Ah, Hoyt, who’s written some of my favourite historical romances, The Leopard Prince and Duke Of Sin. Therefore, a new Hoyt series is always welcome and I happily plunged into Not the Duke’s Darling as my first 2019 romance-read. Though it didn’t reach the heights of my favourites, difficult to do given how much I love them, it was satisfying. In particular, the storylines and premise it sets up make me eager for the books-to-come.
Not the Duke’s Darling is Georgian-set, Hoyt’s time setting of choice, and centres around reunited childhood friends and former-best-friend’s-younger-sister hero and heroine, Christopher Renshaw, Duke of Harlowe and Freya Stewart de Moray. The opening scene was thrilling, funny, and compelling. Freya is a member of a ancient, secret society, the “Wise Women”, a group of proto-feminists sworn to help and protect women, persecuted as witches and now living in seclusion in an isolated part of Scotland. Freya, however, is one of their agents, living pseudonymously in society, aiding women, and keeping her ears and eyes alert to threats to the group. In the opening scene, Freya is helping a baby-lordling and his widowed mother escape the clutches of an evil uncle, intent on using the infant-lord to control his estates.
Desperate to escape pursuing thugs, Freya, baby, and nurse tumble into a nobleman’s carriage, Christopher’s carriage. Freya recognizes Christopher as the man who stood by and watched as her brother was beaten fifteen years ago, when they were all friends in Scotland. (This backstory serves to re-introduce some of the characters involved in that life-changing incident, while others hover, ready to be brought in in later volumes.) Christopher, on the other hand, doesn’t immediately recognize Freya, but does find her exciting and beautiful, if a tad crazy. He helps save baby and Freya and she is able to hand the one and half year old Earl of Brightwater over to his mother, who spirits him away to America. Freya then meets with anther Wise Woman, the “Crow,” who warns her that the Wise Women want her return to their Scottish sanctuary. Freya wants to stay in England to investigate the instigator of a new Witch Act in Parliament, sure to destroy the Wise Women. That instigator is Lord Randolph. Working as ladies’ companion to the Holland family, Freya finds herself on the way to a country estate party at the Lovejoys, whose holdings abut Lord Randolph’s. An ideal opportunity. Moreover, Freya also wants to reunite with Christopher, to exact revenge for what happened to her brother, especially when she noticed, in the carriage, that Christopher wore her brother’s signet ring.
In the meanwhile, Christopher, ever haunted by the mad, beautiful woman who fell into his carriage, is confronted by his own problems. A handsome little creep, Thomas Plimpton, is blackmailing him over some letters Christopher’s deceased wife exchanged. As Plimpton is to attend the same house-party to which Freya has been invited, Christopher makes his way there. The romance then becomes a working out of their past, the push-pull of their attraction, and their pursuit of Plimpton and the witch-hating parliamentarian, Lord Randolph. Moreover, other figures from that original traumatic scene appear at the house-party: the sisters, one of whom was Freya’s childhood friend, Messalina, of the man who caused Ran’s beating, Julian Greycourt.
That it took me three long, inelegant paragraphs to reach the point where I can express an opinion about the book may tell you something about its weakness and strength. Hoyt can’t write a bad book if her life depended on it. She drew me in with her creation of this Wise Woman society and especially with the conversations among the women of the house-party. Lady Holland, Freya’s employer, turns out to be a sympathetic, forward-thinking character, an anti-Mrs.-Bennett, smart and concerned for her daughters’ happiness as opposed to their marrying up and rich. Freya’s reconciliation with Messalina is wonderful, as is Messalina herself. Though the muffin-eating, sword-wielding sister, Lucretia, steals the show in one priceless scene. The mysterious beating, the reasons behind it (Ran was thought, at the time, to have killed the Greycourts’ sister, Aurelia, not true, of course, but it brought about the estrangement among the close-knit friends), the proto-feminist society and what they stand for, Christopher’s own sad backstory, and the delightful dog, Tess.
Hoyt is setting up a compelling, original series: what she didn’t accomplish is the development of Freya and Christopher’s relationship. In order to introduce her overarching series narrative, Freya and Christopher and even Tess sound as one-note wonders. Christopher, no matter how one-quirked-eyebrow roguishly handsome he is, is a man of fidelity, decency, and care for others, protective and loving toward Freya and all women. He sees Freya, is attracted to her, likes her, realizes who she is, woos her and wants her throughout. Freya, on the other hand, is fiercely independent and wary, wary of marriage and commitment and the way it might thwart her work with the Wise Women and her own freedom. As smart and good as Freya and Christopher were, it was hard not to see how they couldn’t NOT be together, how they couldn’t NOT work out their differences, especially Freya. She’s too smart not to recognize Christopher’s value, how he would only ever stand by her, never thwart or diminish her. There’s a lot of sex, well, not a lot, not till the last third: it’s good it takes Freya and Christopher a while to become lovers, but when they do, it’s at least a love scene a chapter. So, there’s a lot of sex, but not much tension, the emotional stakes don’t seem to be that high. And, frankly, the love scenes are over-wrought, trying to make up in heightened language what is lacking in development.
In the end, Not the Duke’s Darling great strength is Hoyt’s world-building: the families, that past incident that will need to be worked out, the potential in all those marvelous characters waiting to have their story told, the atmosphere of danger and, the potential presence of characters, some still at loggerheads, who will serve as a merry band against evil. I loved Not the Duke’s Darling for what is to come and I liked Not the Duke’s Darling for its likable, compatible couple and the binding role they will come to play in the other characters’ lives. I loved the women and their friendships/relationships the most of all. With Miss Austen, we say that Hoyt’s first Greycourt novel offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s Not the Duke’s Darling is published by Forever (Grand Central Publishing). It was released on December 18, 2018, and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received a Digital Galley Edition from Forever via Netgalley, as well as a paper copy.