I have been on a romance-reading bender lately, in part because it brings a little joy into my humdrum life (with a nod to Lina Lamont for the phrase) and in part because I consider it a form of tutorial. One of the series I've read (yes, there have been more books than these, and I'll review some of them later) was the "Desperate Duchesses" series by Eloisa James.
In the first title, entitled Desperate Duchesses, we meet the scandalous Duchess of Beaumont, who has returned from the Continent in order to breed with her estranged husband. She turns out to be not nearly as notorious as her notoriety suggests, but it takes four more books for her story arc to play all the way out. In this particular book, she has involved herself in two chess games (actual chess games - that's not a metaphor): one with her husband, and one with the Duke of Villiers, a rather notorious bachelor who has sired a handful of illegitimate children, but who has not (yet) wed. (It takes FIVE more books for his story arc to conclude.)
The main romance within Desperate Duchesses involves Lady Roberta St. Giles, the daughter of a marquess known for his poetry and scandalous behavior. Lady Roberta wants to marry a duke - specifically, Villiers. She throws herself on the mercy of her (quite distant) cousin, the Duchess of Beaumont, who happily takes Roberta in and launches her into society - and, along the way, into the arms of the Duchess's brother, Damon Reeve, the Earl of Gryffyn. The scenes involving Damon's illegitimate son and Roberta's unorthodox father are some of my favorites in the book, but the whole story is made of win.
The second book in the series is entitled An Affair Before Christmas, and before I tell you about it, allow me this brief rant about Barnes & Noble's stocking decisions. This title is NOT A CHRISTMAS STORY. It is #2 in a series of books that are interlocked and have through-stories involving the Duchess of Beaumont and the Duke of Villiers, yet B&N DOESN'T STOCK IT IN STORES BECAUSE THE WORD "CHRISTMAS" IS IN THE TITLE! GAH!! I understand not carrying, say, The Christmas Shoes or The Best Christmas Present Ever in the Whole, Wide World or whatever on a daily basis, but COME ON! I had to order the damn book and wait for it to be delivered, even though every other title in the series is in stores now. A little common sense would go a long way, B&N. /rant
Where was I? Oh. Right. The Duke of Villiers is ill, and is befriended by a lovely young woman named Charlotte. The Duchess of Beaumont is continuing to play chess with her husband, but not for the main match, since Villiers is too ill for chess. And our main story is about a duchess named Poppy (actually Perdita), who is already married to her duke, the extremely handsome Duke of Fletcher. Only they've stopped having relations because she's a bit of a prude, really, and it's all crossed signals and whatnot, with the added wrinkle of a horrible, horrible mother for Poppy, and then they all go to a Christmas house party and there's a big fat happy ending (double meaning entirely intended).
In Duchess by Night, Harriet, Duchess of Berrow, is a lonely widow whose husband killed himself a while back (before the start of the first book, anyhow, when we first met Harriet, who is a friend of the Duchess of Beaumont's). In order to help her friend Isidore (another duchess, whose story truly plays out in the next book) cause a scandal that might force Isadore's husband to return from overseas so she can truly be married and/or get her marriage annulled(she was married by proxy when under age), Harriet agrees to accompany Isadore to a house party at the home of Lord Justinian Strange - a man who was elevated to his rank for services to the King. There's just one catch: Harriet cannot risk going as herself, so she goes in drag, pretending to be a young male relative of the Duke of Villiers.
Long-time blog readers know that I am a complete sucker for the woman-in-drag trope, so it will come as no surprise to you to learn that I adored this book, and the way that Harriet tries to pass herself off as a young gentleman - including turning down rather liberal offers of entertainment from willing young females and learning how to ride a horse astride and to fence. Harriet develops quite a fondness for Lord Strange and for his young daughter. One of the key questions is whether Lord Strange can overcome his own past in order for their romance to work - which includes a bit of reverse class snobbery that I didn't really enjoy that much, but hey - stories about girls in drag are still made of win.
Isidore's husband does indeed return to claim her at the end of Duchess by Night, and the fourth book, When the Duke Returns, picks up with Isidore's story. Her husband, Simeon Jermyn, the Duke of Cosway, turns out to be handsome, intelligent, successful . . . and interested in an annulment. He'd like a far more biddable wife than Isidore, you see, and preferably one who won't get him so riled up (in all possible ways). Turns out he's spent time learning some sort of Eastern philosophy/religion and he doesn't want his chi in turmoil (roughly speaking). Especially since he's come home to find his estate in arrears - it's not that there's no money; his father (and then his widowed mother) simply refused to pay debts as they came due.
There are some really great scenes involving martial arts in this book, along with a brilliant rescue scene on a boat, plus sex in a carriage. Meanwhile, we continue to get insight on what Villiers is up to, as well as what the Beaumonts are up to, and it's all pretty splendid and this book was one of my favorites in the series - even moreso than the girl in drag one. Who knew?
Finally we get some resolution of the situation with the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont! In This Duchess of Mine, the characters address what went wrong in the early days of their marriage and what to do about the need for an heir. Turns out to be a rather time-sensitive issue, since the Duke of Beaumont's father died when he was only 34 years old, and the Duke is about that now and, by the way, he's been having some health problems involving an irregular heartbeat. Not nearly as exciting as girls in drag or martial arts and rescues and whatnot (although there is, actually, a rescue involved in this one as well, and it's pretty exciting, come to think of it), but it is eminently satisfying, since this is the story line that started the series, even if other stories were the primary focus of the first four books. And, of course, we still check in with Villiers now and again.
A Duke of Her Own opens at the party where This Duchess of Mine left off, where the Leopold Daughtry, Duke of Villiers, is introduced to Eleanor, the daughter of the Duke of Montague. Villiers has been rounding up his illegitimate children so he can actually parent them himself, and he needs a wife - not just for help with the parenting, but to ensure that his children are accepted (as much as is possible for such offspring) by society. He needs, in short, an irreproachable sort of wife, and one of high status - and everyone knows that next to royalty comes dukes and duchesses. His choices are Eleanor and Lisette, the daughter of another duke. Eleanor is intelligent and sensible and heartbroken (she'd been in love with another duke, who married someone else to please his family); Lisette is half mad, or at least extremely willful.
Villiers must choose between the two women while dealing with Tobias, the eldest of his offspring, and searching for his young twin girls, who have been placed in an orphanage near Lisette's home. I found quite a bit to love about this book, as well as bits to be horrified about - including the working conditions inside the orphanage, which (I suspect) may be every bit as bad (or not even as bad) as actual conditions of the time. I especially liked the resolution of this book, which involve a periwig and a meaningful piece of jewelry.
I adored the entire series. Eloisa James's writing is smart and sassy and, as she is a Shakespeare scholar and, it turns out, the daughter of noted poet, Robert Bly (her real name is Mary Bly, and she teaches English literature at Fordham University), it tends to be littered with literary allusions and the occasional quote. More on others of her titles to come.