Dear Ms. March:
One of the reasons I enjoy historical m/m — other than the Reese’s peanut butter cup of two favorite genres put together — is that there’s potential for great angst when the stakes are so high. The prologue of this novel, in which a duke is blackmailed about his sexual preferences by a former lover, seemed like the definition of high stakes. To my surprise, in the story that followed the conflicts were mainly internal, and there was very little tension or emotion around the fact that the main characters are gay in such a dangerous time. In fact, the book largely followed the form of a standard m/f romance.
Having been burned by his first major relationship, Max, the Duke of Pelham, is reluctant to trust again. When a friend urges him to patronize a brothel, emphasizing that it has “something for everyone,” Max impulsively decides to try it. (His lack of caution here seemed odd to me, in someone who’d been previously betrayed. On the other hand, he is very much a Duke and feeling invincible is part of his character.) He’s paired with Tristan, a singularly beautiful man with an amiable, offhand attitude towards sex. Max, who prefers to dominate his lovers, finds himself wanting to crack Tristan’s “calm, professional facade” and make him crazy with lust; he succeeds.
After two paid encounters, both Max and Tristan feel strongly drawn to each other — enough to make Tristan dread his next encounter with another client, and make Max feel quite shattered when he discovers that Tristan is with someone else. The plot goes along in a familiar way from there, with rescues, trust issues, balance of power issues, and a hero who refuses to love; there are few original elements until the end, in which Max and Tristan have to negotiate a complicated happy ever after.
All In With the Duke will probably be most enjoyed by readers who like lots and lots of sex scenes, because for a good portion of the book, that’s pretty much all Tristan and Max do. Max is a workaholic, and gradually Tristan helps him gets to the root of his obsession with being a proper Duke and loosen up a little. But their relationship is largely sex; it’s well written and passionate, with a nice chemistry between them as Dom and sub, but it gets samey, and much of it is not particularly important to the story. (The BDSM elements are quite mild, by the way.) Max’s interest in dominance does provide some interesting conflict — not because Tristan isn’t totally down with it, but because Max’s shame around his desires intersects badly with Tristan’s learned professionalism.
Those cuffs didn’t belong on his wrists. Tristan hadn’t wanted to wear them. “Take them off. The leather cuffs. Now.”
A nod from Tristan. He was ever goddamn obedient. Tristan always replied all right. Never refused Max anything. Agreed with Max’s every whim.
Because Max was paying him.
What the hell had he expected when he’d hired a prostitute? For Tristan to actually be honest with him?
Max had never felt more the fool in his entire life.
There are other enjoyably tense moments of drama throughout the story, but it didn’t add up to the sort of compelling intensity I relish. Both Max and Tristan are likable but not especially memorable; I never got desperately caught up in their personal issues or in whether they’d be able to work things out. The prose is perfectly readable, but again, doesn’t add anything special in the way of characterization or atmosphere to make it stand out. For awhile it seemed that there might be some exploration of sex and gender roles in the book: Tristan’s madam requires him to wear his hair long so he can sometimes put on a dress and play “damsel in distress” for conflicted clients, and then he’s literally put into a classic “in distress” position, to be genuinely rescued by Max. But nothing further happens; neither character even seems to recognize the irony.
The brightest moment for me was the ending; after a plot that was pretty much by the numbers wallpaper historical, it was fresh and a little surprising, without a deus ex machina.
There’s a lot to be said for m/m historicals in which sexual preference isn’t the primary source of conflicts. I just wish the particular conflicts here had not made me feel like I’d read this book numerous times already. C+