An author whose writing is such that I will listen to her books despite a narrator I dislike is rare. Fortunately for me, Eloisa James is such an author. Most of her books are quite good, almost good enough that I can ignore the annoyances in the narration. Susan Duerden narrates all four of the books below, and while I’m sure many listeners quite enjoy her work (otherwise audiobook producers wouldn’t keep hiring her), she is distinctly not my cup of tea. Every line she reads comes out sing-song, like a teacher trying to get a student to understand the rhythm of iambic pentameter. Oh it is grating. But the books! They are almost all good. I love that many of her heroines have careers, or at least useful passions that occupy a lot of their time (one is a novelist, another is an interior designer) and that she incorporates real historical events into her novels – and not just passing mentions of big wars and the like. In fact, most of them include an author’s note where she expands upon what history is real and what history she tweaked for the purposes of her story. Historical romances with historical author’s notes are my jam.
Three Weeks With Lady X by Eloisa James
Lady Xenobia India is an interior designer, though she’s never referred to by that phrase (I’m assuming because such a thing didn’t really have a name at this point in time). She needed to find a way to to earn money after her parents died, and she has a knack for design and a way of transforming huge, run-down estates into gleaming, modern palaces. Her most recent client is Thorn Dautry, a bastard son of a duke who is in need of sprucing up his image so as to convince the stuck-up mother of the very respectable and sweet Leticia (who is dyslexic but merely thought to be stupid) that he should be allowed to marry her. Thorn has hired India to make over the estate he has purchased, which previously belonged to a man we’d call a party animal in this century. There are lots of leftover X-rated paintings and statuary, for example. The two strike up a flirtation which deepens into true friendship, and then into love. It’s a lovely progression that feels natural, and the bumps in their path to happily ever after are organic. There’s plenty of banter plus a really nice secondary love story between Leticia and another man, which makes the fact that Thorn pursued her and then fell in love with someone else a softer blow. The epilogue to this one even made me tear up a little.
Four Nights With the Duke by Eloisa James
This one features a novelist as the heroine! When she was a child, Mia had a tremendous crush on Evander Brody and wrote a poem about him, which she meant to keep completely secret. Of course it didn’t remain that way, and Vander got a hold of it – or rather his friends did, and they teased him mercilessly about it. To save face, he mocked Mia in return, and of course she was there and overheard. Instant enmity. Flash forward a decade or so and Mia needs a husband for reasons too complicated to get into in this short review. But she doesn’t need just any husband – she needs to marry Vander. Not for long, just for a few weeks, and then she’ll secure an annulment. He’s hardly likely to marry her of his own volition – he’s holding out for a love match – so she blackmails him. Not a great start to a marriage. The premise is a bit contrived, but the emotions are genuine. James does a good job of bringing these two together in love when it seems like it wouldn’t ever be possible. Vander is angry, as he should be, and it provides a believable way for him to act like an asshole without actually being an asshole (unlike some other romance “heroes”). And Mia is awesome. Each chapter begins with her work-in-progress on her newest novel, which is giving her more than a bit of trouble. James drops a couple names of her own writer friends as Mia’s colleagues, and she provides an author’s note that describes in greater detail what the landscape for gothic romances like Mia’s were during that time. This is a love letter to romance novels – those from Mia’s time and those from our own.
Duchess By Night by Eloisa James
Cross-dressing romances are usually pretty fun. Sarah MacLean did one of my favorites, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, and I had high hopes for this one (especially after listening to James’ other books above). Harriet is a duchess, a widow whose husband killed himself after a bad game of chess (he loved chess more than he loved her). One of her husband’s responsibilities when he was alive was to help decide court cases, and now it’s fallen her to decide them – like that of a woman who had married five men consecutively and wasn’t quite sure which one was her legal husband. There’s a male judge there who is the “official” decider, but he’s drunk and passed out most of the time, and what she says goes. This is a really interesting bit of history that James elaborates upon in her author’s note, but it doesn’t have a huge amount to do with the romance (aside from character development, I suppose). Harriet is tired of being the staid widow and decides to have a little fun, which is where the cross-dressing comes in. She accompanies one of her female friends to the house of Julian Strange, a notorious partier. Her friend is female and dresses as such, but she decides to go as a man – the better to experience all that the party house has to offer, I suppose. Again, it’s pretty contrived, but it’s good fun. Strange is an OK hero, not terribly memorable but at least he’s not an asshole. When he discovers she’s a woman, it’s pretty funny (most of James’ novels have a good bit of humor in them). I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the previous two, but it was still a worthwhile read.
The Duke is Mine by Eloisa James
While the three novels above are all worth a read (and the first two are highly recommended), this one was a total dud. I love the concept of it – it’s a re-working of the Princess and the Pea – but the execution is terrible. I gave up about halfway through, and I never quite figured out exactly how it related to the fairy tale. Perhaps it would have become apparent later, but I wasn’t inclined to stick around long enough to find out. The heroine, Olivia, has been engaged to a man five years younger than her since his birth. Unfortunately, something happened during his birth that damaged his brain, and he never matured beyond the intellect and understanding of a child. Olivia isn’t thrilled to be marrying him, but she’s resigned to it. When her future father in law encourages them to consummate the relationship before her fiance goes off to war (because if she got pregnant the baby would be considered legitimate and he’d have an heir even though his son was dead, which seems specious to me), they both agree. The resulting scene is painful. And not in a funny awkward way. This man is 18 but acts like he’s 8 and he obviously can’t do anything in the bedroom. Just thinking about this scene makes me feel icky. But I persevered (why, I do not know), finally getting to the part where Olivia meets the hero. And he’s supremely boring and is bad at sex. I gave up.
All books borrowed from my local library.