Monday, January 02, 2012

"Duke of Shadows," by Meredith Duran

The Chick: Emmaline Martin. When she barely survives a shipwreck that killed her parents, she discovers that the proper life they had planned for her is no longer the one she wants.
The Rub: It's not enough that she has to survive a ship going down and killing her entire family - but she also has to survive an Indian uprising too. Not a lot of room left for personal problems.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Julian Sinclair. Raised by his Indian grandmother and eventually taken under the wing of his English duke grandfather, he is a child of two worlds - and trusted by neither.
The Rub: This especially sucks because he's the only one who seems to notice that unrest is brewing in the native population of India, unrest that inevitably boil over into violence.
Dream Casting:
David Giuntoli.

The Plot:

Emma: Hey guys! I survived a shipwreck!

Evil Fiance: Awesome - and your fortune is completely intact?

Emma: And ... and my person is also intact.

Evil Fiance: I don't care so much about that.

Julian: Hey, maybe we should stop being mean to all the Indian people we're training in modern warfare and giving guns to.

All The British People: LOL NO.

Rebellion: *is had*

Julian: Quick, Emma, I love you!

Emma: I love you too!

Julian: Now stay in this secure location that has a reputation for being a fortress surrounded by people I trust!

Fortress: *broken into*


Four Years Later

Julian: OMG, you're alive!

Emma: Yes, and I hate you now, for no reason, because this book isn't long enough as it is.

Julian: Wait what?

Emma: Also someone's trying to kill me. I'm also dead inside. Oh, and I hate you for leaving me to die.

Julian: Um, can't we just talk about this like regular people --

Emma: 'Fraid not. I must be deep and scarred and mysterious now. And also I hate you. You know, for failing to protect me from all physical harm whether it's caused by you or not.


Emma: This is the part where you rescue me.

Julian: And will this somehow get me magically forgiven for sins that I never actually committed that are really a product of your PTSD?

Emma: ... sure.

Julian: *rescues* HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Very Bad Fiance

1 Inconvenient Shipwreck

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Bloody Revolution

Several Violent Paintings

1 Intensely Interesting Secondary Character With a Dynamite Backstory Whose Novel Has Criminally Not Been Written Yet

1 Poisoned Dog

Several Unwittingly Secret Messages

The Word:
When I first started reading Meredith Duran with Bound By Your Touch, I encountered a strange phenomenon where, objectively, I recognized that the writing was original and superior, the style was lyrical, the characters had layers; and yet, subjectively, I felt almost completely detached from the story.

I figured that maybe it was just a one-off, because a writing style like Meredith Duran's doesn't just turn up every day. So I picked up her contest-winning debut, Duke of Shadows, and found, to my dismay, that I felt the same way.

Detached. Uninvested. Even worse, when I stopped feeling apathetic, I felt annoyed - particularly with the dithering heroine.

The story begins in India in the 1850s, as young, wealthy Emma lives in the Residency and awaits her dismal future as the fiancee of a cartoonishly awful man named Marcus who is already hip-deep in an affair with another woman. Emma has no family in the country to run to - her parents perished very recently in a shipwreck that only Emma survived, and Emma's subsequent rescue by a ship full of rough-and-tumble sailors has left her reputation hanging by a thread.

She develops an odd friendship with Marcus' despised cousin Julian Sinclair, the Marquess of Holdensmoor. Despite his lofty English title, he is spurned by the British for his mixed blood (his mother was half-Indian) as well as his then-radical opinion that, Hey, Those Indian Blokes Don't Really Like British People Occupying Their Motherland and Might Eventually Be Inclined to Do Something About It. Emma, who survived the shipwreck that killed her parents to discover that a Proper English Life will inevitably smother her, finds solace with a fellow outcast.

And then a bloody and violent revolution happens, and Emma finds herself fleeing the city with Julian. During their flight, they share a few evasive conversations with each other and realize they're in love. Before they can go much further, however, Julian is forced to leave her at a secure location that ultimately ends up not being as secure as he thought it was, and the two are separated.

Cut to four years later. Emma has recovered from her truly traumatizing exodus from India by becoming an artist of gruesome and violent paintings about the atrocities wrought upon the natives by English soldiers. When a nobleman who shares her same opinion about the occupation of India persuades her to display her art, it finally brings her back into contact with Julian.

Unbeknownst to her, Julian has spent the last four years believing she was dead, so their reunion comes as something of a surprise to him. And here is where the novel roused me from my apathy - and dipped my opinion into dislike. Emma decides to guilt and blame Julian for things that could not possibly have been his fault, because she picked up Guilt Issues and a Mysterious Past (that's not mysterious since the reader finds out about it as it happens) in India and suddenly, this novel acquires a Big Misunderstanding and a Suspense Subplot when it had a perfectly suitable and realistic conflict already.

Here is where the novel falters. The book is essentially split into two parts - the first has an original setting, an interesting and historically relevant plot, and well-realized external and internal conflicts. The second has a conventional historical setting, a stretched Big Misunderstanding plot, a contrived Suspense Subplot, and a heroine who continues to engineer conflict beyond reasonable limits. The first half of this novel should have been a book on its own (and if you're interested in that sort of book, try Sherry Thomas' Not Quite a Husband), but as merely Part One, its effect is lessened by how rushed the development has to be.

And the second half of the novel is just run of the mill. Heroine guards her heart, hero has to seduce her, crazed madman forces hero to take care of heroine, heroine denies and discredits everything experienced hero says, mysterious past is revealed, et cetera and so on and so forth. In terms of its pacing, it reminded me vaguely of Carolyn Jewel's superior-in-all-ways Indiscreet - which also had the hero and heroine in an exotic setting falling in love in the first half of the novel before an evil villain turns it into an escape thriller.

Ultimately, Duke of Shadows is an uneven, disjointed, and inconsistent book. The heroine's Issues, while understandable, make her seem irrational and create more conflict than we need. The hero, despite telling instead of showing a rather colourful past, isn't incredibly interesting on his own. The writing is decent, and the descriptions of the setting are vivid and wonderful - but sadly, the story and the characters don't measure up.

For better versions of this novel, I would heartily suggest reading Thomas' Not Quite a Husband and Jewel's Indiscreet.


  1. Anonymous8:58 PM

    I know what you mean about Duran's writing. I like her in theory, but have a hard time getting into her books--still haven't made it past chapter one of her latest.

    Too many words, I think.

  2. OMG, that is exactly what I thought about the book. It was one of the hardest to grade I've ever read, I had to average it to three stars. And I've never been able to read a Duran book since.

  3. Anonymous11:50 PM

    Duran is one of my three auto-buy authors - but you have absolutely articulated something about her writing: that it's distancing in an odd way. Her most recent, A Lady's Lesson in Scandal, was the most engaging of her books for me. I absolutely loved both characters and felt like I got to come really close to them in all their gorgeous imperfection.

  4. Which secondary character do you mean (as in should have their own book)? I haven't read this in awhile and I don't think I can find it amidst my piles and piles of disorganized paperbacks languishing on my overstuffed bookcase! I remember enjoying this one, but did feel like you did that it was 2 distinctly different books sandwiched together. I love her writing overall (loved Bound by Your Touch and A Lady's Lesson in Scandal) and with this book really appreciated how it explored parts of Indian history I had no clue about!

  5. "objectively, I recognized that the writing was original and superior, the style was lyrical, the characters had layers; and yet, subjectively, I felt almost completely detached from the story."

    That perfectly describes Duran's writing. What usually happens is that I'll enjoy the book while I'm reading, but a few hours after finishing I'll have forgotten all about it. Her latest is her best yet, but I still have no interest in rereading.

  6. annaR7:51 AM

    I agree and I disagree! The agreement is with your description of this particular book. There have been some who were enthralled by the darkness of the heroine's PTSD in the second part, I prefered the romance during the first part. The big misunderstanding in itself is not a problem--in fact, it can lend great poinancy--but it was too deeply entrenched and prolonged.

    The disagreement is with regard to Duran's elegant writing overall. It has never caused me to feel detached emotionally. While I admit there are rare occasions where I have trouble discerning what is being alluded to in a particular phrase, it is the refined detail of the writing that more deeply immerses me me in the story. The best example of this is the scene from WRITTEN ON YOUR SKIN where the H/H compare each others scars and explains the book's title.