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REVIEW: How to Tame Your Duke by Juliana Gray

Dear Ms. Gray:

How to Tame Your Duke has the sort of generic title I approach with caution. (If it referenced a movie or a children’s book, I’d run screaming from the room.) Since your name was on my radar, I decided the book was worth a try. It turned out to be both more and less than I could have expected.

tameThe three heirs to the principality of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof — this seems to loosely translate to pig forest-hen house — are princesses on the run. Their father was assassinated, and they’ve already foiled one abduction attempt, with the help of their exceptionally competent governess, Miss Dingleby. Now they’re in Victorian England, seeking help from their uncle, the Duke of Olympia — whose cunning plan is to disguise them all as men. Obviously the first in a series, this book follows the middle sister Emilie, sent to Yorkshire as “Mr. Grimsby,” to tutor the teenaged son of the Duke of Ashland.

Emilie is immediately drawn to the brilliant, gawky Freddie, and even more drawn to his massive, powerful father, who is exquisitely formed — at least on one side. On the right, he’s badly scarred and missing part of his jaw, an eye, and a hand. Yet after the initial shock, her fascination only deepens:

Emilie could scarcely see him at all in the darkness, but she knew that he was facing to his right, that he was shadowing his flawed side from her view. She sensed, rather than saw, the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. The rhythm mesmerized her. What was he thinking, as he sat there with his steady breath and his steady heartbeat, while the wind pounded the carriage walls?

The first two thirds of the book are gracefully written, and although it has its share of historical romance cliches — brooding wounded heroes, late night library meetings, inconveniently amorous chambermaids, anatomically improbable deflowerings — it also has some pleasant surprises. The treatment of Ashland’s disability is matter of fact, aside from his personal angst. The secondary characters add a lot of liveliness, especially the irrepressible Freddie, who catches on to Emilie’s secret and seeks to make her his stepmother:

“I’ll help you, if you like. Warm him up a bit. Look here, Pater, have you ever imagined old Grimsby without his whiskers? He’d make a damned prime girl. Or else, That old Grimsby, what a priceless fellow. Make a fine wife, if only he were a she.”

And then there’s the shadowy presence of the Duke of Olympia, who in Ashland’s mind, “did nothing without reason.” Previous knowledge of Olympia, in fact, has Ashland first suspecting that “Mr. Grimsby” is meant to spy on him. The calculating mastermind pulling everyone’s strings is something of a type, but Olympia won my heart almost immediately when we saw him briefly in a tender moment with Miss Dingleby.

But the crux of the story is how Emilie and Ashland manage to fall in love, despite her disguise. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but they come together in a contrived yet highly tantalizing way, filled with a yearning and (at first) unfulfilled desire that melted me. It’s one of those intense, unexpected situations that stick in your mind long after the book is over, and Ashland’s struggle to be honorable, combined with his emotional vulnerability, make him irresistible.

About 100 pages from the end, the romance arc came to what felt like a natural conclusion and it seemed that with just a little bit of time spent on the suspense plot — which didn’t need to get completely wrapped up in book one — the story could come to a satisfying finish. But there were still 100 pages to fill and sadly, they’re almost entirely filled with nonsense. The story goes down the painfully well worn “I refuse to marry you!” path, which in this case feels not only cliched, but ridiculous. Gray set the stage well for anachronistic premarital sex, partially by giving Emilie a sense of rebelliousness and sexual curiosity, but mostly just because of her palpably intense attraction to Ashland. But attempts to make her refusal of Ashland seem in character land with a dull thud; it doesn’t feel like a natural or reasoned outgrowth of who she is, but just a forced knee jerk reaction.

There were some unlikely yet enjoyably passionate sex scenes, but I spent most of those last hundred pages constantly bummed out by how downhill the book had gone. The resolution to the suspense plot fit awkwardly into the story as a whole. Even the action scenes, which had had good comedic timing in the rest of the book, felt off.

I have to average my grade: a B that turned into a D equals a C, though I liked some of it so much, I’ll make it a C+. Because the prose is good, it may play better for readers who are less tired than I am of certain themes; I will certainly try another Gray book, hoping for a more consistently enjoyable read next time.

Sincerely,

willaful

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Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. She finally gave in and started reading romance again in 2006, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

21 Comments

  1. Isobel Carr
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 12:21:43

    I would think the title violates you rule as it seems to play off How to Tame Your Dragon (I can’t get past If You Give a Duke a Diamond because I just keep thinking of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie).

  2. Willaful
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 12:28:27

    @Isobel Carr: I didn’t even notice that, thank goodness! Maybe there’s a correlation between how outrageous/obvious the title is and how obnoxious the book is? Or maybe the title is not a useful guide. But it does seem as if a lack of respect for the historical period in the title often correlates with a lack in the book itself.

  3. reader
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 12:57:46

    Thank you. I hate these gimmicky titles on historicals, too, with a passion. A modern-sounding title is entirely off-putting and I won’t buy the book, no matter how many good reviews it may get. The title isn’t sweet, charming, evocative, or even appealing–all the things a good historical title should be.

    (The rip-offs of childrens’ book titles are even worse. They come off sounding downright stupid for an adult novel. Especially a historical.)

    Thank you for an excellent review of what sounds like not a bad book–but I’m not going to contribute to the perpetuation of these laughable titles by purchasing a copy.

  4. D.G.
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 13:53:26

    I don’t like gimmicky titles in historical romance either – whenever I see I Kissed an Earl, it makes me think of an f/f romp!

    Anyways, awesome review, Willa. I’m really tempted to read it even though I also hate the ‘I won’t marry you!!!’ trope. But the way you describe the way they fall in love had me thinking of The Lady’s Secret, which you recommended and I really liked.

  5. Isobel Carr
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 14:24:05

    @Willaful: IMO, it all comes down to the popularity of ahistorical romps. There’s just no denying that fun, fluffy, historical fantasy romances sell Sell SELL (and often garner fantastic reviews). And these kind of titles give readers a clear hint that the book will contain a specific kind of story. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that type of branding, but as I’m not a fan of those type of books, all these titles serve as for me is a warning sign to avoid them (and I’m grateful to have it, frankly).

    The title marketing wanted for my first book was HOW TO COURT A COURTESAN. I nearly pitched a fit. I finally won out by convincing them that the tile was misleading as it promised a type of read that my book would not deliver, and that if we did that with my debut, I’d be dead in the water down the road. I’d always be the author who promised a lemon drop and delivered a dirty martini.

  6. Willaful
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 14:39:58

    @D.G.: Mmm, what can I say that won’t spoil either book. It’s not the same kind of situation as The Lady’s Secret — it’s more similar to The Raven Prince, if you’ve read that, but with a twist. But definitely intense and somewhat illicit. I’m honestly not sure what you’d think of it, other than that our reading tastes tend to be similar.

  7. DB Cooper
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 14:53:04

    @Isobel Carr: I’m going to ask the simpleton question here but…

    You don’t get to name your own books? That sounds positively awful! Was it work for hire or part of some line?

    Forgive me if that sounds rude, I’m genuinely shocked.

  8. Isobel Carr
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 15:34:15

    @DB Cooper: No, you don’t get to name your own books (just like you get minimal input into the cover). The book usually has a title when you sell it (not always) and sometimes they keep the title, but often they don’t. This can be for a variety of reasons.

    RfP was called NO GENTLEMAN when it was shopped. My editor loved the title. Unfortunately, it turned out another author in the house had a book already in the pipeline (book 2 of her series) called NEVER A GENTLEMAN and it was coming out like a month before I was. So, yeah … I submitted 87 alternate title ideas. Marketing came up with their own (the afore mentioned HtCaC), which I hated with every fiber of my being. We went round and round and eventually settled on the RIPE FOR *** which seemed unique enough to not make the book blend into all the others (ok, my favorite quote was my editor’s boss explaining to me, “What we really want to call the book is HOW TO F*CK A DUKE, except without “f*ck” and “duke”.”).

  9. Muneera N.
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 15:38:50

    I was interested in the book for the first part of the review, but I don’t know if I could read all the great parts in first part of the book while knowing the second part would be disappointing. I don’t like the “I can’t/don’t want to marry you” plot point in books, especially without good reason as it seems to be in this book. Thank you for the review!

  10. Ros
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 15:56:44

    @Isobel Carr: I’d always heard that authors don’t get to name their own books so I didn’t put very much effort into thinking of titles when I submitted. Except apparently, my publisher mostly does stick with author titles. I really wish someone else would name my books for me – I’m so rubbish at it!

  11. GrowlyCub
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 19:51:51

    I didn’t get past the made up ‘German’ title. I know it’s supposed to be farcical, but at least make it farcically correct: Holstein-Schweinewald-Huehnerhof or Holstein-Schweinswald-Huhnhof…

    I quite like her debut, was disappointed in book 2 and the less said about book 3 the better with its aspirations to being Shakespearean caliber literature as described in her foreword.

    Think I’ll give this a pass.

  12. DB Cooper
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 21:45:08

    @Isobel Carr:

    Wow. Thanks for the info, and the anecdote. I knew about the covers, but not about the title. I say again, yikes. :D

  13. Emily A.
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 23:16:40

    The title I guess is based on a children’s movie called How to Train Your Dragon.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0892769/?ref_=sr_1

  14. Kaetrin
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 23:40:29

    Thx for the review Willa. I’m interested in the courtship but the last 100 pages sound like a bit of a bummer. Maybe this will be a library read. One day. :)

  15. Kierney Scott
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 04:37:54

    I love that I am not in charge of the cover and title. The anticipation is great fun, cover reveals are so exciting. Also I know my publisher would do a far better job than I ever could. In my mind, it is one less thing to think about. And don’t get my started on the blurb… Those require a very specific skill set. God bless the brilliant people who do those well.

  16. Lori
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 09:55:11

    It’s a shame that it has such a thoughtless cover and title when they could have had something that matches the story and been more eye catching. But a woman who looks like a histoical courtesan isn’t as interesting as a woman dressed as a man.

    And Willaful, it’s so awesome to see you here. I adore your reviews so I’m glad to have another place to find them.

  17. Willaful
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 10:26:17

    @Lori: Aw Lori, thank you! It’s awesome to be here, especially since Jane does virtually all the actual work. :-)

  18. Rei
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 13:56:11

    Gray set the stage well for anachronistic premarital sex

    I might be wrong, but wasn’t premarital sex actually not that uncommon, even in the time period? It was a lot more heavily frowned upon, yes, but most of what I’ve read seems to suggest that people having sex out of wedlock was just kept a lot more under wraps. More so among the working classes/people not living in a city, but I sort of wonder at the amount of times I’ve heard premarital sex referred to as not historically accurate recently.

  19. Willaful
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 14:16:25

    @Rei: That’s a point, and perhaps it wasn’t the best choice of words on my part. But in the particular circumstances of the book sex wouldn’t have been common/likely. Though I strongly suspect her two sisters will also find themselves having it. ;-)

  20. Rei
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 14:57:43

    @Willaful: Right you are – not knowing the specifics of the setup, I can’t really comment on that :) Sorry if I came off nitpicky – I’ve just been seeing that sentiment around a bit lately, and I was confused as to where it was coming from.

  21. Willaful
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 15:08:49

    @Rei: No, not at all. People criticizing historicals for the wrong things is very annoying! And I should have tempered what I said since I don’t have a strong knowledge base to criticize from.

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