Review, The Duke Project

Review: The Duke by Katherine Ashe (2017)

The Devil’s Duke Series, Book 3

Heat Factor: The longing is sexier than the actual sex

Character Chemistry: Uneven

Plot: Too much

Overall: Disappointing

In her acknowledgements, Ashe writes: “A few decades ago sweeping historical romances were all the rage. As of the writing of this novel, however, “Regency” historical romances that include dozens of characters, span many years, and take place in multiple unfamiliar locations are far less common.” I commend Ashe is going for it, but the thing is, these sweeping romances are much harder to execute in the approximately 300 pages that most romance novels are allotted. In contrast, The Flame and the Flower was 600 pages long, and Whitney My Love a whopping 700 pages. What this means in this particular case is that there are a lot of half-baked ideas that are never fully fleshed out.

I LOVED the first section of this book, where our hero and heroine meet in Jamaica. Amarantha is ridiculous and headstrong and a teenager and has decided that she’s in love with some missionary, so she sets off to Jamaica to marry him. (And her parents are like, whatever, just take a chaperone. Ok, parents.) In Jamaica, she meets a young Lieutenant in the British Navy named Gabriel when they end up trapped in a cellar together during a hurricane. They spend time together helping with the rebuilding effort. They have much chemistry and longing, but she’s engaged and feels guilty, and he has his duties.

Usually, when romance novels start with a bit in the characters’ youth where they “play with fire”, it means loads of scandal. In this case, however, Ashe presents a sweet young romance where the characters literally don’t even kiss. Normally, I like things spicy, but this absolutely worked. And the scene where they say goodbye is beautiful and also hot, despite nothing hot happening:

His palm cupped her cheek and her breath stopped. His hand was so large, so strong, yet he held her gently. His fingertips at her hair sent pleasure in more tingles down her throat and into her belly. The soft slide of his thumb along her jaw was the sweetest caress – too sweet. She could not remain still. Her lips parted.

Whey they say goodbye, they know that they want to be together, so they part with a promise: she won’t marry the missionary, and he’ll come back. Then she’s told he dies, so she gets married. He’s not dead after all, and they are both broken-hearted.

The bulk of the story occurs five years later in Scotland. Amarantha is now a widow and has come to Scotland and is traveling undercover for reasons, and Gabriel is a Duke with an evil reputation. At this point, the plot goes completely off the rails. A ton of stuff happens, but many of the points of conflict which move the plot along are either never resolved, or come out of nowhere, or both. The sheer number of unresolved bits annoyed me, because, honestly, some of this could have been cut – and we’d still have an epic sweeping romance, just one that made a bit more sense.

For example: What happened with the fire that burned down Gabriel’s Edinburgh house? Was it arson, or no? Amarantha was sick? But like – how and why and what happened? (Literally all we know is that she heads off on an adventure and then wakes up in a hospital.) Why did people randomly tell Tabitha that Jonah killed her husband so he could make her his mistress – and why did she believe them with no evidence whatsoever, including not even knowing the dude? What does Mr. Tate have on Thomas, that Thomas won’t turn him in? What happened when Gabriel and Jonah were 13 (it involves other boys and straps), and why does this make Gabriel so indebted to Jonah? What was so terrible about Gabriel’s home life (or brother?) that as the younger son he runs away to sea? Are we ever going to learn more about the women of Kallin? What exactly is Tabitha’s story (beyond the whole husband murder thing) that makes her have such a great story to tell readers – and if it’s so great, why do we just hear about the white woman helping her and not what she is actually saying? If you’re reading this and being like, who is Thomas? Who is Mr. Tate? Who is Tabitha? Why do all their names start with the letter “t”? You are not alone! That is how I felt too, and I read the darn thing.

Along with all the different plots, there are several villains introduced and then discarded – some quickly, some less so, but all without much fanfare. I felt like I was being flung all over the place – who is actually the villain here?  Is it Amarantha’s first husband, who crushed her spirit and made her think desire was wicked? Is it Jonah Brock, the cousin who told Amarantha that Gabriel was dead, and is maybe also evilly chasing Tabitha across the world to make her his sex slave? Is it Mr. Tate, the merchant who is completely innocuous until he is suddenly coming up with ludicrous plots to squeeze money out of Gabriel? It is any man who abuses a woman ever? Probably the last one, but that’s not that specific or interesting.

Whew. Sorry. I think I got all ranty about this one because I loved the beginning so much that the second half became super extra annoying. To be fair to Ashe, this is the third book in the series, so some of the questions I raised above could have been addressed by previous books. However, the cover art only states that this is a Devil’s Duke novel, and it’s literally about the Devil’s Duke, so I think I was fair in my assumption that I should be able to read it as a stand alone.

Let’s focus in a bit on the actual romance here. Because the external plot in Scotland is so wack, the interactions between Amarantha and Gabriel suffer. Their chemistry is less good because they are not having real conversations. They do have some hot sexual escapades in the second half of the book, but I felt that the hotness was undermined because it was so focused on Gabriel fixing Amarantha and teaching her that pleasure is acceptable.

The question of what exactly is the conflict applies to the relationship between Amarantha and Gabriel. What is the thing that is ultimately keeping them apart? Because it changes so often, this book feels disjointed. One huge potential stumbling block is a lack of trust, since they both felt that the other betrayed them back in Jamaica. However, I didn’t really buy it, because it’s not really teased out. Obviously there was an egregious case of miscommunication here but then they sort that out and it’s completely anti-climactic. There is also the conflict about whether or not they’ll get married, since Aramantha never wants to get married again because her first marriage killed her spirit. Again, however, it’s not really teased out, and the question of whether marriage is the right outcome for them (I mean, it’s a romance novel, so obviously yes, but how will we get there?) is swamped by the excessive amounts of plot / villainy surrounding the characters.

A final, humorous sidenote. So this book uncovers the secret of the mysterious Devil’s Duke, but more importantly, shows him being actively ridiculous in maintaining his image of an evil man. He literally reads a book about witchcraft – “Black Magic: A Complete Compendium of Receipts” – while at a party. Who invites this guy to parties if he won’t even dance with eligible young ladies? Instead, in classic Scary Duke fashion, he broods and broods. The young naval officer was more interesting, sorry people who love Dukes.

Buy Now: Amazon

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