Book Review

Duchess If You Dare by Annabelle Bryant

I really wanted to like Duchess if You Dare. A historical with a fierce and street-wise heroine who all-too-frequently has to rescue the stuffy duke from his attempts to make things better? Yes, please.

Alas, it really didn’t work for me. The relationship between Scarlett and Ambrose made absolutely no emotional sense, and I found the narrative’s treatment of sex workers to be quite distressing and dehumanising.

Scarlett is the daughter of a sex worker who was murdered when Scarlett was a child. Having achieved financial security through a stroke of luck, and made several friends from higher echelons of society (also by chance), she has dedicated her life to righting the wrongs inflicted on women, especially poor women, by upper class men. As the founder of the ‘Maidens of Mayhem’, she has no interest in men or marriage, and is principally concerned that her seamstress friend has disappeared and that nobody seems to care about this.

Meanwhile, Ambrose, the Duke of Aylesford, may be stuffy and rather humourless, but when his scapegrace brother gets himself into trouble at a brothel, trying to defend a sex worker who is being harmed by one of her clients, he reluctantly becomes involved. And when his brother expresses concern about women disappearing from the brothel under suspicious circumstances, Ambrose agrees to investigate.

Ambrose and Scarlett cross paths when it turns out that her friend had been working a second job at that same brothel, and they rather reluctantly join forces to try to find out what is going on.

I had a number of problems with this novel. The first is that I just did not believe in Ambrose and Scarlett’s relationship. They seemed to have a lot of Insta-Lust going on, but there wasn’t much evidence of friendship or even mutual respect until late in the book, and I wasn’t convinced that they were good for each other as a couple. Ambrose is determined to protect Scarlett from everything, even though she is tougher and a better fighter than he is (I actually liked that side of it – of course someone who grew up on the streets is going to be better at real-world fighting than someone who has only ever fenced or boxed for fun). He never really gets over this disparity. Meanwhile, Scarlett goes from finding him annoying and interfering to seeing him through rose-coloured glasses for no apparent reason.

Most of all, though, Ambrose did a thorough job of insisting upon the barrier of class between them – and then failed to convince me that he could overcome his reservations so easily. I didn’t really see any reason for his change or growth. All I see is that he suddenly becomes super possessive and protective of Scarlett, and the next thing I know, he wants to marry her, only he can’t, because he needs a respectable wife and an heir. He spends a lot of time angsting over the fact that he can’t marry her…and then he decides to marry her.

He seems to fall in love with her in spite of himself. I never got the sense that he changed his views on sex workers and class, just that he decides it doesn’t matter because his only family is his brother anyway, and so it’s not really a problem, despite his being convinced that it was a problem a few chapters prior. Why did he change his mind? I have no idea.

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I also found it hard to believe that Scarlett would go from never wanting to marry because her work was too important to marrying someone who wanted her to stop that work. Why did she change her mind? Again, I have no idea.

Also in the category of Emotional Realism: Lack Thereof is the fact that late in the book, Scarlett is betrayed in a particularly awful way by someone she considered a friend. It’s terrible, and she winds up having to indirectly kill that person to escape, and then she rushes back to Ambrose, her true love, and never really thinks about it again. It seemed to me that there ought to have been some emotional fallout from this, but nope.

Another thing that bothered me was the way sex workers were treated as disposable plot devices. The entire adventure plot revolves around Scarlett and Ambrose trying to foil a network of people who are luring sex workers away from the (extremely) relative safety of the brothel into outright sexual slavery, and yet this whole plot mostly serves as a way to bring Ambrose and Scarlett together and to put Scarlett in peril. The villains are foiled, but the women who have been trafficked into slavery remain enslaved: they have apparently been trafficked overseas, and there doesn’t seem to be any thought of trying to find them and help them escape captivity. Even more frustratingly, the only sex workers who get any sort of character development are the ones who are complicit in the plot to harm their colleagues.

I have a hard time reading books where the sexual abuse and slavery of women is used to advance the plot, without any of these women getting agency or a narrative of their own. And that goes double when the book is one which is clearly trying to be all feminist and girl-power in its narrative. It feels like it’s missing its own point.

(Also, if I am going to be forced to imagine the sexual abuse and slavery of women, I really want some catharsis afterwards. I want to see them escape and destroy their captors and live their best lives. I don’t want the narrative to kind of shrug at the fact that clearly a whole bunch of women still are enslaved, but hey, at least these particular villains won’t be doing that any more.)

I can’t recommend this novel. For me, it failed as a romance, and it failed in how it dealt with the issues it raised. It escapes an F solely because I really did like Scarlett, at least before she fell in love. I would have been very happy with a novel about Scarlett roaming the streets, meting out justice to the wicked, and having hair-raising escapes.

Alas, all I got was Scarlett falling in love with a duke whom I never warmed to, giving up her career to marry a man who spent most of the book being condescending and controlling, and who ended a career she loved, after a number of women were treated as disposable plot devices. To me, that’s not a happy ending.

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Duchess If You Dare by Anabelle Bryant

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  1. 1
    FashionablyEvil says:
    +36

    Great review! I have to say, I have noticed a trend in historicals where women are activists or otherwise deeply attuned to the injustices facing women, especially the legal restrictions for married women who then oops! meet a duke! and then their principles go out the window. (Looking at you, Lisa Kleypas.) It’s like the authors want to have their contemporary views, but can’t quite reconcile them with the norms of the period and the tropes of the genre.

  2. 2
    Kit says:
    +22

    Maybe if Scarlett was depicted as showing regret for the victims she failed to save, with a vow to help them next time? Other than that, a skip for me. Gernerally, trafficked women get ignored in fiction, I even read a book once where the heroine (trafficked herself) blamed her fellow captives for not fighting back and being weak! It’s that sort of depiction that makes me want to hurl my kindle across the room!

  3. 3
    Sue the Bookie says:
    +15

    I read this and I completely agree. I was so disappointed. I thought it had great potential. The characters were flat, there was a lot of telling without showing, and using the trafficked women as a plot device was despicable.

  4. 4
    chacha1 says:
    +12

    This would definitely be a hard pass for me. I just read a M/M contemporary in which one MC has amnesia that turns out to be an artifact of torture and brainwashing by a ‘conversion therapy’ outfit. Subplot of a series of ‘suicides’ of other victims of this outfit. It was upsetting, and even though one of the bad guys gets dealt (with hints more will be in future books), I could not square a HEA or even HFN with all that trauma (not to mention Insta-Lust in problematic scenario).

  5. 5
    Lisa F says:
    +18

    Bryant has never gotten better than a C for me and I’m not shocked this terrible handling of sex work earned the book a D. If you’re going to introduce a woman who crusades for the safety of sex workers, maybe don’t have her shrug and leave the women in question to their fates once she lands her own HEA.

    And how would we even know that Scarlett would enjoy her life as a titled wife? I can’t imagine it being anything but stifling for her.

  6. 6
    Bronte says:
    +14

    I’m so sick of the “my work is too important I couldn’t possibly marry you” trope. That one needs to go away and never come back. I’m also sick of the activist heroines in Regency/historicals at the moment. It’s rare to find one that doesn’t have this trope and it’s why I find myself rarely reading these books. Call me shallow if you like but its rinse and repeat over and over and I’m done.

  7. 7
    chacha1 says:
    +11

    @ Bronte, not only activist heroines but ‘unable to suspend disbelief’ heroines. I see some blurbs about Regency/historicals and think ‘what the?’ Like: a heroine who’s disguised herself as a man so she can work as a nobleman’s valet! Or a heroine who’s disguised herself as a man so she can work as a hackney driver! WTF?! These are supposedly young ladies of quality. The hackney driver – maybe, if it were (for example) the daughter of a man who worked for a living as a groom, hostler, or coachman. Not the daughter of gentry. I shake my head and go find a Carla Kelly to re-read.

  8. 8
    Courtney M says:
    +9

    Oof this review and the comments put in writing a lot of the reasons I’ll auto-skip any historical books where the class difference is too large, and especially where the hero is a duke. I never find the resolution satisfactory, for a host of reasons, but largely because they set up the class difference as this insurmountable problem for them getting married, and then the resolution is usually… they decide to ignore the insurmountable problem because they love each other, which doesn’t get rid of the actual problems? And means that they probably won’t live happily ever after?

    These books never really address the actual class differences between the characters in any meaningful way, which allows for the hand-wavy endings. How does a duke even begin to relate to the daughter of a sex worker? And how does a daughter of a sex worker even begin to learn what she needs to be a duchess? And now that I’m dwelling on it, this devalues a lot of the work a wife of a rich and powerful man would do. “Running a household” when the house is ginormous is a lot of work! As is being a hostess when parties had hundreds of people. And a duchess “having a place in society” wasn’t just getting to go to parties, it could literally translate into actual political power.

  9. 9
    Star says:
    +7

    I am more than happy to read about activist heroines in theory. There were real women doing real activist work in the e.g. nineteenth century, women whom we owe a great deal to today, and I am generally more interested in and sympathetic to them than your average standard innocent nobleman’s sheltered daughter. But the authors who seem to want to write activist heroines seem not to want to bother doing any of the research or even thinking very hard about what it really meant to do that work and what an actual happy ending for a woman like that would look like? Instead the impression one gets is that the authors (and by extension the characters) mostly want plaudits for being all woke. It’s doubly annoying because if there are authors who are doing it right, I’m probably going to miss them because they sound just like all the faux-activist heroines.

  10. 10
    Lisa F says:
    +8

    @Star – The thing is that there are even models for aristocratic activist heroines out there. Like you said, it’s very possible to write the subject and do it well – the failure arrives when research and romance fail to collide.

  11. 11
    WS says:
    +4

    This is an issue I have with a lot of romantic suspense, where the HEA is not strong enough to outweigh the disturbing crimes of the villain.

  12. 12
    Annie Kate says:
    +6

    Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a book that seems to want to shoehorn in an aristocratic hero for *absolutely no reason* other than genre requirements and then still try to frame the whole thing through very shallow (and almost always white feminist) conceptions of activism. There are some really great politics or activism-focused historical romances, but like @Star says, it requires actual research and understanding real history and so many authors just don’t seem to want to do that work. So many authors treat class as a great injustice that matters so very much right up until the point that it’s inconvenient for the plot, at which point it can be handwaved away because love conquers all. This really doesn’t convince me that the *author* sees class issues as a great injustice, honestly.

    Side note: I have never understood why historical romance is so chock-full of super-woke women marrying dukes, and yet Members of Parliament are very thin on the ground. If I was writing a romance with an activist heroine, it seems like a far more natural fit.

  13. 13
    Courtney M says:
    +6

    @Annie Kate I agree that way waaaayyy too many historical romances cast a duke as a hero, when it is not only entirely unnecessary to the plot, but actually makes the plot more unbelievable. The sheer number of young, handsome, single dukes with plenty of free time in historical romance is rivaled only by the number of young, handsome, single billionaires with plenty of free time in contemporaries for implausibility.

    I get that having “duke” or “billionaire” on the cover signals a certain type of romance, whereas “Mr. Darcy, who has a really nice estate and 10,000 a year” or “entrepreneur who can afford to buy a condo in Manhattan” don’t actually fit on covers, but your average duke or billionaire is probably not a good romance hero for your standard romance heroine! They’re usually late middle-aged to ancient men with entrenched privilege.

    And while I have plenty of books I’ve loved with dukes or billionaires as characters, if I pick one up these days it’s probably from an author I already like. Because if the story isn’t good enough, I start thinking too hard about things like the fact that this duke had his grandfather and father die by a fairly early age, likely owns a vast chunk of England, and yet none of that informs his character (and he’s definitely not exploiting the Irish or anyone else) or how the 30-year-old “billionaire” started with nothing and made his money by starting his own company, aka he made a billion dollars in about 10 years (but of course his businesses definitely aren’t profiting off of minimum wage workers in warehouses or third world sweat shops).

  14. 14
    Bronte says:
    +1

    @Star if it was the odd activist heroine no problem. I’ve read and enjoyed books featuring this. However I can only think of one recently released historical romance that I’ve read in the last year that did not feature an activist heroine. And that to me is boring. I’m sorry but I read this for fun.

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