I very much enjoyed this marriage-of-convenience historical! Lady Sara Elsmere is an entomologist who just wants to be left alone to study her butterflies, especially after she fails as a debutante on the marriage market by laughing hysterically when any gentleman asks her to dance. Her brother and sister treat her very poorly and see her as odd, unfashionable, and graceless. Enter Ian McAllister, the Duke of Dorchester, who has no interest in a wallflower like her…until he mistakes her for his mistress and drags her into a closet to kiss her. After they are caught in this lip lock, the Duke realizes that he and Lady Sara can help each other. He can give her control over her inheritance so that she can pursue her studies (and free herself from her unfeeling siblings); she can make him seem respectable to his business associates and, most of all, tame his two young, mischievous wards.
Like many historical readers, I love a marriage of convenience and Never Marry a Scandalous Duke really hits the spot on this score. If you are writing a marriage of convenience, you really have to invest in the 19th century world that would make such an alliance appealing and Miller delivers here. You feel that Lady Sara and her Duke are truly nineteenth-century aristocrats who must abide by the strictures of this world…which makes their falling for each other within the starchy confines of their arrangement all the more delicious. I also really liked how Lady Sara and the Duke light it up in the bedroom from the beginning whereas the other parts of their connection take more time to develop. Miller sets up their agreement so that it is, from the beginning, a real marriage; this book is not a marriage of convenience book where they are planning to call it off or annul it or separate permanently after a year. They very much understand that they are stuck with one another and the Duke even promises her at the outset that he will be faithful as long as she agrees to share his bed. Their connection in the bedroom surprises them both and they end up having to work from there to build a real marriage. I found this handling of the marriage of convenience really refreshing.
I recommend Never Marry a Scandalous Duke to readers who love a marriage of convenience with an authentic nineteenth-century feel, STEM heroines, and stuffy dukes who need to learn how to have emotions.
J.J. McAvoy’s Aphrodite and the Duke
Okay, so a lot of publishers compare their historicals to Bridgerton given the success of the show and, as we all know, a lot of these books aren’t really that much like Bridgerton. But Aphrodite and the Duke really is comparable to Bridgerton—it is truly the perfect read for those who enjoy the dynamics of the Netflix rendering of the book series. If you enjoy the parts of Bridgerton that center on the Queen, the different debutantes jostling to claim the “diamond of the season” title, a big, close family, and a racially diverse high-society world, then you’ll find a lot to love in Aphrodite and the Duke. In its approach to race, the book very much works in the vein that Bridgerton opened. Aphrodite’s family is multiracial (her father is white and her society-leading mother is Black) and, much like in Bridgerton (particularly Season 2), this version of Regency London is one in which racism is not a force at play. Aphrodite is a Daphne Bridgerton-esque diamond of the season and, as her name suggests, she is regarded in the ton as the beauty not just of that year, but of her generation. I found this really satisfying because, in Bridgerton and other historical romances, we haven't yet gotten to see a character like Aphrodite—even though Edwina in Season 2 of Bridgerton is the diamond, she isn’t the heroine, so we don’t really get to see a woman of color represented as both the pinnacle of ton feminine ideals and the hero’s desires in the way that we do for Daphne in Season 1. If you are a reader hungry for this type of representation, I would definitely suggest reading Aphrodite and the Duke—I really enjoyed this aspect of the book myself.
Whereas its approach to historical romance and the depiction of Regency London is familiar due to Bridgerton, this book is unusual in aspects of its storytelling. McAvoy gives us POV sections from characters who are not just Aphrodite and Evander and we don’t get a POV section from Evander until almost halfway through the book. I rolled with this difference, but it seems distinctive enough to be worth noting and I wondered if McAvoy made this choice to set a particularly intimate tone for this series and its ensemble cast going forward. Additionally, whereas its similarities to Bridgerton might strike a reader as being more in line with a newer, modern brand of historical romance, the writing and the sensibilities its characters express in regard to gender were a little reminiscent of old school historicals, in my opinion. Aphrodite’s father and brother and the hero, Evander, were more traditional in terms of their views on gender—Aphrodite has to push all of these characters to allow her more self-determination, and that element of the book definitely ran counter to the already feminist heroes/male characters (with the exception of villains) that have become increasingly popular in the historicals of the past ten or fifteen years. If you are a reader who enjoys seeing a heroine having to reckon with typically 19th century views from her family members (and from loving family members, not just those who are clearly meant to be harmful), then you will appreciate this strand of the book. Overall, this stylistic blend makes Aphrodite and the Duke unique and totally delightful.
I recommend Aphrodite and the Duke to readers who want more of that Bridgerton feeling and, also, to those who enjoy the second chance romance and childhood-friends-to-lovers tropes!