Not the Duke’s Darling (Greycourt series #1) by Elizabeth Hoyt

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Freya de Moray is many things: a member of the secret order of Wise Women, the daughter of disgraced nobility, and a chaperone living under an assumed name. What she is not is forgiving. So when the Duke of Harlowe – the man who destroyed her brother and led to the downfall of her family – appears at the country house party she’s attending, she does what any Wise Woman would do: she starts planning her revenge.

Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, is being blackmailed. Intent on keeping his secrets safe, he agrees to attend a house party where he will put an end to this coercion once and for all. Until he recognises Freya, masquerading amongst the party revellers, and realises his troubles have just begun. Freya knows all about his sins. Sins he’d much rather forget. But she’s also fiery, bold, and sensuous – a temptation he can’t resist. When it becomes clear Freya is in grave danger, he’ll risk everything to keep her safe. But first, Harlowe will have to earn Freya’s trust – by whatever means necessary.

Rating: C

Hard as it is for readers when a favourite, long-running series ends, it must be equally so for the author who has lived with those characters and scenarios for years – and who then has to follow up that success with something new that will continue to please fans of the previous books as well as, hopefully, gain them new ones. Having closed the book on the hugely popular Maiden Lane series last year, much-loved author Elizabeth Hoyt now faces that particular challenge, and presents the first book in a new Georgian era series about the Greycourt family and their immediate circle – Not the Duke’s Darling.

If you’ve looked at the advance reviews on Goodreads, you’ll have seen a plethora of four and five star reviews for the book, so I’m afraid I’m going to be a dissenting voice. Not the Duke’s Darling was Difficult to Get Through. It took me twice as long as it would normally have taken me to read a book of this length, mostly because I was able to put it down easily and wasn’t engaged enough to want to pick it up again. There were a variety of reasons for this, not least of which are that the book is disjointed, episodic and overstuffed with plot, the heroine is hard to like, and the romance is woefully underdeveloped.

The Greycourt series is predicated on a tragedy that occurred some fifteen years earlier which tore apart three families who had previously been very close. The death of sixteen-year-old Aurelia Greycourt, who had been set to elope with eighteen-year-old Ranulf de Moray, eldest son of the Duke of Ayr, had far ranging repercussions which left Ran crippled and near death, and his friend, Christopher Renshaw, hustled away to India and an arranged marriage with a young woman he’d met exactly twice before.

Ran, who inherited the title Duke of Ayr almost immediately after these events, lives as a recluse and his brother Lachlan administers the dukedom. Ran’s sisters – Caitriona, Elspeth and twelve-year-old Freya – were sent to live with their Aunt Hilda in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where they learned the ways of the ancient secret society of Wise Women, a group dedicated to helping women throughout Britain utilising their centuries-old knowledge of herbs and healing. Once a thriving group of thousands, the witch hunts of the previous centuries have decimated their number and even though these were made illegal by Witchcraft Act of 1735, old beliefs and superstitions continue to run rife, and Wise Women still run the risk of accusations of witchery being levelled against them.

Fifteen years after the death of Aurelia, Freya de Moray has risen through the ranks of the Wise Women to become their Macha – she calls herself their ‘spy’, as it’s her job to keep her ear to the ground to find out what is being said about them and also to find causes for them to interest themselves in.  At the beginning of the book, Freya is racing through the streets of East London on her latest mission when she ends up jumping into the carriage of Christopher Renshaw, the man she blames for what happened to Ran and the destruction of her family.

Freya may be the sister of a duke, but she no longer lives as one, having taken a position as companion to Lady Holland and her two daughters while she fulfils her duties as Macha.  Freya has learned that support is gaining ground in Parliament for a new Witch Act which would make witch-hunting legal again, and that its main proponent, Lord Randolph, is going to be present at an upcoming house party to which Lady Holland has been invited.  Freya has heard that there is some suspicion concerning the recent death of Randolph’s wife and reckons that if she can dig up enough dirt on him, she’ll be able to blackmail him into withdrawing the bill.

Up to this point in the story, we’ve had two points of view; as is common in most romances, we hear from the hero and the heroine.  But after we arrive at the house party, a third voice is introduced, that of Messalina Greycourt, Freya’s former best friend.  It turns out Messalina is well aware that Freya is now working as a companion, although she has no idea why, and she has decided, so far, not to expose her as the sister of the Duke of Ayr.  Messalina and her sister, Lucretia (references to other siblings indicate they’re all named after Roman emperors and empresses) are also attending the house party, and are also intent on finding out exactly what happened to Lady Randolph, who was a dear friend of Messalina’s

In the meantime, Christopher Renshaw, who has returned from India a widower and has become Duke of Harlowe, is intrigued by the drab but surprisingly feisty companion who seems set on crossing swords (both literally and metaphorically) with him at every turn.  He has come to the house party in order to confront a blackmailer who is extorting an outrageous sum of money in return for the letters written to him by Christopher’s wife while they lived in India.

So… we’re not even half way into the book and we’ve got Wise Women (and I’m sorry, but whenever I read those words, all I could think of was the “she is the Wise Woman” scene in Blackadder), two lots of blackmail, a mysterious death and a parliamentary plot; the story is being told in three different PoVs… dare I say it’s no wonder the romance is squeezed out to the extent it’s practically non-existent?

Christopher has the makings of a decent hero.  Pushed into an arranged marriage when he was just eighteen, he tried to be a good husband and to take care of his young wife, and he blames himself for the circumstances of her death.  Given he last saw Freya when she was twelve, it’s not hard to accept that it takes him a while to recognise her, and I appreciated that once he does realise who she is, he doesn’t waste time in telling her the truth – as far as he knows it – of what happened on the night Aurelia died.  There’s still a mystery surrounding her death, which I presume will be solved in a future book, but Freya realises that she’s misjudged Christopher all these years and begins to unbend towards him, which allows them to acknowledge and explore the attraction between them.  But their relationship is dreadfully underdeveloped, the chemistry between them is notable only by its absence, and the sex scenes, which Ms. Hoyt normally excels at writing, feel forced and hurried.

I had a hard time getting a handle on Freya and began to actively dislike her towards the end of the book, mostly because of the way she treats Christopher.  I understand that it can be very difficult to create strong, independent heroines in the context of historical romance because women had so few options and so little agency at the time many of them are set.  Unfortunately, however, many authors fall into the trap of trying to show their heroine’s strength and independence by having her running roughshod over the hero and treating him like his feelings don’t matter – and that sort of inequality does not a good romantic relationship make.   (For the record – I don’t like it when the situation is reversed, either.  A good romance should be about an equality of minds and outlook, not one character getting one over on the other).  Freya crossed the line between strong and independent, and insensitive and stupidly pig-headed once too often.

I feel like I haven’t really scratched the surface of Not the Duke’s Darling (another completely nonsensical title that has nothing to do with the story) in this review, but there is so much going on I just can’t fit it all in.  I haven’t even mentioned the Dunkelders, for example, men out to capture and wipe out the Wise Women; and the plotline concerning Lady Randolph’s death is resolved in a manner I can only describe as ridiculously melodramatic.  Characterisation and relationship building are the major casualties of this train-wreck of a novel, and much as it pains me – as a fan of Ms. Hoyt’s – to say it, I really can’t recommend it.

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