Romancing the Duke, by Tessa Dare

18 Feb
Cover for Romancing the Duke; white woman with black hair in an updo, wearing red gown with a deep neckline. Some stone walls and crenelations in the background.

Anther review, another historical romance; this time, the first title in the Castles Ever After series. 1 (Also, apparently my first review of a Tessa Dare book, which I find baffling.)

Reader beware: parents neglecting, using, and abusing their children; graphic sex on page, and the looming threat of declaring a character insane and committing them to an asylum.

Romancing the Duke, by Tessa Dare

The premise is absolutely fantastic, in both senses of the world; there’s a lot of humor in the writing voice, even though the underlying themes are not light. Our fairy tales of the hour are Beast and Ugly Duckling–only the first is not very beastly, and the latter does not transform into a swan.

Here’s the blurb:

As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too.  The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off.  One by one by one.

-Ugly duckling turned swan?

-Abducted by handsome highwayman?

-Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and… Heh.

Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head.  What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?

The blurb would have you believe that this is a fluffy story, almost a comedy of errors. And Ms Dare’s writing voice is very engaging, lending itself some to that view; the story skips along, the main characters are likable, and the romance is convincing. The secondary characters are less well drawn, but then, they are there truly only to serve as foils to Ransom and Izzy.

On the surface, we have an old decrepit castle full of bat colonies and priest holes, the ownership of which is in dispute; a couple of evil cousins, a couple of unethical solicitors, and tales of romance and adventure. The plot is full of of whimsy, up to and including fanzines and a proto-Society for Creative Anachronism. The resolution to a rather harrowing plot thread hinges on one of those magical coincidences the term Deus Ex Machina was coined for.

However.

Beyond the whimsy, we have a 26 year old woman who’s has staved off starvation since the death of her father, by relying on the good will of the devoted readership of The Good Night Tales (the in-book story), and a 30 year old man who’s suffered a traumatic head injury that left him mostly blind, but also with speech and cognitive issues, as well sudden and debilitating headaches.

Our heroine has always been compared to the “Little Izzy Goodnight” of the stories, with “shining amber hair and emerald green eyes”, and found wanting. Izzy herself is described as slight, blue eyed, with wild dark hair and a prominent nose. She’s an object of admiration for thousands, while having no close friends, or any family willing to help her. Izzy is keeping secrets, not the least of which is that her father cared so little, he didn’t trouble to make any financial arrangements for her, leaving her utterly destitute upon his death.

Our duke was raised by an emotionally abusive man who explicitly blamed him for his mother death upon his birth, and who drilled into Ransom’s head that he doesn’t deserve anything. Not softness, not friendship, not joy, and definitely not love. After his injury, Ransom has retreated from the world in the same way an injured wolf would, both hoping to avoid further injury and, basically, to wait to die.

These are serious emotional issues both of these people are dealing with, which I don’t really see addressed properly. Yes, there’s some resolution to Izzy’s issues, including in the epilogue. However, the resolution to Ransom’s childhood trauma comes in the form of him saying, “well, I’m an adult and I know now that it was all bullshit”, and…that’s very much not how trauma works? It feels almost dismissive of people living with PTSD from surviving abusive parents. 2

Also, there are some very real, potentially very nasty consequences for *everyone*, hanging from the “who owns this castle” plot thread. The characters basically say, “gah, the situation is dire!”, then…whimsy! coincidence! Threat gone!

And I know! It’s fiction, it’s escapism, and “all is well that ends well” and all that; but knowing what was done to people who were tossed into insane asylums, since they were considered “a danger to themselves and to others” (the phrase is even used in the book!), the levity with which the story treats it didn’t sit well with me.

So, where does this leave us?

I didn’t enjoy Romancing the Duke as much this time around (knowing what was coming in the last few chapters). 7.00 out of 10, exclusively because Ms Dare’s voice is very, very readable.

* * * *

Notable: we have both protagonists using the word “cock”, references to masturbation and fucking, but the word “pearl” is used exclusively for clitoris. Which, I might add, is a genre romance thing, but that struck me more than a bit in this case, because of the context of Izzy saying “cock”

* * * *

1 I’m using the original cover, though I don’t love it (the dress is from one scene, at least), because I absolutely despise the new, cartoon cover.

2 I am not attributing any motivations to Ms Dare here; I am talking about how I, specifically, perceived this particular treatment of this particular issue, in this particular book.

4 Responses to “Romancing the Duke, by Tessa Dare”

  1. whiskeyinthejar 18/02/2022 at 4:04 PM #

    “These are serious emotional issues both of these people are dealing with, which I don’t really see addressed properly.”

    This is why Dare’s books never quite reach favorites for me, they are great at being lighter reads, which can work for me but I have to be more in the mood. I want characters and stories to sink down more into the depths, layers, and emotions.
    I did enjoy a couple in her Spindle Cove series, if ever looking to try her again.

    I thought this was a little bit like “Yours Until Dawn” by Teresa Medeiros but Medeiros did it better, imho

    • azteclady 18/02/2022 at 4:09 PM #

      I do enjoy Ms Dare’s books quite a bit on the first read, because her writing voice carries me on the “light read” part, but I have just realized that I don’t really re-read them often. And when I do, they don’t hold up well for me.

  2. SuperWendy 18/02/2022 at 6:37 PM #

    I always recommend Dare to readers who LOVE light historicals, but I realized after the first Girl Meets Duke book (The Duchess Deal) that I don’t love her books the way other readers love her books. They’re just…too. Too much whimsey. Too much twee. There’s things Dare does well that I like (there’s usually some sort of emotional heft under the candy coated shell) but I find the cotton-candy fluff so eye-rolling. I’m capable of liking light historicals (Lord knows) but the minute they descend into twee I’m looking for the nearest OTT angst escape hatch LOL

    • azteclady 18/02/2022 at 7:48 PM #

      “They’re just…too. Too much whimsy. Too much twee.”

      YES. This, exactly.

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