Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly – so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past.
Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention.
But that is precisely what she gets.
Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to her than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy Miss may prove to be more than his match…
Rating: A for content and A+ for narration
To start with, I’d like to thank both Ms. Milan and Ms. Landor for a wonderful audio experience. I laughed and I cried – the story was superb, the characters engaging and well-drawn, and the performance exceeded my expectations. Ms. Landor is always excellent, but here, I think she surpassed herself.
I’ve been waiting for this audio to come out for some time. I adored the prequel, The Governess Affair, and was delighted when I read on Ms. Milan’s website a while back that all the titles in the Brothers Sinister series would be released in audio. I was even more delighted when I saw that Ms. Landor was on board as narrator. But I also read that there had been a delay in production, which meant that the audio of The Duchess War would be coming out considerably later than its print cousin, which was more than a little frustrating, but oh, it was worth the wait and then some!
Robert Alan Graydon Blaisdell is the ninth Duke of Clermont. He’s young, he’s handsome, and he’s incredibly rich so, as far as society is concerned, he has everything. And when it comes to material things, that’s perfectly true. But while he may have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, his early years were bereft of the things that really mattered – the love and affection of his parents.
He’s also a most unusual duke in that not only does he have leanings towards radicalism, he actually wants to abolish the peerage. I’m writing this in 2013 and that hasn’t happened yet, so back in 1863 such sentiments were regarded as tantamount to treason and Robert has to tread very carefully. In public, he makes his case in the House of Lords, working towards getting bills passed that will improve the lot of the people by small increments. But in private (and in secret), he tries to help things along in other ways, by supporting trade unions and penning radical pamphlets to incite downtrodden workers to demand their rights and stand up to their all-powerful employers. It’s ironic really, that the one thing that protects him from prosecution for the latter activities is his rank. As a duke, he cannot be brought to trial in the courts, but rather tried by his peers, who would never convict him as he is one of their own.
As well as being a man of conscience and big ideas, he’s also desperately trying to put right some of the wrongs perpetrated by his father, the eighth duke whom we met briefly in the preceding novella. Clermont senior was a complete bastard, selfish and completely single-minded when it came to getting what he wanted – so much so that Robert’s childhood was cold and loveless and the only time he came to the notice of either of his parents was as a bargaining chip in their disaster of a marriage.
Minerva Lane is quiet and unremarkable and wants to keep it that way. She has been living under an assumed name for years due to a massive scandal in her past, which left her scarred both physically and emotionally. But after she meets Robert, she begins to see that she is as trapped by her “nothingness” as she would have been trapped by the grip of scandal, and begins to want and to feel – something she has striven not to allow herself to do, knowing they will only lead to more disappointment. But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, and the scene in which Minnie rails at her great aunts, the ladies who took her in and brought her up, about all the ambitions and hopes she has squashed for so long is truly affecting.
Robert is staying in Leicester, ostensibly to look over one of his business interests there, but in reality to write and distribute pro-union pamphlets among the disaffected workers and find out who is behind a spate of arrests and prosecutions for non-existent criminal sedition. It doesn’t take Minnie very long to work out who is behind the anonymous tracts, but unluckily, the captain of the local militia, having discovered that she is living under an assumed name, immediately suspects her of their authorship.
Deciding the best way to clear her name and put the captain off the scent is to expose the true author, Minnie confronts Robert only to realise that he does this because he is one of the few who can speak out, protected as he is by privilege. Together, Robert and Minnie are a force to be reckoned with – but the thwarted captain isn’t going to let things rest and finds a truly despicable way to force Robert’s hand.
Both Minnie and Robert have been emotionally damaged by their pasts, which lead them to make difficult and unpleasant choices during the course of the story. Fortunately, it never strays into over-angsty melodrama, which is completely down to the way Ms. Milan has crafted her characters. Both are highly intelligent and intuitive – they keep each other on their toes and when something goes wrong, they use that intelligence and intuition to work out the truth and act on it. There are no long drawn out “big misunderstandings” of the sort that make one want to throw the book in the bin. There is conflict, yes, and there is one action of Minnie’s that is downright cruel, but nothing is allowed to fester or become seemingly insurmountable.
The Duchess War is an absolutely wonderful story that contains just about everything you could want in a romance. There’s a gorgeous beta-hero, whose sense of honour and desire to do the right thing just shines from him; a fiercely clever bluestocking heroine who is more than his match; lots of humour and tenderness, sensual love scenes and, as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also a fabulously written sibling relationship between Robert and his half-brother, Oliver Marshall.
And on top of all that, Rosalyn Landor’s performance was so good as to bring out every nuance in the story and in the characterisations. Her narration is as beautifully read and well-paced as I’ve come to expect and it seemed to me that she really got under the characters’ skins and into their heads. Her interpretations of Minnie and Robert were outstanding – she caught the humour in their sparring and the pathos of their situations brilliantly. For instance, Minnie’s railing against her aunts and her descent into “nothingness” was truly distressing to listen to, and there’s one utterly endearing yet heartbreaking scene in which Robert talks about a particular incident in his childhood which brought tears to my eyes.
Ms. Landor always seems to lavish the same level of attention she pays to the principals on the supporting characters of all the audiobooks she narrates and this one is no exception. Knowing that Oliver is the hero of the next story, I was very keen to hear her interpretation of him and I thought she caught him perfectly, with an underlying cheekiness that I loved (which she seems to have achieved by giving his voice a slightly sharper edge than Robert’s and by softening her consonants). I admit that occasionally, I’ve had a problem distinguishing between male characters of similar age and attitude when listening to her (I’m thinking particularly of the hero and his cousin in Julia Quinn’s Ten Things I Love About You) but here that wasn’t the case at all. Robert, Oliver, and their cousin, Sebastian, were all easily identifiable although I admit I thought that Sebastian did sound a bit over-pompous.
The other standout performance was of Robert’s mother, the dowager Duchess of Clermont. She’s bitter and all but heartless yet I found myself becoming strangely fond of her as the story progressed, once again, due to the fact that Ms. Landor struck absolutely the right note with her. She gave a coldness to her beautifully modulated voice that hinted at so much wistfulness and heartbreak that I was convinced I was listening to a woman who had been so thoroughly to the depths of despair that she really did believe herself capable of any finer feelings.
In short, The Duchess War is superb from start to finish and well worth the use of an Audible credit. In fact, it’s so good that I’d have happily used two.