April 2008, European Historical Romance (1850s and 1860s [Victorian] India and England)
Pocket, $6.99, 381 pages, Amazon ASIN 1416567038
As those who love historical romance know all too well, the landscape these days is littered with wallpaper. The Duke of Shadows, written by the winner of the Gather.com romance first chapter contest, aspires to be – is being promoted to be – something better than the usual fare. It’s on that scale that I think it’s fair to judge it.
The good news is that the setting for the first half of the book is fresh: India during the Great Uprising of 1857. Heroine Emma is introduced to the reader as a victim of a tragic shipwreck of which she is the lone survivor. Her rescue on the way to India to meet the man to whom she has long been betrothed by family arrangement is viewed as tainted by the English residents since she was taken aboard a ship manned only by rough sailors.
Soon enough Emma realizes that her fiancé is not the man she believed him to be and, just as distressing, she finds the strict constraints within which the English in India live to be stultifying. Enter Julian, the Marquess of Holdensmoor and the heir to a dukedom despite his ancestry: He is one-quarter Indian, something that causes other Englishmen to view him with contempt.
To start with the positive, the characters of Emma and Julian are richly drawn. When we first meet Emma she is struggling with survivor’s guilt, the burden of society’s disapproval for nothing more than having the temerity not to die, and, at the same time, the realization that the life her parents had planned for her fills her with horror. Julian is a man believably caught between two cultures and fiercely dedicated to a cause in which he passionately believes. When the two came together, I felt it.
But, to be totally frank, no book aspiring to be something better can include a major character as one-dimensional as Emma’s fiancé. From the moment the reader first meets him, he behaves in true cartoon villain fashion and he never, ever evolves beyond that (very!) low level for a single moment. So, Emma doesn’t like him? Well, duh.
On an equally one-note level, while I agree that it's more than time that Imperialist Britain be portrayed as something other than the world-conquering heroes we're accustomed to seeing in historical romance, surely not all the English in India (except Emma and Julian, of course) were vain, shallow, ignorant, bigoted, and frequently sadistic. You'd never know otherwise here.
The prose is largely satisfying, if on occasion a bit uneven. It should also be noted that the book includes a few jarring anachronisms; for example, the heroine's paintings are described as "very powerful stuff". Adding to my quibbles is the fact that the breach between Julian and Emma in the book’s second half extends beyond what seemed believable to me and appeared to be more about padding the page count than anything else.
But, with that said, considering the freshness of the first half setting – the author does a wonderful job of evoking the sights and sounds of India – and the characters of Emma and Julian, The Duke of Shadows represents an auspicious debut for author Merdith Duran. Still, while it’s fair to say that I enjoyed the book and would certainly rate it higher than the average wallpaper historical as reflected in my B- grade, from the buzz out there I expected something more. I didn’t get it.
-- Sandy Coleman
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