Dear Ms. Duran:
This is a difficult review for me to write. Sometimes, after reading a book, I have so few thoughts that it takes me a long time to marshal enough feedback for a substantive review. Other times – as with The Duke of Shadows – I have so many thoughts and instinctive reactions to the book that I’m not sure I can articulate clearly a condensed, coherent position. Part of the problem is that it took me almost two weeks to get through Part One of the novel and about two hours to read through Part Two. By Part Two I felt invested and excited enough to read to the end in one straight shot, and ultimately I’m glad I persisted.
Emmaline Martin arrives in India to marry the man to whom she’s been betrothed since she was a child, but she arrives the lone survivor of a shipwreck that took both her parents, thanks to an overturned rowboat and a passing Irish freighter. The rigid class values the British in India adhere to (must not fall in with the “blackies,” after all) place Emma in a suspect category, not because of the enormity of her loss or her overwhelming grief, but because no one knows if her virtue was compromised by the Irish sailors (they were another species of “blackies” to the English, after all). Her fiancé, Marcus Lindley, is particularly curious about this, which puts us on immediate alert that he is Not The One for Emma. Indeed, Marcus is a bully whose greatest love is for Emma’s substantial fortune, and he is not happy that his little Emmaline does not arrive in India the perfect British miss – that is, fearful and dismissive of the local cultures, supportive of the British military campaign, and primly cheerful.
The only one who sees behind Emma’s proper facade, it seems, is Lindley’s cousin, Julian Sinclair, the future Duke of Auburn and a man of mixed Indian and English heritage. Like Emma, Julian shares the dilemma of not wholly fitting in to “proper” society, and he seems drawn to Emma in part because of her sense of apartness, but also because she has a certain vibrancy that he does not see in other women. Emma, as an artist, wants to see more of India than the average “memsahib,” which somewhat predictably leads her to clash with Marcus and places her in danger of serving as a scapegoat for native resentment of British imperial rule. The gathering unrest in India, and the eventual uprising of native Indians, including many who previously worked within the British military structure, places Emma in grave danger, and her temporary savior is not her fiancé, who is too busy “subduing” the Indians, but Julian, who promises Emma that he will get her to safety.
I don’t want to spoil this section of the book, which combines Julian and Emma’s growing attachment with a number of incidents that become significant later on, so I will skip forward to England, where the second half of the novel takes place. Back in England, both Julian and Emma are dealing with the horrors they experienced and witnessed in India. Neither knows the other is alive and well, having been separated in India and assuming the other dead. Neither has been able to escape the emotional devastation of so much violence, even though Julian is now the Duke of Auburn and Emma an heiress living with her cousin in London. Emma, we discover, has suffered particularly badly, struggling with her very sanity in the months and then years after escaping from India, guilt-ridden over things she saw and did there, suffering from nightmares, depression, even mania at times. Julian, on the other hand, is guilt-ridden thinking he has caused Emma’s death, and so when he sees her at a London society event a full four years after they separated in India, he can barely believe it, although he is no less surprised than Emma.
The event is a showing of Emma’s paintings of the violence in India, which she completed after she returned, and which her cousin showed against Emma’s wishes to Lord Lockwood, who is captivated and wishes to make Emma a famous artist. Emma has since been unable to create anything as alive as those paintings, and her frustration adds to her existing depression. She does not want these paintings shown publicly, but she is also ambitious, wanting to make a name for herself as an artist, so she eventually allows them to be shown under a pseudonym. So seeing Julian, who is so desperate to renew their relationship, offers her only the prospect of more pain, more public exposure of things she would rather leave hidden, and she ruthlessly rejects the Duke, despite his persistent attentions. It is only because of an unknown danger to Emma, related to a strange series of phrases painted at the bottom of each of her pictures, that they maintain contact, as Julian is one of the few people who knows that Emma is the artist of those provocative paintings. And while Julian’s presence in Emma’s life threatens to unbalance what little grip she has on normalcy, Julian sees in Emma the only person who understands him and a profound need for understanding and healing herself.
I know this is a lot of summary, but trust me, it doesn’t do the book justice. Many times while I was reading I was mentally comparing Duke of Shadows with one of my favorites, Rangoon by Christine Monson (which takes place in Burma), a book that has some superficial similarities with Duke of Shadows but is considerably longer. It is the longer length that is of greatest importance here, because it allowed for a more epic breadth of plotting as well as a very thoughtful cultural observation and commentary. And I couldn’t help thinking, especially in the early parts of Duke of Shadows, that the novel simply needed more room to fill out its vividly ambitious vision. The class and cultural differences, the complexity of Julian’s mixed heritage and split loyalties, the contest between Marcus and Julian for Emma’s loyalty, the shipwreck and its effects on Emma, the violence sweeping India, Emma and Julian’s escape, the terrible trauma Emma suffers – there is so much within ten chapters that this section of the novel feels simultaneously rushed and yet strangely muted. Marcus’s ugliness seems one-dimensional, Julian’s attraction to Emma seriously underdeveloped, Emma’s trauma ever-present but not fully detailed (I wish we had seen something of her parents, of the shipwreck, of the rescue, for example), the cultural critique of British rule in India insightful but a bit heavy handed. Despite my intense appreciation for the Indian setting and the lovely details of the geography, the people, and the culture, this section feels surprisingly derivative in terms of Romance clichés (Julian as the rake, Emma as the virgin, Marcus as the eevil suitor).
By contrast, the second section of the novel, which takes place in dreary old London, feels much more novel and nuanced to me, much more focused on Emma’s emotional journey, her powerful struggles to cope with the aftermath of so much terror and trauma, and her powerful desire to transform herself into an artist who does not have to paint dark scenes to express her skill and creative vision. It is in this section that we see why Julian has been so drawn to Emma; the loneliness of being a survivor plagues both of them, and while she wants to reject that link because of its still raw pain, Julian wants a chance to redeem himself for the guilt he experienced at not being able to see her to safety in India. It is in this section that we see Julian, not as the jaded and worldly rake, but as a man who truly loves and wants to embrace Emma, who possesses an innate kindness that frankly scares the woman who believes that she is too terrible to love. Watching Julian try to break through Emma’s shell can be absolutely breathtaking:
“You must leave me alone,” she said, staring at nothing. There was a
giant globe, big as a carriage wheel, standing near the desk. It was startling and unusual, and she recalled suddenly having heard of it: the Ardsmores’ famous globe. She stepped forward and put one finger on England. How small it looked, how defenseless, against the vast waters of the world.
His hand closed on hers. “No,” he said, very close, his lips brushing her ear. The passage of his breath called up goosebumps from her skin. She could feel the heat of him all along her back, only an inch or two separating them. She inhaled, heard the way it shook. Her throat was seizing. He murmured, “Let’s go back, shall we?” And his hand moved hers across the surface of the orb, applying pressure to give the globe a spin, so her finger came to rest on the shape of the Indian subcontinent.
“Where were you?” he asked quietly. He moved her finger to Delhi. “Here you were. Almost four years ago, exactly. And I found you in the garden, with your face turned to the breeze.”
Don’t do this. She shut her eyes. His hand tightened on hers.
“Open them,” he said savagely. “If I can bear it, so can you.”
Her next breath sounded like a sob. She felt his reaction to it; it was communicated through his flesh, his arm pressing along the side of hers, the way his knuckles whitened.
“You were in the garden,” he said. “You did not like the wine. It was awful, you were right. We spoke here, for the first time, in Delhi. And we touched here for the first time, as well. It was sweet, Emma. So sweet.” His lips turned into her neck. It was not a kiss. Merely a-touch. It had nothing to do with the other, in that hallway in Delhi. So long ago. “Do you remember?” he said, shaping the words against her skin, so the memory that broke over her was not visual, but physical. He had brought stars out in her stomach, that time. She had liked it then but now it made her want to scream; it was soft torture, the drip of a waterclock when one had a migraine; it exacerbated the pain she already felt. Pain she had been done with, which she should not have to feel any longer.
This Emma, the one Julian has trapped against the globe, is afraid of everything and nothing. She is worlds away – or so she believes – from the young woman who once trusted Julian with everything she once thought she was:
He kissed her again, and she opened her eyes to the stars. Infinite and uncountable, bright and cold and distant. They brought her back into her skin. She ran a hand down his damp back. “My God…” he whispered.
Behind Julian’s head, the ruins were looming, darker than the darkness itself. The earth was so dark, and the ruins so small, compared to the stars. His head rose, blocking out the sight. He leaned down to kiss her. “Everything in your face,” he murmured. “Emma, come back to me. I’m here with you.”
Yes, she thought, so he was, and felt something inside her turn over, an old grief or a new hope-the sensation so sharp that she sobbed. It might have startled him; she could not tell by his face, for he was already pulling her up into his lap, his arms wrapping around her as he rocked her.
“I’m here,” he said into her ear, as the tears came faster. “Emma, I’m here with you now. Listen to me: I will always be here.”
Always, she thought. He said "always,’ but he had forgotten to say finally. Finally you are here. Thank God, finally at last.
If only the intensity of emotion and the tautness of the prose had been consistent, this may have been an A range book for me. There are a number of moments that feel absolutely transcendent, where Emma’s pain or her hope is so viscerally rendered that they practically bleed off the page. But there are also many moments where things feel truncated or predictable and threaten to stagnate the novel. The villainy, for example – the fact that I can only describe it with that term, even – is unsurprising and unsubtle. And while the nature of Julian and Emma’s connection is well developed in Part Two, the way they become initially acquainted and attached feels somewhat forced and superficial, with Julian dutifully playing the role of resident rake, promising sinful sensuality to the technically pure but not necessarily innocent Emma. Also, the secondary suspense plot works to bring Julian and Emma together, creates an opportune occasion for some angry and passionate canoodling, and brings together some of the novel’s loose ends, but it also seemed oddly traditional in a book featuring a pretty untraditional relationship between its hero and heroine. And one of the most interesting characters to me, Lord Lockwood, has an extremely provocative but incomplete story, which strikes me as either sequel-bait or the victim of really vicious editing. But then there are those wonderful moments. Which, frankly, saved the book from languishing, a perpetual half-finished TBR, and buoyed my grade from something low average to a B-, with enough anticipation for the next book that I will actively be looking for it, hoping for a whole book of richly-rendered, transcendent moments.
Ann Aguirre loves this book and is holding a contest to readers who blog about this book. Take a gander if you are interested. The prizes include gift certificates to bookstores. We love those, don’t we?