Title: Desperate Duchesses
Author: Eloisa James
Genre: Historical Romance
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Desperate Duchesses series
Why did I read this book: As part two of our Smugglivus Feats of Strength, Ana dared me to read this historical romance. This is Ana’s favorite historical romance series, and thus I reluctantly accepted the challenge.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Welcome to a world of reckless sensuality and glittering sophistication . . . of dangerously handsome gentlemen and young ladies longing to gain a title . . . of games played for high stakes, including—on occasion—a lady’s virtue.
A marquess’s sheltered only daughter, Lady Roberta St. Giles falls in love with a man she glimpses across a crowded ballroom: a duke, a game player of consummate skill, a notorious rakehell who shows no interest in marriage—until he lays eyes on Roberta.
Yet the Earl of Gryffyn knows too well that the price required to gain a coronet is often too high. Damon Reeve, the earl, is determined to protect the exquisite Roberta from chasing after the wrong destiny.
Can Damon entice her into a high-stakes game of his own, even if his heart is likely to be lost in the venture?
Lady Roberta St. Giles is the daughter of an adoring, if somewhat smothering Marquess. Not just any Marquess, but an eccentric one who believes himself to be a fine poet–to Roberta’s constant embarrassment. After suffering one last humiliation since convincing her father and his latest mistress to take her to a ball so that she might find a husband, Roberta fancies herself in love at first sight with the cold Duke Villiers. She finally decides to take matters into her own hands and sets out for her distant cousins in London. When she arrives she is immediately taken under the wing of the beautiful Duchess Jemma, who plans on bringing Roberta out into society and will help her ensare the unattainable Villiers. Things are never so simple, however, as the Duchess’s brother, the Earl of Gryffn finds Roberta irresistible and plans on winning her affections at any cost. Simulataneously, the very trendy and lovely Jemma finds herself entangled in another affaire of her own, juggling her handsome, disapproving straight-arrow husband Elijah and none other than Duke Villiers himself. In order to help Roberta land the Duke, Jemma challenges Villiers to a best-of-three chess matches, with the final match to be played in Jemma’s chambers…blindfolded.
Until reading Desperate Duchesses, my foray into the historical romance world has been pretty limited to Lisa Kleypas, Loretta Chase, and Julia Quinn. Eloisa James thus is a completely new author to me, and both her writing style and the time period of this novel are refreshingly different. Against the backdrop of Georgian England, Ms. James does an impeccable job of bringing to life the historical setting. The gentry are wealthy, fashion obsessed, and most importantly, promiscuous as hell. This is the greatest strength of Desperate Duchesses, in my opinion. I was very impressed with Ms. James’s impeccable attention to detail, especially in the types of dress for both men and women during this era. For example:
He reached the hall and demanded a mirror. As a footman held the glass for him, he carefully placed his Macaroni hat on top of his curls at a jaunty angle. Then he noticed that a rosette was falling from his shoe; ten minutes later he was seated in an elegant little chair while the duke’s own valet sewed the rosette into a better positions. After that, of course, he must needs readjust his stockings in private, and finally, he ended up in front of the glass again, rearranging his hat…”I suffered the greatest imposition to my shoe,” the viscount said, taking care to lisp slightly in the new fashion. “It is of all things, annoying; these rosettes are prone to falling by the wayside, do you not think?”
And this is hardly an isolated example–throughout the novel, careful description is given to cuts of gowns and buttoned trousers, hoop skirts, and cosmetic patches (apparently both men and women wore them, as bizarre as that may seem by modern standards).
As detailed as the costume pieces may be, the true lifeblood of the novel, however, is the game of Chess. All the rage during the late 18th century, chess is an integral part to the story being the device through which Jemma entices Villiers into considering Roberta. Clever sexual innuendos and chess metaphors abound in Desperate Duchesses, which if not my particular cup of tea, is well written.
The characters are also diversely written–I was taken aback by the morally ambiguous cast and how seriously flawed and real each character was. In almost all of the romance novels I have read, heroes and heroines are “flawed” but not really flawed (i.e. a hero guards a deep dark secret…he *gasps* stutters!). In Ms. James’s novel, one of the main characters, the Duke of Villiers is a true cold fish–he cares for nothing and no one but chess. Sure, he desires Jemma for her beauty and her keen mind, but there’s certainly no true love involved. Similarly, the relationship between the married Jemma and Elijah is rocky and tempestuous at best–Elijah keeps a mistress and has since before their marriage, while Jemma has entertained numerous lovers during her time in Paris, and plans to continue to do so in London. In fact, both husband and wife seem to hate each other (though there is an underlying, subconscious bond there too). The main character, the heroine Roberta is perhaps the most flawed of them all! Completely deluded into believing she loves Villiers–for his embroidered suit jacket no less!–she’s manipulative and yet incredibly naive.
While all of these flawed characters make for an exciting new direction in what can be a very cookie cutter type of story, the only drawback for me was…I didn’t particularly care for ANY of them. Granted, I can separate my personal feelings for these characters from the merit of the writing, but at the end of the day, the book just wasn’t very enjoyable for me because I lacked a connection with the characters, and for all that the Georgian setting complete with rampant chess metaphors was extremely well done, I remain disinterested. This is, after all, a romance novel–and if the reader doesn’t care for the hero or heroine, does not have that emotional connection between the intended lovers, then it’s all moot, isn’t it?
Also, while I admired Ms. James’s different take in this novel by focusing on not just a primary hero/heroine pairing, but also a secondary pairing with the Jemma-Villiers-Elijah triangle, I think this also was to the detriment of the story between Damon and Roberta. In fact, the only character I marginally liked was Damon, so this was quite disappointing.
In any case, I do think Desperate Duchesses is a unique novel, and sure to please fans of Georgian England, chess and those who might be in the mood for a change from the usual brooding rake heroes redeemed by pure true love. Unfortunately, for all that, this novel does not appeal to me personally. C’est la vie.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Has to be the champagne plus strip dominoes scene.
Additional Thoughts: For a completely different perspective of these books, check out Ana’s posts for the Desperate Duchesses series.
Verdict: Good writing, but not my particular cup o’ tea.
Rating: 6 Good
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