The Duke’s Den, Book 1
Heat Factor: One sex scene with details.
Character Chemistry: If you say so.
Plot: He comes to terms with the past. She embraces the future.
Overall: I never connected with the protagonists, so the rest didn’t even matter.
The Hero: Nicholas had a Very Bad Dad. Like, an extremely evil father, so much so that I cannot overstate his evilness. Because of said Bad Dad, when Nicholas unexpectedly inherits the Dukedom, his plan for his ancestral home is to sell off everything in it and lease it out – if he could break the entail and sell the house itself, he would. As one might expect, his childhood experiences with his Very Bad Dad have left him with a lot of angst, anger, self-loathing, and disdain for the aristocracy. He owns a gambling club, and delights in ruining arrogant twits.
The Heroine: Mina has been acting as the steward of said ducal estate for the past two years, ever since her father died. When Nicholas shows up for his plans, she sets out to show him the beauty of the place. I would think, more importantly, she wants to show him all the people who rely on the lands and his stewardship, and while this does happen, it’s less emphasized.
On the way, deep dark secrets are shared and love blossoms, etc.
The main shortcoming of this book, for me, was that Mina’s motivations and character were opaque. Obviously she has character traits (she makes lists, likes fairy tales, prefers men’s clothing, cares a lot about a barn cat named Miss Millicent), but the sum of these parts is not a whole person. The most significant gap for me is that I never quite knew why she chose to stay on as steward (or pseudo-steward or whatever her position actually is) of this estate. There are hints: she stayed because it was safe, because a local lordling toyed with her affection (girl, you are the steward’s daughter! find a nice farmer to marry), because she wanted to prove to her dead father that she was dutiful (???), because she was good at it. It’s implied that she cares about the place and the people, but that idea, which would be an actual good reason for her actions, is never really fleshed out. And then she decides that none of this matters, because she wants to embrace a new vision of a future – that goes back to her childhood love of fairy tales and adventure that she suppressed or something.
Nicholas, on the other hand, is a giant ball of emotional turmoil. So I know what’s going on with him, and why he’s acting the way he’s acting (generally), but he is so angsty about everything. With reason, but it is possible to write a tortured hero without a backstory full of literal torture.
So, we have a cipher and an angst-man, and… it didn’t matter that the writing was proficient. I felt detached from the characters, and that killed the romance for me. The sweet moments were just… there. The sex was just… there. The waffling about whether or not to get married because “I / She / He deserves MORE” was just… there. I say, if you can’t connect to the characters, nothing else falls into place.
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