Tue
Feb 5 2013 12:00pm

Bound by Wicked Pleasure: Discovering Meredith Duran

The Duke of Shadows by Meredith DuranIn 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.

Bound by Your Touch by Meredith DuranAlmost 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).

A Lady's Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran2. 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.

At Your Pleasure by Meredith DuranIn 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.

That Scandalous Summer by Meredith DuranIn 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.

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27 comments
Karenmc
1. Karenmc
Great post. Thanks for bringing attention to a brilliant author. Anyone who appreciates depth of character, unique settings and beautiful use of language should have a shelf full of Duran books.
Karenmc
2. KeiraSoleore
I'm a huge fan of Meredith Duran! I re-read all her books every year for all the reasons Janga has mentioned so poetically here. Above all, she tells a great story that could not possibly have happened to those characters elsewhere in place, time, events, or even thoughts. That makes her a rare author.
Janga
3. Janga
Thanks, Karenmc. Let's hope some readers who appreciate all the things you mentioned but who haven't read Duran will be encouraged to discover what they are missing.
Janga
4. Janga
Keira, I would have expected you to be a Duran reader. And, yes, story is always at the core.
Lege Artis
5. LegeArtis
You can't go wrong with Meredith Duran. I discovered her in 2011 with The Duke of Shadows and fell in love with her writing. She writes, beautiful, rich and smart stories. And it was interesting that both MD and Joanna Bourne debuted in 2008, 'cause I think when it comes to historical setting, details, political and social texture of that time- they are one the best in genre. After TDOS I actually looked up some facts about Indian mutiny and British Raj, because she got me interested. And romance parts are as just as good. I love Lisa Kleypas and other big names in HR, but I think of Meredith Duran as a shadow player, one you don't even see coming and she scores. You don't expect it to be that good, but she is. I bought book after book, and I loved every one of them. There aren't many authors I can say that I love everything they ever wrote, but MD is one of them. I'm still waiting for my copy of That Scandalous Summer to come, and I'm very excited, I can't wait to read how she's writing in series.
It's a great post, Janga, Meredith Duran deserves to be talked about.
Karenmc
6. Cathy S
I brought home my first MD novel, Written on Your Skin, from the library one evening a few years ago. Within 20 pages, my heart was beating fast from the excitement of realizing I had found a truly unique romance writer. I stayed up much later than I intended that night, and have yet to be disappointed in any of her books.
Karenmc
7. Janga
Thanks, LegeArtis. I'm happy to "meet" another Duran enthusiast. It's interesting that TDOS sent you to the history of the period. At Your Pleasure pushed me into researching a period I discovered I knew less about than I thought. I think both our experiences prove the power of Duran's stories.
Karenmc
8. Janga
Cathy, I've done my share of staying up too late reading a Duran book too. You're right: discovering a writer whose books captivate you to that degree is exciting.
Kat Morrisey
9. KatMorrisey
I have to add these books to my TBR list. Sometimes I really want to read a historical romance but get leery. I have no idea why, but I always tend to hesitate. (I did this highlander romances for awhile too, and now, after finding a few really good authors, I've fallen in love with the genre!) I downloaded The Duke of Shadows to start this weekend. Thank you for a great post (and intorducing me to a new author)!
Karenmc
10. Janga
Kat, yours is exactly the kind of response I hoped this post would produce. I hope you enjoy The Duke of Shadows as much as I did.
Kiersten Hallie Krum
11. Kiersten
I adore Meredith and think her books are some of the richest prose I've ever read anywhere. Duke of Shadows is a book I go back to over and over and always find new things to amaze me.

I had exactly the same experience w/Jo Bourne, Sherry Thomas and Meredith debut those three extraordinary books in the same year, and declaring, in my opinion, a new era of delicious prose, complex characters, and heart-breaking emotion in Romancelandia.

Excellent post, J
Karenmc
12. Janga
Thanks, Kiersten. Yes, 2009 was an extraordinary year for debuts. All three of these authors have left me eager for their next book with each book of theirs I have read. Having already read That Scandalous Summer, I am now impatient for the next Duran.
Laurie Rivera
13. leb
Great post Janga! I've never read any books by Ms. Duran or the other authors that you mentioned, but I am definitely intrigued. Which book should I try first?
Karenmc
14. Janga
Thanks, leb. With Duran, since all of hers work as standalones, you can start anywhere. A Lady's Lesson in Scandal and At Your Pleasure are my personal favorites, but Duran's books are all keepers. If you like dark and intense with a different setting, start with The Duke of Shadows. If you prefer somewhat lighter fare, That Scandalous Summer, will be available later this month. I reviewed it at The Romance Dish earlier this week.

If you're asking about Bourne and Thomas as well, I suggest beginning with Thomas's 2012 trilogy: Beguiling the Beauty, Ravishing the Heiress, Tempting the Bride. With Bourne, I'd start with The Spymaster's Lady, although I think her books too are not so tightly connected that they cannot work as standalones. The Black Hawk is a near perfect book IMO.
Karenmc
15. pamelia
I adore Duran's books. I think "Bound by Your Touch" and "A Lady's Lesson in Scandal" are my favorites, but then again "The Duke of Shadows" was just so viscerally stunning to read.... choices, choices!
She's a great author to suggest to someone who turns up their noses at romance novels and tries to tell you they aren't well written.
Karenmc
16. Diane Peterson
What a coincidence! I have been meaning to read Meredith Duran for some time, based on excellent recommendations. Just this evening I finished reading "The Duke of Shadows." All of your points were well represented. It was a delicious, rich read and definitely a notch above. Looking forward to reading the rest of hers. PS I have to agree emphatically about Bourne and Thomas. Simply the best.
Karenmc
17. Janga
Pamelia, aren't we lucky that we don't really have to choose among them but can enjoy all of Duran's books again and again? Yes, I agree; she's a great recommendation for the scoffers.
Karenmc
18. Janga
Diane, what great reading you have to look forward to! I hope you enjoy Duran's other books as much as you did TDOS.
Karenmc
19. Jennifer McQuiston
Yes! THIS! It is a crime against reason that Meredith Duran has not won a RITA. I have read every one of her books, gotten up late to bid (and win) on a charity critique from her, found her to be lovely, warm, generous. The only thing she can be faulted for is extraordinary humility, which probably does a romance author little good in this age of required networking. I am 50 pages into That Scandalous Summer and can already tell I will be re-reading it, because right now I am gulping it down far too fast.
Laurie Rivera
20. leb
Janga and everyone - thanks for the recommendations. I will be downloading a couple of these titles this weekend. We're expecting some crappy weather here on the east coast, but it sounds like my Kindle and I won't even notice...
Michelle Palmer
21. ChelleP
Simply put, Duran writes beautiful historicals for smart people. She is one of the best, and I'm sad to hear she hasn't been recognized as such.

The Duke of Shadows is extraordinary...rich in detail and angst. I couldn't put it down. Julian rocked my world. I feel a re-read coming on...;)
Kareni
22. Kareni
I've enjoyed all of Joanna Bourne's books as well as those by Sherry Thomas. While I enjoyed Meredith Duran's A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, I didn't finish her At Your Pleasure. I might try that book again at some point; it may be that the book was asking for more attention than I was willing to provide at the time.
Janga
23. Janga
Jennifer, I too rushed through That Scandalous Summer and then reread it to savor the characters and the language.

Reading your post was almost eerie since What Happens in Scotland is the most recent read-this recommendation from my friend PJ, the one who introduced me to Meredith Duran's books.
Janga
24. Janga
Happy reading, leb! I hope the weather is more promising than the forecast.
Janga
25. Janga
Chelle, I agree that TDOS is extraordinary. I always consider reread value in separating the good books from the best ones. Duran always rates highly.
Janga
26. Janga
Kareni, the political and religious history in At Your Pleasure makes it a dense read. I think it does require a high level of attention, but I found it an immensely rewarding book.
Karenmc
27. C.J.
I am extremely glad to see someone giving kudos to the tremendously talented Meredith Duran. From the moment I first read The Duke of Shadows, I have been a voracious fan. I enjoyed your comments about the variety of her books; when I first read The Duke of Shadows and recommended it to a friend, my comment was, "It's different." I love her astute use of the English language, and pithy dialogue between characters. Although I have read each book several times, I can't pick up one and read a passage without reading the whole thing once again. Her characters ring true in all their imperfections and come to life. I feel like I know these people. And finally, the thing I appreciate the most is that when I read a Meredith Duran book, I know every detail is legitimate. Nothing aggravates me more than an author who constantly uses words and phrases that do not fit the period, gets historical information wrong, or has their characters act in ways that would be completely out of place for that time period. In fact, it is a sure bet I will never read another book by that author, if I even struggle through it to the end. Duran has her history down cold. Each period reeks with authenticity. I have taught reading and language arts for over twenty years and am also a huge history buff, so I appreciate what she does to get it right. Most of all, I enjoy the roller-coaster ride she takes her readers on with each book. You never know when the plot will twist, turn, or drop out from under you, but you know she will bring you home safely in the end!
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