Recommended Read, Review, The Duke Project

Review: A Duke by Default, by Alyssa Cole (2018)

Reluctant Royals, Book 2

Review of Reluctant Royals, Book 1 here

Heat Factor: Hot!

Character Chemistry: Honestly, they mostly avoid each other

Plot: Surprisingly, it works

Overall: Erin should read this! And so should you!

This is probably the nerdiest romance novel I’ve ever read. The heroine literally learns the difference between a Tardis and a tardigrade.

When is the last time you read a romance novel where there were not only multiple references to Dr. Who and Harry Potter, but the characters also attend a friggin ren fest? If you were to ask me, the answer would be… never, and I loved it.

A Duke by Default, Alyssa Cole’s second entry in her latest series, follows Portia, a self-described hot mess who decides that the best way to turn over a new leaf after years of art internships is to… go be an intern! But this time to a swordmaker in Scotland. Seems legit. Said swordmaker is a grouchy misanthrope slash do-gooder named Tavish McKenzie (can you imagine a more Scottish name? Surprise! He is actually Chilean), who also happens to be a silver fox with a hot Scottish accent.

Portia and Tavish get off on the wrong foot – she maces him, and also accidentally herself. Whoops. (Pro Tip: Don’t stand downwind when you mace someone.) Then they spend most of their time avoiding one another and lusting after one another and thinking about how they can’t act on it because he’s her boss. Portia doesn’t learn much about swordmaking, but she does learn a bunch about different types of Scottish weaponry, plus she fixes the website and sets up a Twitter account and does a bunch of research about the history of the neighborhood.

While doing said research, Portia uncovers the truth of Tavish’s biological father: turns out, he was a Duke. Who had no other children. This leads to, in my opinion, the best exchange of the book, which made me literally laugh out loud. (I do not frequently laugh out loud while reading books.)

Portia stood up from her seat.

“Excuse me?”

The librarian looked up again.

“I need help now. I need to print this article and… do you have any books about dukes?”

The librarian’s eyes went wide and she rubbed her hands together with glee. “We have a fantastic romance section,” she said. “Do you need recommendations? How do you like your dukes? Grumpy? Tortured? Alpha, beta, or alpha in the streets, beta in the sheets?”

“Actually, I meant nonfiction,” Portia said glumly.

The librarian sighed. “Aye. Just a warning, love – the non-fic dukes are not nearly as fun.”

Portia sighed.

The librarian had no idea.

This is what I mean about this book being nerdy in the best way. It’s not just about nerd culture, it’s about being self-aware and a bit mocking. Clearly, Cole knows her way around romance novels, and not just because she writes them. I’ve been reading lots and lots of books about dukes, and they are all invariable grumpy or tortured. (No dice yet on finding one who is alpha in the streets and beta in the sheets, but a girl can dream!)

I’ll be honest. At this point, I thought that the plot was going to go completely off the rails, but the second half of the book works really well. Tavish embraces his dukedom (apparently, the will stipulated that he could have the dukedom if he wanted it even though he was illegitimate, but the distant cousin heir decided to ignore that bit), and Portia uses her media savvy to help him out. This is also where the real conflict in their relationship comes in, as the lines defining their relationship become increasingly blurred. Is she still his apprentice? Is she his girlfriend now? Is she his personal assistant? Does he want her to stay because she manages his emails and makes his life easier, or because he really likes her?

One note about Portia. She does a lot of social media / texting stuff, so there are quite a few text conversations she has with her friends sprinkled throughout the book. I do appreciate the realism here, because OF COURSE someone trying to figure out what is going on with the dude she has a crush on is going to talk to her friends. However, I found the format kind of annoying. Probably because I’m more like grumpy old Tavish that I’d like to admit. But it felt like it will age the book; right now, it feels really current, but in five years, it’s going to seem really dated. Some contemporaries age gracefully, but I don’t know that this will be one of them.

Now, I want to talk about the ending. SPOILERS BELOW. Stop reading if you don’t want spoilers. (I’m not talking about the fact that they end up together. That is a given.) I also will be talking some about A Princess in Theory in a spoiler-y way. Reader, you have been duly warned.


Both Portia and the heroine of A Princess in Theory are drugged by a late-introduced villain for obscure reasons. While this is sort of a weird pattern, the trope of heroine in danger at the end is pretty common. (Portia is never in danger, just embarrassed. And potentially embarrassing.)

Both drugging incidents help expose the machinations of the villain. They also both bring to light the fact that a late-introduced helpful female character may have been complicit in said machinations. This is the part that feels very weird to me.

In A Princess in Theory, Naledi is poisoned by her uncle who is purposely making people sick so he can sell mining rights to some land. Nya, Naledi’s cousin, gives Naledi some “vitamins” when she first arrives, which are later revealed to counteract the poison. This raises all sorts of questions, especially given that their mutual grandparents were the first ones who fell sick, and have been in a coma in the hospital for weeks. Does Nya know what the vitamins do? And if she doesn’t, why does she push them on Naledi? In A Duke by Default, Nya is a secondary character who is clearly close with both Portia and Naledi, so clearly she faced no repercussions (either criminal or psychological) for the weird potential role that she played in her father’s scheme.

A similar dynamic plays out in A Duke by Default; after Portia is drugged at a party by the former duke, Leslie, the former duke’s sister (who has, by the way, been extremely gracious in helping Tavish navigate his new role), is like, “He was angry and said that if you drank you’d mess things up but I didn’t think he’d go so far.” She also reveals that the will clearly stipulated that Tavish should have been contacted when Duke Sr. died, but that New Duke didn’t want to. If she’s actually a sympathetic character – why didn’t she say something to someone about the hereditary tangle? Why did she stand by her brother started sabotaging Tavish’s business?

It’s nice that neither Nya nor Leslie is blamed for the bad actions of their terrible male relatives, but… do they not have some responsibility?

I don’t have an answer to any of this. If you have brilliant thoughts, please share them.


Buy Now: Amazon

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