Smart & Satisfying: No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah Maclean
Or, in which Sarah reads a historical romance... and actually likes it!
My complicated relationship with historical fiction has been well-documented on this blog at this point, I believe. Despite that I'm a colossal history nerd, I just have the hardest time finding historical fiction that works for me--as a novel-lover and a history dork, I find that the balance rarely hits the right notes.
Historical romance is even a harder genre for me. I'm an extremely picky romance reader as it is, and the settings (Regency England, primarily) and class issues (nearly exclusively featuring the titled classes) just don't appeal to me, and neither do the gender dynamics (power, female virginity obsession, etc.) endemic to the time periods popular in historical romance.
However, I also try to keep an open mind and when so many people with excellent taste rave about an author, I'll give one of their books a shot, even if it's something I would normally shy away from.
Such is the case of Sarah Maclean's No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, which surprised me with its awesomeness.
Here's the deal with this book. It's a historical romance, yes. It's set in England and features characters from the nobility, yes. But, it also features a "ruined" male main character, largely takes place in a sketchy casino (called a "gaming hell") and stars two lead characters who, despite their noble lineage, are outsiders on a social level. It's an intriguing and compelling setup that made No Good Duke Goes Unpunished work for me when others have not.
Temple is one of four partners in The Fallen Angel gaming hell. His reputation is disastrous, as twelve years prior he was accused of killing his father's fiance on the eve of her wedding. No body was ever found, but the evidence pointed in Temple's direction. He has no idea what happened that night, as he has no memory of the events, but he carried the guilt with him all those years, never daring even hope for redemption.
Mara is that woman who disappeared before her marriage to Temple's father. And she's clearly not dead. She's remained hidden for over a decade, but breaks her vow to never return to the society she's abandoned when her brother finds himself indebted to Temple's casino. In order to help her brother, she agrees to out herself to London society and clear Temple's tarnished name.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished worked for me largely because of both main characters' stories focus on their struggles against social expectations.
I read something recently by an author of historical romances (and, sadly, can't remember who) who said that she writes about characters who "could have" existed and whose experiences "could have happened" within their social context. This book definitely fits that description. Mara intrigued me because she is wholly conscious of the nearly-impossible rigidity of her position in society and does what she can--even when it's morally ambiguous at best--to find a way she can live her life outside those restrictions.
I wrote my MA thesis on a woman, Beatrice Grimshaw, who in the late Victorian Era documented her travels around the world in works of both fiction and non-fiction. The most interesting aspect of Beatrice's life was all the care she had to take to fit into society's expectations of her as a proper woman, while engaging in activities that were decidedly not in alignment with social norms. Mara's struggle to carve out on independent life for herself reminded me of that aspect of my research. While this novel is set in an earlier time, the struggle against being controlled by men, and the sacrifices necessary for creating an independent space of one's own, were extremely realistically portrayed from what I know of the gender dynamics of the time. Not only could Mara have existed in her time, I'd be willing to bet there were a few Maras pushing against gender and class expectations as in No Good Duke Goes Unpunished.
As weighty as that element of No Good Duke Goes Unpunished may be, it's also full of a healthy dose of clever dialogue and irresistible romance.
Obviously, this is a romance and the Mara-Temple relationship is at the novel's core. Mara and Temple are in many ways an unlikely pairing, but they share something, and I ended up loving the progression of their romance, as they realized they're not all that different after all. Both characters are determined to make a place for themselves in a world that doesn't quite fit them, and their growth from adversaries to partners was fun to read with a satisfying payoff.
I liked No Good Duke Goes Unpunished so much that I read the second book in the series (this is the third), One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, which I enjoyed it quite a bit, though not nearly as much as this one. I admire the world Sarah Maclean constructed with The Fallen Angel and its contrast with London's social scene. It's seedy and intriguing and delightfully debaucherous.
For readers of this series, there's a big reveal about the main character in the final novel in the series in the epilogue, which was embargoed from my review copy of this novel (I had to wait for a library copy to read the epilogue--hence the delay in this post). Since read The Rules of Scoundrels series in reverse order, I was dispassionate about this revelation, but loyal series readers will probably freak out. Knowing what I know now made me appreciate the slyly subversive nature of the other books in the series, so much so that I kind of recommend reading them in reverse order just so you have that knowledge. It's a known fact that I'm always in favor of sly subversion--well-played, Sarah Maclean.
PSA: If you're like me and not normally a historical romance fan, trying this one out is pretty low-risk, since both the ebook and paperback are around $5 on Amazon at the moment.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.