Heat Factor: There’s a lot of sexual inneundo, and then they get busy on a ballroom terrace. And also in a closet.
Character Chemistry: They love/hate each other, so they torment each other.
Plot: Sarani’s on the run after her father’s murder, and ends up on the ship of her first love, who now wants revenge
Overall: Eh. I found the romance lacking.
So, last fall, a book by Amelie Howard called The Duke’s Princess Bride caused a big kerfluffle in Romancelandia, after a reviewer critiqued its colonialist and colorist mindset. Howard responded quite graciously to the criticism, so when The Princess Stakes showed up on NetGalley, I assumed it was a new book, perhaps in the same series, and I’d see what Howard was doing with the critique in future works. It turns out, however, that The Princess Stakes is a reworked version of The Duke’s Princess Bride, in order to more directly address the criticism. I figured this out only just now, when I went to pull the cover image from Goodreads and skimmed through some of the reviews.
I did not read the earlier version of this book, so I cannot comment on what has changed (or not). I will say that I (a white woman), thought that Howard handled the internal conflict of her biracial / colonial-subject heroine well. Sarani feels between worlds: not completely accepted in India, but definitely seen as lesser-than by English society. She is explicit about the limited power of her father as a puppet-king who is trying to do the best he can for his people. She is fleeing to England because she fears for her life after her father’s murder, and hopes to pass as white to protect herself. Howard makes it pretty clear that the East India Company was Bad News Bears, and that their control in the subcontinent was far-reaching and insidious.
So there’s that.
My problem with this book was that I just didn’t buy the romance. Rhystan and Sarani met five years ago (when they were both teenagers), fell in looooooooove, and then were torn apart by outside forces. Except, of course, Rhystan blames Sarani and is furious with her for not running away with him. When she ends up on his ship, they do the whole road trip / you can work as my cabin boy sexual tension thing, which, fine.
But then his grand plan is that they’ll have a fake engagement (?) which will protect her and allow him to get out of marrying a boring English miss, except then he’ll have revenge by leaving her and breaking her heart but also not actually hurting her reputation in any way (????). Uh, what? His motivations make no fucking sense. Except for avoiding Matchmaking Mamas, because that is an archetype that must appear in every Duke novel ever written. I dunno, he was just kind of an arse, and I think he should have done some good groveling after being terrible due to nonsensical motivations.
Furthermore, Sarani gives off major Not Like Other Girls vibes. This may be a result of Howard’s edits, which added in details about Sarani’s resistance against British colonial rule; after all, “most proper girls probably would not have leaped like a freedom fighter into the trenches…” (This scene doesn’t actually happen; this sentence is Sarani reflecting back on the work she did in India, which did not, as far as I could tell, include actually fighting in trenches.) But also: Sarani is the beautiful woman ever, who also is the best at riding horses and also is superdeduper smart. And did I mention she is an expert fighter who cuts pockets in her dresses so she has her special blades accessible at all times?
Look, I applaud Howard for editing and re-releasing this book, not because she was appeasing the masses, but because it takes strength to acknowledge when you didn’t succeed and publicly try again. But I can’t really say I recommend this book because I didn’t like it all that much.
PS: Can we talk about facial hair, and how every historical hero is cleanshaven? There’s a passage where Sarani thinks something like: “Most men have mutton chops, but Rhystan has no facial hair at all! Yum!” To which I say: MISSED OPPORTUNITY. If you’re going to ACKNOWLEDGE that most fashionable and sexy men in Victorian times have facial hair, maybe you should run with it and see if you can make mutton chops sexy again!
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.
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