After a whole lot of thought, I ended up giving this 3.5 stars, even though I really, really wanted to give it 4.0. I really, really wanted to like this book a whole lot, but . . .
Okay, disclaimer first. I obtained the Kindle edition of The Duchess War when it was offered free on Amazon. (I think it's actually perma-free.) I don't really know the author, but we have had a few brief exchanges online about other issues. And yes, I write historical romances.
I started this book several weeks ago, but kept putting it aside because I just couldn't get into it. The writing is fine, no problems there. The historical setting -- late-ish Victorian England -- is one I love, perhaps my very favorite. And the core issues raised in the novel are also of great interest to me: the plight of workers in an industrialized society, the abuses of aristocratic power, women's rights, etc. I really, really wanted to like this book a whole lot, but . . .
Yeah, I already said that. I may end up saying it again.
So why didn't I like it a whole lot? The more I think about it, the more reasons there are.
First of all, the characters. Minnie was all right, except that I didn't think her background was adequately woven into her adult persona. She had an unusual talent that was highly developed when she was a child and then suddenly turned off, with no outlet. Although there were some bits where she expressed or displayed frustration at not having an outlet, I felt it could have been more fully developed to make her character much more interesting and three dimensional.
Robert, however, was a Mary Sue and never worked for me, pun intended. Fabulously rich, gorgeously handsome, generous, kind, blah, blah, blah. He didn't even qualify as a Gary Stu or whatever the usual masculine counterpart to a Mary Sue heroine is. Robert was a Mary Sue. How he could ever have been one of the Brothers Sinister is beyond me, left-handedness notwithstanding. He was too nice, too perfect, too emotionally desperate.
I didn't buy his mother's character, either. She was too one dimensional, and she changed too quickly, without explanation . . . or grovel.
The minor characters were similarly lacking in depth, especially Oliver (another Mary Sue) and Lydia. Would more of their personalities have come out in other books in the series? I don't know, but I can say they didn't come through in this one.
The plot itself was neatly constructed, and I suspect that's why I kept reading. The complications progressed effectively and logically, which is always a huge plus for me as a reader. I hate it when I come to a point in a novel where I'm shaking my head at the absurdity of a contrived situation. Except for the aforementioned characterization weaknesses, the plot of The Duchess War proceeded cleanly.
Too cleanly. Pun intended.
Oh, wait. That's the second pun I haven't explained. And maybe therein lies the reason I just couldn't like this book as much as I wanted to. And I really, really wanted to like it, but. . .
Robert, Duke of Clermont, admits to Minnie that he has never done manual labor of any kind. He's never worked. When he visits the stocking factory, he doesn't really have any understanding of the lives of the workers he's championing. His reasons for championing them seem unrealistic, Mary Sue-ish, white knight selfish in the same way the "main character" in The Help was selfish. Robert knows he himself, as a duke, is untouchable when it comes to the crime he's committing, and I had to wonder throughout the book if he would have done the same things had he actually been at risk.
instead, he only takes emotional risks, leaving the physical risks to others, He desperately wants to be loved, yet his actions put two of the people he professes to love the most in serious physical jeopardy.
Robert, I realized, is a coward. A rich, handsome, titled, politically powerful coward.
But he's good in bed.