In 1825 Edinburgh, Miss Elizabeth “Libby” Shaw yearns to follow in her father’s footsteps, to become a doctor, to heal others. But a woman in 1825 Edinburgh, or anywhere in the Western world, cannot apply to Surgeon’s Hall for studies and sit qualifying exams, for the very reason that she is a woman. Miss Libby Shaw strikes an arrangement with Mr. Ibrahim Kent, a society portraitist and exiled “Turk,” actually Ziyaeddin Mirza, Prince of Tabir. Libby will live in his house as his guest, under disguise as Mr. Joseph Smart, surgical student. In return, as Libby, she will sit as Ibrahim’s artist’s model. With this convenient bargain, Ashe begins her fourth Devil’s Duke historical romance and a remarkable achievement it is too. I’d read the first, The Rogue, and liked it very much, but The Prince far surpasses it. The two novels are linked in having admirable, easily-loved stubborn heroines who have a cause and mission that they fulfill by taking on acts then only enacted by men. Their heroes are taciturn loners who come to see the rightness of their heroines’ causes and aid and abet them without taking over, dictating, or directing. The novels are linked by questions about what it means to be a woman, a man, and have meaningful work. By virtue of their eccentricity, these heroes and heroines are outsiders yet live within society and are rewarded with a warm circle of friends and family.
From my introduction, it’s obvious I loved The Prince. I read it in great, summer-hols leisure and savoured each and every word. It’s a romance novel that isn’t only distinguished in theme, character, and plot, but fine writing. Ashe is spare where she needs to be and lyrically descriptive where Libby and Ziyaeddin’s desire and emotions call for it. As Libby becomes Joseph Smart, donning facial hair, binding her breasts, and wearing trousers, Ashe’s description is perfect: “Except for the whiskers, she was perfect.” The whiskers and the necessary adhesive present a particular problem for Libby/Joe and the solution comes in the form of one of the tenderest romantic gestures I’ve read.
But I also loved, in light of Libby’s Joe-Smart-medical-student disguise, how the heroine and hero are joined by the necessity of masks. Libby’s is the more obvious because it is accompanied by a complete physical transformation. But Ibrahim/Ziyaeddin’s is no less onerous: he must act the exotic artist of Edinburgh society all the while keeping up a network of political alliances that will bring him back to Tabir where he can reclaim his kingdom from a usurping khan. Ashe throws physical desire and genuine liking, with banter and a fellow-feeling of being outsiders to Libby and Ziyaeddin’s cohabitation, that makes for a wonderful, rich narrative. Another example of Ashe’s romance-writing talent is in the spareness and narrowness of Ziyaeddin’s life of exile: “Disguise and fettered desire: these were the measure of his life now.” Our protagonists begin from a life that is rich in satisfying work, but barren of companionship, connection, and touch.
Ziyaeddin is a awesome hero. He is giving and supportive, yet Ashe doesn’t make him wallpaper-y. Maybe because he is a stranger in a strange land, he is able to convey sympathy and support for Libby in a way that makes sense to the reader. I loved how Ziyaeddin recognized Libby’s value, intelligence, and skills and wanted her to fulfill them: “He wished to protect her for herself, so that she could pursue her dreams.” Ziyaeddin is a worthy hero who sees his heroine as worthy of an HEA that is made up of more than being his wife and having children, though those are important too and duly achieved in a telescopically clever HEA.
As Ziyaeddin and Libby converse and share, drink tea and flirt, touch with tenderness and circumspectly, at least in the haven that is Ziyaeddin’s home, they are able to be themselves: “He wanted to tell her that until she had come into his life, in his house, he had been hiding, and that she had given him courage to hide no more.” A beautifully rendered phrase and an apt gift for two wounded, worthy souls. Libby too recognizes Ziyaeddin’s worth as a giving, loving, unusual person. She appreciates what he has done for her, how he has nurtured and succored her ambition, gentled her weaknesses, soothed her vulnerabilities, and allowed her to be herself. She acknowledges his value in this passage about the home he has created as a stranger in a strange land: “Without ostentation, this house reveled in beauty. It was the home of an artist. And a prince. Yet he had welcomed her here. And he had treated her as his equal.”
(I loved this passage because it reminded me of my beloved Jane Eyre, when she says to Rochester: ” ‘I love Thornfield because lived in it a full and delightful life,–momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in,–with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind.’ ” As Libby has, as Ziyaeddin has. Ashe writes them as equals in mind and body and spirit. Whereas in Jane, Rochester is the sophisticate and Jane the moral highground; Ziyaeddin and Libby are more nuanced.)
To continue with how Libby sees Ziyaeddin, there is a realization of the mutuality of art and medicine when Libby says to him: ” ‘How do you do that? How do you see what is beneath the skin?’ ‘You do as well.’ ‘I see bones and muscles. You see the soul.’ ” Having meaningful work is important to these two characters and their appreciation of each other’s gifts is just one among many of the novel’s virtues. There is also Libby/Joe’s wonderful relationship with her fellow medical students. There is a underlying plot about dissection and the medical community’s dangerous acting in it. This is the novel’s weakest aspect, with a mystery plot that weaves in and out, but does, in the end, serve as fulcrum to Libby and Ziyaeddin’s reckoning in society’s eyes.
It comes with Libby’s realization that her ambition and determination to be a doctor when everything stands against it hurts those she loves, her monomania has a price: ” ‘How wretchedly I have served every person I love. I wanted this so desperately that I cared nothing for the pain or danger it would bring anyone, only for the satisfaction it would bring me.’ ‘Happiness.’ She swung around. ‘What?’ ‘It has brought you happiness. And me as well. Happiness I thought never to enjoy.’ ” This price is one that she and the people she loves shouldn’t have to pay. Libby pays a price in her disguise of not being able to be herself, yet it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make. Ziyaeddin as artist is exactly who he wants to be yet he has to sacrifice it for his country’s greater good. Thank goodness for romance’s HEA because Libby and Ziyaeddin can be honourable and true, as well as winning happiness and a good, long, loving, rich life. Romance doesn’t demand the sacrifices daily life does of honourable people. These days, it’s a vision we could use more of. Ziyaeddin’s momentary happiness in The Prince‘s darkest moment, of separation and loss, is lightened by the surety of the HEA. With Miss Austen’s agreement, we say that Katharine Ashe’s The Prince is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Katherine Ashe’s The Prince is published by Avon Books. It was released on May 29th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Avon Books, via Edelweiss+.