the duke coverOur book today is a delectable trifle, the perfect thing to brighten up a day-long snowstorm: The Duke, the first of author Kerrigan Byrne’s romance novels to break the lock-step of glottal fricatives that characterized The Highwayman, The Hunter, and The Highlander and strike out into new consonantal territory (will it be followed by The Devil, and The Dermatologist? Only time will tell!).

A historical romp, but not a Regency: Byrne’s latest is a Victorian romance (the stern old sovereign herself makes a decidedly unamused appearance), with a “hero of the empire” at its center: Collin “Cole” Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, a handsome, rich paragon who, by the time we meet him, is weighted down by tragedies: the death of his family, the betrayal of his friend, and the serious wound he receives on the battlefield. It’s that hospital stay that brings him back into contact with Imogen Pritchard, with whom he shares something of a past: years ago, the two dropped their inhibitions and experienced a, erm, passionate interlude. In the present, the wounded, hospital-patient Cole seems to remember neither the interlude nor Imogen herself, but then, he’s been through a lot, and his disappearance has had all of London wondering:

Had he been lost to some Oriental jungle and the savages living there? Killed in the skirmishes between the Ottoman Turks and the Russians? Defected to the obscene wealth of a profligate sultan? Or made his own little tribal kingdom somewhere in the wild desert, complete with a harem to do his bidding?

That last alternative should be all the clue needed for a newcomer to Byrne’s fiction to know the lay of the land, as far as heavy-breathing is concerned. There’s plenty in The Duke to which Victorian prudes would have taken umbrage, but for all the snap of Byrne’s dialogue and for all the prettily-realized pauses that she works into her breakneck narrative, it’s not just the prudes who’ll be taking umbrage to disappointingly large portions of The Duke (and it’s not just the Irish, although they’ll be none too pleased with the quote we’re about to read) – even die-hard romance readers will find themselves bugged right out of the story by weird little speed-bumps like this moment that Imogen first glimpses Cole’s, er, member of Parliament:

He turned around, and Imogen couldn’t have swallowed had liquid been poured straight into her gaping mouth. Somehow, she knew that Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, had never in his life been afflicted with the Irish curse. His sex stood proudly erect from the sinewy definition of his lean hips. He glanced down, rather sheepishly, and flicked her a look full of pure, sinful invitation.

Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her. It wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly fit. Her mind recoiled, but her body … her body responded.

There’s a fine line between the good-natured anachronisms on which the modern historical romance depends and the kind of arch silliness that can spoil even the lightest confection – and that usually marks the work of an amateur. Byrne isn’t an amateur, but that just makes passages like this (and there are plenty throughout the book) all the more puzzling. Two well-raised and unmarried young people would simply never find themselves in such a moment in 1877 London, but such moments must be commonplace in order for modern historical romances to work, and so we content ourselves to suspend our disbelief. But if two young Victorians are going to find themselves in such a moment, it’s crucial that they not make things worse, as it were, by behaving even more anachronistically than the moment itself. Who, reading faithfully to such a moment, won’t feel their faith in an author badly fractured by arch silliness like “Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her”?

The conclusion of The Duke was so endearing (and so well-orchestrated) that I was able to limp around my own reading fracture at all these moments where Byrne’s characters knew as well as I did that they were in a 21st century novel playing costume-dress. But I’d much rather they not know that, so I’m hoping the next book in the “Victorian Rebels” series, The Scot Beds His Wife, will keep it’s fourth-wall mugging to a bare minimum. We shall see.

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