In the spring of 2008, I received a rare you-must-read-this email from my friend PJ. The book she was urging me to read was The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran. Since I trust PJ, I read The Duke of Shadows a week or so later, and on the strength of that debut novel I added Duran to my list of autobuy authors. That same year, I added two other authors of historical romance to my autobuy list on the strength of just one book. Like The Duke of Shadows, The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne and Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas were big buzz books of 2008. I expected to see all three authors on award lists, and some of my expectations were met.
The Spymaster’s Ladyand Private Arrangements were both RITA finalists for Best Historical Romance, placing Bourne and Thomas in the company of such heavy hitters as Lisa Kleypas and Stephanie Laurens. Private Arrangements was also a finalist for Best First Book, and My Lord and Spymaster, the follow-up to The Spymaster’s Lady, won for Best Regency Historical. The Spymaster’s Lady was the big winner in All About Romance’s annual reader poll, winning Best Historical Romance Set in the U.K., Best Romance, Best Romance Couple, and Best Romance Heroine with an honorable mention for Best Romance Hero. Private Arrangements earned Thomas the nod for Best Debut author and an honorable mention for Best Historical Romance Set in the U.K. Both books were shortlisted for the romance novel most highly recommended to readers and librarians by the References and Users Services Association, and both showed up on RT Book Review’s 2008 list of 1001 best romances of all time. The Duke of Shadows was on none of these lists.
Almost five years and a novella over seven novels later, Duran has received some recognition. James Durham, Viscount Sanbourne and Lydia Boyce (Bound by Your Touch) were named Best Romance Couple, and Lydia was Best Romance Heroine along with a couple of honorable mentions for the book in AAR’s 2010 reader poll, and At Your Pleasure and A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal were shortlisted on RUSA’s best romance list in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Still, when I reviewed At Your Pleasure last year, I was surprised that most of the comments were from people who had heard of Duran, who had the intention of reading her books, who thought the review sounded as if they’d like the book, but who had never actually read a Duran novel. I know several of the people who commented: they are voracious readers who read widely in the romance genre. Why are they not reading Duran?
I don’t have a satisfactory answer to my question, but perhaps sharing the top five reasons I never miss a Duran book will persuade some non-readers to try this author who is one of the best writers in the romance genre.
1. She moves me out of Regency England.
Regency England will probably always be my favorite setting for historical romance, but I also like variety. Duran provides that. Chronologically, her books range from 1715 (At Your Pleasure) through 1898 (Wicked Becomes You). Geographically, she also offers variety. While portions of several books are set in London, Duran also takes her readers to India (The Duke of Shadows), Hong Kong (Written on Your Skin), Paris and Monte Carlo (Wicked Becomes You), and in England, but out of London (At Your Pleasure and That Scandalous Summer).
2. She tells a story rich in historical, cultural contexts.
I’m an eclectic reader within historical romance, but I know reviewers and even a few friends who sneer at some of my choices, labeling them “wallpaper historicals.” History is definitely not wallpaper in Duran’s books. The Duke of Shadows, which takes place in part during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, is saturated in issues of class, race, and gender. A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal shows the grim realities of life in the London slums of the 1880s. The characterization and plot of At Your Pleasure are rooted in the religious and political conflicts of England in 1715. Duran’s books are so layered with details of the social and political world her characters inhabit that it’s not unusual for readers to suggest that she should be writing historical fiction rather than historical romance, although Duran has been outspoken about her allegiance to romance.
3. She creates characters who are complex, imperfect creatures of their time and place.
Julian St. Clair, Duke of Auburn (hero of The Duke of Shadows), is shaped by his Indian/English hybridity. Lydia Boyce (heroine of Bound by Your Touch) is a brilliant scholar whose role is limited by the restrictions placed on women. Phineas Granville, Earl of Ashmore (hero of Written on Your Skin), is the son of an Irish profligate and a man plagued by shame and self-loathing over acts he committed as a reluctant spy. Nell Whitley (heroine of A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal), a factory girl with a rags to riches story, views the changes in her life with ambivalence, aware of what she has gained but also of what she has lost; Simon St. Maur (hero of that book) is a product of his class with a bigotry and self-absorption rarely seen in a protagonist in a romance novel. Adrian, Earl of Rivenham (hero of At Your Pleasure) left his Catholic faith and converted to the Church of England to protect his family, and Elizabeth Chudderley (heroine of That Scandalous Summer) is a professional beauty. Yet to describe these characters in this fashion gives only a piece of who that character is.
4. Her deft touch with the telling detail adds immeasurably to my reading pleasure.
Misused details become mere distractions, pulling the reader’s attention away from what matters in the story; but used well, details complete and enhance the story the author is weaving. In A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, Duran brings home the contrast between the world the heroine has known and the world she is about to enter by having Nell consider the small items she can most easily steal:
By the light of the candle she arranged the items on the carpet: candlesticks; doilies; a slim, illustrated volume of Regency-era fashions; a silver spoon; an enameled bowl the color of the summer sky. The bowl fit perfectly into her cupped palm. It was small enough to be ignored and dismissed. But a canny pawnshop broker would recognize its weight and fine glaze as proof of its value. It might easily fetch money for five months of food.
In At Your Pleasure, Nora’s thoughts turn to a painful period in her past, and Duran uses references to Nora’s hair to make the reader feel what Nora is experiencing:
The memory of that time lived in her flesh. It overwhelmed her now, dark and suffocating, like the locks of her hair, fallen free of pins, that snaked around her face and throat. She shoved them away, heedless of snarls, glad for the pain they caused as she ripped through them with her fingers.
5. Her prose is textured, various, and beautiful.
At its best, language in fiction is a transparent tool that the author uses to capture essence, to hold up to the reader the precise words presented in the sounds and rhythms that convey exact shades and grains of meaning. Some are arrogant enough to think only writers of literary fiction use language in this way. Duran’s novels show how mistaken they are.
This passage from The Duke of Shadows illustrates the difference between florid language that comes in all shades of purple and language used to express the characters rather than to impress the reader. Note the simplicity of Duran’s words, most of which are monosyllabic. Here Julian is trying to free Emma from her fears so that she can become wholly herself, her past and her present both accepted as parts of who she is.
He kissed her again, and she opened her eyes to the stars. Infinite and uncountable, bright and cold and distant. They brought her back into her skin. She ran a hand down his damp back. “My God…” he whispered.
Behind Julian’s head, the ruins were looming, darker than the darkness itself. The earth was so dark, and the ruins so small, compared to the stars. His head rose, blocking out the sight. He leaned down to kiss her. “Everything in your face,” he murmured. “Emma, come back to me. I’m here with you.”
Yes, she thought, so he was, and felt something inside her turn over, an old grief or a new hope-the sensation so sharp that she sobbed. It might have startled him; she could not tell by his face, for he was already pulling her up into his lap, his arms wrapping around her as he rocked her.
“I’m here,” he said into her ear, as the tears came faster. “Emma, I’m here with you now. Listen to me: I will always be here.”
Always, she thought. He said "always,’ but he had forgotten to say finally. Finally you are here. Thank God, finally at last.
In this passage from That Scandalous Summer, Duran’s most recent novel, Elizabeth is in the process of understanding the difference between the love she feels for Michael and what she had labeled love in an earlier relationship. The rhythm of the prose changes from the stark question to the tumble of ideas as revelations follow quickly, one upon the heels of another, to the slower, almost meditative movement of the conclusion.
How had she ever imagined herself in love with Nello? The jokes between them had been malicious, and always at somebody else’s expense. He had excited her, of course—and angered and annoyed her; every moment with him had been tumultuous, and in the interludes between their meetings, she had fretted, parsing every moment of their past interactions. But that was not love. Love, she saw now, did not feel at all the same.
Love was more than passion. It was built on intimacy, a history woven of private moments, knowing looks, and silent smiles.
Have you read Meredith Duran? If not, today’s a great day to begin.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.