighten the author. Reviews are for readers. They help the reader decide whether or not they want to try the book in question. One site giving a book an F does not threaten an author’s livelihood. Based on Goodreads alone, there are plenty of people who enjoyed this book despite it being immensely problematic.

  13. Joyce says:

    BTW, I am not “upset” by the F rating. As a preschool teacher, I am always looking for “better” words to convey criticism. It’s part of the job description.

    For the record, I enjoy my interactions with this community.

  14. Appreciating this review; I was initially so very excited for this book but just crushed as I learned of the two enormously hurtful and destructive plot elements — gay villain and deeply problematic use of Hindu religious motifs — and I’m not going to pick this one up. Disappointed that there was no one who caught this between creation and publication; hoping Dunmore is able to hear this feedback non-defensively.

  15. Ellen says:

    Joyce, respectfully, none of us (including the author) are preschoolers; we can handle reading honest (if of course subjective) evaluations of a book. It seems a little misplaced to clutch pearls over the “F” review while also diminishing the impact of the content that led to the F review–e.g. “It didn’t raise the issues for me that it did for you.” That’s fine–not everyone has the same experiences or antennae for this kind of content–but it also doesn’t mean it is somehow destructive or mean for these issues to be called out and for that to be reflected in the grade.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you. I reread her first book after hearing so many good things and I find it so unbelievable that I stopped about 20 pages past my first attempt. The book tries to be something enlightened, feminist but fails miserably. It reads more like a book written in the 90s or even 80s. Just unaware on basic levels plus a lack of correct historic context (Inexcusable in the google age). The current book sounds awful as well. Sarah – I don’t always agree with you or the other reviewers but diverse viewpoints are what makes literature interesting. Thank you! As always, love your work and website!

  17. susan says:

    I just finished the first book but was not considering this one. This is the second review I have read that mentions racism/homophobia. Not the book for me.

    Regarding Bringing Down the Duke, I didn’t buy the historical context and was disappointed by the ending, because both the hero and heroine seemed to walk away from who they were previously.

  18. Darlynne says:

    @Ellen (15): “That’s fine–not everyone has the same experiences or antennae for this kind of content–but it also doesn’t mean it is somehow destructive or mean for these issues to be called out and for that to be reflected in the grade.”

    This is the very aspect of reviews here that I appreciate, especially when I am enlightened as a result and made aware of things I missed or didn’t fully understand. Claudia, thank you.

  19. Maya says:

    As somebody of South Asian heritage I am very wary with the historical genre as India seems the go to “exotic” locale and too often colonialism is casually peppered throughout the story. My grandparents lived in colonial India, their experiences aren’t the romantic Jewel in the Crown stories the west likes to think it was. Thank you for the trigger warning on this one.

  20. MizFletcher says:

    @Ellen not sure of the sentiment behind your “clutch pearls” comment TBH…

  21. NCK says:

    I just started this after being ambivalent about the first one, so thank you for the heads up! As someone of Indian descent, I’m 1000% done with historicals that have anything to do with India, and I didn’t know this one was one of those going in.

  22. Maya says:

    @NCK: Right?? I’m 56 and my parents came here in the late 50s. We’d visit India in the 70s when I was a kid. My parents were teenagers when India gained Independence meanwhile my grandparents had so many stories. One area my grandfather would tell me was barred to Indians and he’d tell us about it every time we came back from there(it turned in to a commerce area so we’d shop there). To this day I remember getting in trouble in 10th grade English class calling out the colonialism in Jane Eyre (sure, let’s go to India and convert those savages) and Secret Garden. I’ve reached a point of nope. A hero or heroine is half Indian or India is a backdrop to the story and it’s not written by a bipoc? Pass. Unless somebody safety reads it for me (like those royal tasters of old). It’s so emotionally exhausting to read about your heritage this way. I really appreciate this site because I know things like this and homophobia and general problematic content will be called out.

  23. Emily C says:

    @Maya and @NCK- not sure this is the right thread, but do you have any recommendations for historical novels set in India and written by POC of Indian descent? I would really like to broaden my reading to international authors with authentic voices of history.

  24. Martha says:

    I liked the first one, but this one was just annoying. In addition to the problems pointed out, I thought the h was unsympathetic. I didn’t like either one very much.

  25. Ak says:

    I’ve sometimes vastly enjoyed books that SBTB gave a poor or middling grade to (or the other way around).
    Girl Gone Viral comes to mind, because I absolutely loved it but was worried I wouldn’t because of the grade. But this isn’t a case of ymmv, or it shouldn’t be. An F is very useful and completely appropriate to signal when there is something as deeply problematic about a book as racism is. I appreciate it here so that I don’t bother with this book (the first one is still in my TBR pile and may never get read now, either). I do wish the review went into more detail, but that would be more for entertainment purposes. This reviewer used brevity to show a hard pass, which I respect.

  26. Anna C says:

    I did not enjoy the first one in the series, and had no intention of picking up the second, even before the “F” review. I very much appreciate reviewers calling out blatant racism or exoticism, as they have in the past (reviews of Mary Balogh & Lisa Kleypas come to mind). Admittedly, I did not always see the offending scenes as an issue, but I’ve learned to pay more attention as a reader, thanks to honest reviews like this. Although I wish it could be caught earlier in the process, so people don’t read this and find it acceptable or publishers backtracking, like LK pulling the offending scene from the ebook after publication.

  27. Lisa F says:

    What a huge disappointment after Bringing Down the Duke!

  28. Blackjack says:

    This has been a polarizing book, even for myself as a reader just finishing it. The romance is just stellar with amazing chemistry between two complex characters who both experience very believable and important emotional growth. The actual romance between Lucie and Tristan is probably one of my favorites of 2020.

    At the same time, White Feminism is on full display, and it’s mostly middle class white feminism as well, though some lip service is paid to working class women. That is sincerely disappointing. Cultural appropriation too takes place, largely around the role of the tattoo, which seemed to me something that could have been excised entirely from the book without barely impacting the story. I found the tattoo offensive and its existence as a plot point stupid, but I also found it at odds with Tristan’s character. At around 70% in the book, Tristan offers to Lucie his disdain for the entire British imperial project and links it to social justice movements like the emergent women’s movement, and so it’s somewhat hard to reconcile his feelings with the very real fact that he has a tattoo of a religious deity in the form of a naked South Asian woman on his chest. The tatto was a hard no for me. Agree too that Avi exists more as symbol than fully developed person in his own right, and that was unpleasant. I don’t agree necessarily or maybe fully that Arthur, the gay character in the book, is entirely painted as a villain. First, he’s not the only gay character as Oscar Wilde has a small but very memorable role. Also, Tristan is bisexual, I think, though that was not clearly developed. Arthur seeks revenge but he also is a little surprised that the real villain of the book took his gossip and ran with it. Arthur has a heart-to- heart talk with the hero at the end of the book that made me a little sympathetic toward him, and the scene itself serves as a moment where Tristan gains some needed insight into what it’s like to be a gay man. I didn’t in the end read this book as homophobic. I’m still contemplating allusions to Tristan’s bisexuality though.

    As a romance reader, I will probably give this 4.5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, with the necessary caveats that White Feminism functions here to render women of color invisible. I hope Dunmore can read more about the critical diversity in the suffrage movement. I hope more white authors can understand the anger many readers feel today when we read about groups that are defined as being different from the norm, marginalized, or rendered invisible from mainstream society. And yet, ultimately, I do think Dunmore is first-rate romance writer and the romance here is one of the best I’ve read all year.

  29. G. says:

    Having read and despised the first book there was a very slim chance of me picking this one up. That said, this one sounds like a whole new level of disappointing. 🙁

  30. Ellen says:

    @MizFletcher – clutch pearls is a very common idiom that means to react with over the top shocked disapproval. It’s an apt description in this case. Not sure what the point of your comment was…

  31. Critterbee says:

    I love that SBTB has sincere reader-reviewers who honestly write their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to books.

    Sometimes the reviewers like a book that I don’t, and sometimes they give a book that I love a lower review. That is to be expected, because they are reviewing books honestly, and, of course, we as readers are all different, with different catnip and different no-go zones. Our favorite books might be disliked by others, and books that we cannot stand are loved by others.

    Honest reviews from a wide variety of viewpoints are a valuable resource. This includes when reviewers communicate how they have been disappointed or hurt by a book. Writing reviews that focus on how the feedback will help the author improve, or with a care for their sales, is not the duty of objective reviewers.

  32. Elli says:

    Sometimes an F grade by one person who deems a book insensitive is the start of a campaign to get that book pulled from publication and/or the author cancelled. That does not seem to be the case here, but these days, most people are aware of the possibility.

    An Indian valet who regrets that he was denied a second hand Oxford education, the only one available to him if he is not wealthy or high status? (An Indian woman, Cornelia Sorabji, studied there in 1892; men were there earlier.) Possibly sufficiently cognizant of racial and class issues, depending. Or the issues could be mere backdrop for the hero’s drama.

    A gay villain? Equality is being the villain some of the time.

    The book doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I did just start A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul. A Muslim Indian’s life and perspective during the independence, violence, and civil war of an unnamed African country. An outsider’s story with another people’s struggle for backdrop, and yet the place has been home to his family for three generations. There is a form of slavery unknown to Westerners, and clung to by the slaves. Further complicated because the author lived amid the African diaspora in the West Indies, not Africa. The book was criticized on these grounds.

    And yet, it is a superbly written and evocative book, an entirely new perspective to me. In no way does it trivialize the experience of the Africans, but still, the story is that of the outsider. Would it be published today? Maybe problematic issues have a place in a serious work, less so in more entertainment.

  33. Stefanie Magura says:

    I have never read these books, and I’m not certain I will, based on the reservations given here, but part of me does want to read this and the first book to see if I note the same negatives and positives. If I recall, when the first book was reviewed here, the reviewer Carrie S, who liked the book and gave it a B+, noted the shallowness of the villain. It is unfortunate that problems with shallow characters and offensive stereotypes mar this book, because the context seems like an interesting one. I appreciate those who write honest reviews here and other places, because a reader can know what to expect going into the book and decide whether that would impact enjoyment. I think that’s completely fair, and I’m presuming that this is what SBSarah hired these reviewers to do. I would also like to thank various commenters for their honest feedback. I know I can do the heart button, but I want to give shout outs to Anna C, CritterBee, Blackjack, and Ak.

  34. Stefanie Magura says:

    @NCK @Maya @Emily C:

    I also have the same question.

  35. MizFletcher says:

    @SBSarah I think you are disingenuous in downplaying the impact such a negative review is likely to have on a book’s success or otherwise, from such a well known website.
    @Ellen There’s a sense of microaggression your use of the “clutching pearls” idiom which, to me at least, appears to be disparaging someone who dares to hold a different opinion to your own.
    For what it’s worth, I am all for open and frank discussion of a reviewer’s response to a book, and a book’s merits / lack of merit. But let’s be honest about our own positionality as well, shall we?

  36. K says:

    @MizFletcher Why does a racist and homophobic book deserve protection? You’re focusing on this review potentially hurting the author and sales of this book, but what about everyone hurt by the racism and homophobia in the book?

  37. Taylor says:

    @MizFletcher, Is your argument that the book is not racist, or that this website shouldn’t talk about it’s racist content bc it will hurt sales?

  38. MizFletcher says:

    @K I’m really and most deliberately not protecting any book, especially one I haven’t read. Nor am I defending racism or homophobic sentiments in any sense. I would just prefer to read comments where people who have read a book are permitted a safe space to express their opinions without being accused of, quote, “clutching their pearls” because they aren’t entirely aligned with someone else’s. I think it’s called “free speech”.

  39. MizFletcher says:

    @taylor neither of those things. To repeat, if any book is negatively reviewed on a major romance website such as this, it will affect sales.

    And I would prefer not to see people taking issue with another commentator in such a disparaging sense as referring to them “clutching their pearls.”

    I don’t feel that I’m “protecting” this book in any sense. Haven’t read it, don’t really feel any call to read it, and I trust myself well enough to know that I am not defending racist or homophobic content. It’s not who I am.

  40. LMC says:

    I am having a hard time with the book on its writing–uninteresting main characters. I have not read far enough to read bout the tattoo or the gay villain. I am a POC, so I understand the reaction of “No, now everyone is going to think that Gay (or fill in the blank) people are evil!” I have a twitchy reaction to it as well. I guess I would be more interested in whether the character is well written. Everyone loved Killmonger in Black Panther because he was well written and had a sympathetic point of view. As for the tatoo, how would you feel if a non-Christian had a tattoo of Jesus? I don’t have strong feelings with all the Tribal tattoo or Asian symbols on non-Asian or non-Native Americans, I guess I find them mostly pretentious, but who am I to say that they don’t have meaning to the wearer?

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