Review: The Duke with No Smile by Claire Ballentine (2021)

The Unobtainables, Book 1

Heat Factor: There’s one very lengthy but also vanilla interlude after 60%

Character Chemistry: It took a long time to put them together and he remained largely opaque

Plot: She’s a lot and he’s humorless and there’s just a TON of other stuff going on

Overall: At the end of the day I think this one tried to do a little too much

There were some interesting editorial decisions that happened with this book, but I was intrigued enough by how things were going to play out between the protagonists to keep going. While reading, I recalled listening to a Fated Mates podcast episode in which Sarah MacLean commented that, unlike what we find in some old school romance, the current prevailing expectation is to get the protagonists on page together as fast as the writer possibly can. I recalled this because Ballentine played with this in an interesting way, and I had to turn over in my head whether or not I thought it worked. 

Specifically, the titular duke sees the heroine, Vivien, being singularly herself in a coaching inn, and he’s intrigued, but she doesn’t see him at all. Then, some time later, there’s a moment when they run into each other in the park, and it’s a little fraught, but it could easily be a moment that simply happens and all parties go their separate ways, happy that things turned out alright. Then, they have their first really significant conversation at 17% and she doesn’t find out who he actually is until 37%. So technically they’re on page “together” in the first chapter, and then there’s some mystique built up, but we don’t get a full-blown deception plot because he reveals himself as the duke before we even get to the 50% mark. 

The voice of this book, at least until they got to the house party, put me in mind of a chirpy sort of tone like the Sophie Thompson Miss Bates of the 1996 Emma. This doesn’t shift significantly because although the book is written in 3rd person, the POV is almost entirely with Vivien until 50%. Even when the POV briefly shifts to another player, that person is still with Viven, so the duke is extremely opaque until that shift at about 50% when we finally get to spend some real time with the duke. At that point things transition from Vivien and her aunt, etc to Vivien and the duke, etc, so the tone gets a bit calmer as well. A lot of things just pop up and happen without much prior context.

Here’s the skinny:

  • She rescues dogs and lost children and adopts an orphan plot moppet living in her kitchen
  • She’s 26 and on the shelf and determined never to marry
  • She has no time for feminine pursuits, preferring to fence, drink strong spirits, smoke, and study math, business, and Latin
  • She lives alone with her first cousin (who is a single man) rather than with her aunt
  • Oh, also, she’s studied midwifery
  • He is the guardian uncle to a little boy (a hunkle*, in fact)
  • He has the reputation of a rake such that he would ruin debutantes if seen with them, but also there’s no way one of good society would refuse an invitation from him
  • He is flatly determined never to marry because of past trauma
  • He is captivated by the spinster who simply doesn’t know how to behave
  • He’s a duke, but it’s cool because her charitable project (which I forgot to mention! She’s taken on the responsibility of feeding the London poor!) makes him realize his privilege
  • His three best friends are, with him, the most sought-after men in the realm (hello series!)

Which is to say that this is all pretty bananas when everything plays out. There’s some other stuff going on as well, even beyond all the above. Broadly speaking, I did finish the book and I was entertained, especially once the derring do started. I think it could have been edited to be a bit tighter, so this is probably best suited to readers who are interested in lower heat historical romance with a storyline and characters that feel comfortingly familiar.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

*Holly coined this term, full post coming soon

Buy Now: Amazon

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