Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt


This RITA® Reader Challenge review was written by cbackson.

The summary:

A MAN OF SIN

Devastatingly handsome. Vain. Unscrupulous. Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, is the man London whispers about in boudoirs and back alleys. A notorious rake and blackmailer, Montgomery has returned from exile, intent on seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. But what he finds in his own bedroom may lay waste to all his plans.

A WOMAN OF HONOR

Born a bastard, housekeeper Bridget Crumb is clever, bold, and fiercely loyal. When her aristocratic mother becomes the target of extortion, Bridget joins the Duke of Montgomery’s household to search for the incriminating evidence-and uncovers something far more dangerous.

A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY THEM BOTH

Astonished by the deceptively prim-and surprisingly witty-domestic spy in his chambers, Montgomery is intrigued. And try as she might, Bridget can’t resist the slyly charming duke. Now as the two begin their treacherous game of cat and mouse, they soon realize that they both have secrets-and neither may be as nefarious-or as innocent-as they appear . . .

Here is cbackson’s review:

Historicals, man. Like many a romance reader, historicals were my gateway drug. And like many a romance reader, the historicals of my youth are, in retrospect, very slightly wince-inducing. Violet eyes! Sixteen-year-old virgin heroines with improbably located hymens/no hymen due to an anachronistic fondness for riding astride! Masterful manly dudes with magic manly parts capable of bestowing multiple orgasms on said virgin heroines! Frequent use of the term “hoyden”!

I wish I could say that, like Saul on the road to Damascus, I experienced a Moment of Feminist Awakening and cast off the shackles of the patriarchy and thenceforth only read contemporaries about self-actualized women, but actual knocked-off-the-horse monumental epiphanies aren’t so common, are they? The real truth is more like this: life happened, and once enough life had happened to me, naive teenage heroines no longer interested me, and nor did one-dimensional rakes whose misdeeds topped out at ill-considered bedroom shenanigans. I still love historicals, but they have to offer me something more these days – something that feels more like my lived experience as (in my mom’s phrasing) a grown-ass woman. For me, the heroine makes the book. I want to remember her. I want to feel like she’s a real person.

A lot of writers try to accomplish this by sort of glue-gunning eccentric traits onto heroines – she’s a nineteen-year-old in her first Season but by night she calculates the orbits of comets with a telescope she won at cards from the ringmaster of a traveling circus! But Elizabeth Hoyt doesn’t fall into that trap. The heroines in Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series have distinctive, fully developed passions. They are motivated by something other than marital maneuvering (note: I REALLY TRIED to find a way to express that concept that avoided alliteration, but failed. Suggestions accepted in comments). When the curtain opens on an Elizabeth Hoyt novel, you feel like you are joining a story that is already in progress – the story of a woman’s real life.

Duke of Sin is no exception. The heroine, Bridget Crumb is (as is revealed within the first few pages) the illegitimate daughter of a noblewoman, and works as a housekeeper. She has taken employment with Val Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, who is blackmailing her mother, Lady Caire. Val, though reprehensible, is charming, handsome, and quickly grasps that there is more to his housekeeper than meets the eye. Romance ensues.

Even by the Hoyt scale of heroines, Bridget is a standout. Her life has not been easy, but there is no self-pity in her. She feels some anger toward the mother that left her, but is also acutely aware that her mother regularly intervened to ensure that she went on to a respectable and secure life. In fact, the scenes between Bridget and Lady Caire are exceptional, particularly the first: Lady Caire slips and use Bridget’s first name, revealing an affection usually hidden. In the next breath, Lady Caire dismisses Bridget as she would a servant. And Bridget does not resent it, because in their world, Lady Caire’s conduct is expected and appropriate. Their shared blood does nothing to erase the social distance between a housekeeper and an aristocrat.

For me, the romance between Bridget and Val was secondary. When Hoyt writes an antihero, he’s a real antihero. These aren’t men who gained rakish reputations by flaunting disreputable mistresses at the opera or wrecking the family curricle on prom night. Val is an actual blackmailer, who revels in the power that nasty secrets afford him. Unfortunately, where Hoyt heroes often fail to be distinctive is in their backstory: Val’s atrocious behavior is, of course, due to his Very Bad, No-Good Father. He makes, of course, a dramatic proclamation that he does not believe in love. He is convinced (of course!) of his wholesale worthlessness. And so on. This isn’t new ground, and as a result, Val wasn’t compelling to me.

I also struggled with the inequity in their relationship – and not just the inequity in their social status, although that was challenging. Val comes on to Bridget strongly, and while the reader knows that his attentions aren’t wholly unwelcome, it’s hard for me not to think about his actions in the broader context of the risks women in domestic service faced in 18th-century England. Conversely, Bridget is significantly more mature than Val – his early trauma has left him, in a sense, emotionally immature. Val is attached to Bridget in a way that didn’t read as romantic to me, but rather, as a bit sad, like a lonely, troublemaking child who has finally found a friend and who clings to that friend with smothering intensity. While who had the upper hand varied over the course of the novel and depended on the context, I never felt like their relationship was in equilibrium – I didn’t feel like I saw them become true partners. The end result, for me, was an uneven book that, while enjoyable, didn’t rise to the level of Hoyt’s best.

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Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt

May 31, 2016

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