There are moments in the life of a reader when it seems like the reality is bending, stars are aligning and the Universe is conspiring to make one believe that anything is possible – that people fall in love at first sight, that Dukes and Duchesses frolic about flirting with each other, that virgins have (multiple) orgasms and bad boy heroes can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. In such moments, a reader who is most critical of what she reads, who up until about one year ago, thought that romance novels were well, trashy, all of a sudden finds herself believing in the above and reading and loving romance, over and over again. It took only one book, a well-written, funny and heart-warming book and a whole genre opened up ahead of her – a genre that proves to be everything said reader wanted from a book, with all the emotional content she could ever hope for but never thought it was possible to find. (No, she was not living under a rock; she was living in a world of intellectual prejudice.)
But as with any other genre, there are the very very good, the bad and the average. The latter being the norm, where moderately good books with unexceptional run-of-the mill characters and plotlines that make up for a good read albeit not an amazing one. Then of course, the bad, the really bad ones, that are so bad, one quits at 50 pages or so or the ones one can go on reading only to bang your head against the wall in the end. Combined Bad and Average reads make up the majority of books one reads and at one given time – also known as The Reading Slump – this combination brings Despair. Absolute, unabated despair, where one wonders: When, Dear Lord, WHEN one of the Good Ones, one of the REALLY Good Ones is going to show up.
And when they do, when all of the described in the first paragraph happen – it is absolutely glorious. It doesn’t have to be a perfect book – as we all know, very few are – it doesn’t even have to be a book rated 10, or 9 or even 8 (Delicious by Sherry Thomas comes to mind). The book (or the series) can be imperfect with plot contrivances, eye-rolling twists and even a premise that requires suspension of disbelief but good writing coupled with heart and soul goes a long, long way – and this reader is perfectly happy to let it go, let it all go as long as her heart is filled with joy.
This is a rather long introduction to say that The Desperate Duchesses Series by Eloisa James is one such series of books that brings joy to this reader regardless of any problems I may have found with the books.
Let me just start by saying that I am a member of the Eloisa James’ Bulletin Board which I joined because she shares it with Julia Quinn and if you are a reader of this blog you should probably know by now, that I adore Julia Quinn’s books. When I joined said board I decided then to give Eloisa James a go and started with her first set of books – the Pleasures trilogy- and I wish I hadn’t because I did not like those books at all (to put it very mildly. Suffice to say that it reminded me of old school romances, with jerk heroes and an abundance of le Big Mis ). The fact is, after reading those I quit Eloisa James altogether. But I kept seeing raving reviews of her latest books, her latest series and couple that with the fact that Eloisa James is such an open and nice person who is always posting at the board and talking to the readers – and listening to them that I just had to give her books a second change so I picked up her latest series starting with Desperate Duchesses.
And OH MY GOD. This is simply put, my favourite Historical Romance series at the moment and I take all of its problems with an open heart because this is a series that is very smart, scrap it, make it downright intelligent, with a well-researched Georgian setting, stock filled with SUPERB characters, funny moments, witty and flirtatious conversations with the right amount of sex ,the kind of sex that works for the plot and not the other way around and with storylines that evolve around two games of ….chess.
The series, Desperate Duchesses is more than a romance series as there is more than a simple romance between a pair of protagonists. There is a cast of secondary characters that are more than mere appendixes to the main couple. There is to be 6 books in total, with the 4th being published this week. It is an ensemble story which resembles a play.
In the interest of examining the complexity of the series, I would like to ask you to pretend that you are part of an audience sitting at a theatre looking at a big stage. On the right side of the stage there are two tables each with a chess board – one of the games is played between the scandalous Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont who is said to be the best woman player of chess and the even more scandalous, handsome, Duke of Villiers who is said to be the best chess player in England (and the most lavishly well-dressed man in Europe – think Georgian costumes, times it by 10, make it purple and you have Villiers) . The other game is played between Jemma and her own estranged husband, Elijah, the Duke of Beaumont, one of the most prominent politicians of the House of Lords.
The three are pretty much masters of Chess. All of them love the game but none more than Villiers who goes a little bit further than that – he loves nothing but the game. The game they play, one move each day is scandal in itself and the whole of England is following the matches. There is to be a maximum of three games – if it comes to a tie , the third game is to be played in bed and blindfolded. Rumour has it that Jemma is to be the prize. The first game starts in book 1, and as we approach book 4, game 3 is about to begin (or it?).
As the two games progress, we get to know each of the three characters better and better whilst at the same time and I ask you now to move you attention to the left of the stage, we follow the events taking place there – they are all somehow connected to the characters to your right.
Take the first book for example, Desperate Duchesses,
the main romantic entanglement is between Roberta , a friend and ward of Jemma and Jemma’s brother , Damon, the Earl of Griffin. But Roberta starts the book in love with…The Duke of Villiers. Who as we know, loves no one. They get even to the point of becoming engaged but Roberta falls in love with Damon which leads to a duel, lost by Villiers. The scenes between Damon and Roberta are really good to read about (hello, strip dominoes) but they are slightly shadowed (but not too much) by the awesomeness that is the trio made up by Jemma, Elijah and Villiers.
In book two, an Affair Before Christmas,
another of Jemma’s friends is the female protagonist: Poppy, a Duchess who starts the book already married and in love with her husband, the Duke of Fletcher who absolutely loves and adores her. And lo and behold , an actual original source of conflict: Poppy and Fletch’s sex life is shit – for a myriad of reasons and the main conflict in that book is how they will sort it out. There is a long separation which offers the chance for intercalating chapters with Jemma, Elijah and Villiers, who is recovering from the duel he fought with Jemma’s brother at the end of Desperate Duchesses. Villiers cannot play chess because he lies dying, or so everyone believes. In this book we learn how exactly Villiers feels about life – he has loved only but two people in the world – his friends Benjamin and Elijah, Jemma’s husband. Estranged from both, close to his death (so he thinks) Villiers has a change of heart and decides it is about time to fall in love with a woman and get married. He thinks he should become lovers with Jemma – whom he sees as a friend and therefore a possible choice for love of his life.
The relationship between Jemma, Beaumont and Villiers is stuff for legends. I love to see the web that Eloisa James is building around them all – how Beaumont and Jemma’s wedding went downhill years ago when Jemma found Beaumont shagging his lover at his office mere weeks after their weeding and proceed to tell Jemma that he loved the mistress and not the wife. How Jemma took off to France where she proceeded to be scandalous and have her own affairs – after she waited for the prig to come for her but he never did. Now, with Beaumont having a heart condition she is back in England and prepared to beget a heir. There is no love between them at the moment, but their moments together are full of so much poignancy, so much regret and hope and love lost and perhaps found, and internal tears. With Jemma being strong, witty but still worried about her husband and the judgmental, prig that is Elijah showing little by little his regret for the way he behaved. Similarly the relationship between Jemma and Villiers who are both incredibly smart people, at the centre of the fashionable world, playing chess for the love of it (they even read books about chess) and having deep conversations imbued with flirtatious banter. It is friendship with a bit more on the side – but Jemma proves to be not so scandalous as to cuckold her husband once she is back in his life. Also the relationship between Elijah and Villiers – who used to be BFF when they were much younger but something went awry back then (and it has to do with a DOG – frankly: men!) . The two men have tender feelings for each other and it is shown when Elijah shows up at Villiers’ deathbed to help him drink water and stay alive. These three characters are not staple fare, they are something more, they do not fit a set mould and they are REAL – strong yet very very vulnerable, which make them all very human.
I mentioned that Villiers also had another good friend, Benjamin. His regret for his friend’s death is also great as Benjamin killed himself after losing a game of chess to Villiers. His widow, Harriet, is the heroine of book 3, Duchess by Night.
Harriet sees herself as the most boring person on the world – she even bores herself. And she carries a huge chip on her shoulder that tells her that her husband did not love her enough to stay – he loved chess more. When the opportunity presents itself for Harriet to join her friend Isidore, the Duchess of Cosway (married by proxy when she was a child and who has been waiting for her Duke to return from his travels around the world ever since) and Villiers (who was enemy then friend), and travel to the most scandalous house party in the country hosted by Jem, Lord Strange in his Estate , she does so. Dressed as a man , young ward to Villiers – Harriet is so tired of being boring and she wants to experience the freedom that only a man is allowed to have.
Things are not as promiscuous as they thought – in fact Strange’s estate is a haven for lost women, actors and actresses rehearsing plays and politicians playing the Game that shapes England. This is my favourite book so far and Jem, OH DEAR LORD, Jem is quite possibly one of my favorite heroes of the year – the cross-dressing offers great opportunity for laughs with the ensuing falling- in- love- with-the- person- for- what- they- are- not- what- they- pretend- to- be bringing a heart-warming feeling that is the best thing of reading romance. This book is humorous, sexy and so so good -even if the ending is not quite what I hoped for Jem (he had to quit a lot for Harriet – although that was good for the heroine who NEEDED just that) , Elijah makes no appearance, we see very little of Jemma and there is just enough Villiers to appease my voracious appetite for the Duke – a character greater than life, whom I want to find a happy ending of his own.
The fourth book, When the Duke Returns will be reviewed by me tomorrow. And it is Isidore’s book, whose idea to travel to Lord Strange’s house party as to create a scandal big enough to bring her husband back to England worked really well, as the Duke of Cosway made quite the entrance near the end of Duchess by Night.
And this is another thing that I adore about this series – each book starts at a party in the previous book.
The fifth book in the series, THIS DUCHESS OF MINE , will be Jemma and Elijah’s story leaving the 6th and final book A DUKE OF MY OWN for the Duke of Villiers. The two books come out within a month of each other (May 26 and June 30) and I simply cannot wait. This series is smart, funny, rich in historical details with a Georgian setting, superbly well written. The romance in them may not be what we are all used to with less time spent in bed, less time spent with the two main protagonists so that everything else in the series have their own time to shine and they are ever so good because of it.
I hope this somewhat shortish compilation of mini-reviews for each book has opened your appetite, for this series is something altogether different, so clever, with great GREAT heroes and with a bunch of fantastic and I mean FANTASTIC, well-crafted women who are all somewhat desperate – for adventure, freedom, pleasure and most of all, of course, for a chance to love.
And the Duke of Villiers is mine.