Duke of Shadows
by Meredith Duran
(Pocket Star, $6.99, PG-13)  ISBN 978-1-4165-6703-5
****
Newcomer Meredith Duran delivers a riveting novel set in a time and place not normally used in the romance genre.  Duke of Shadows offers as much fascinating historical insight as it does clever story and engrossing romance.

The setting: India, 1857.  Heiress Emmaline Martin has survived a shipwreck that claimed the life of her parents while enroute to join her viscount fiancé in India, and though an Indian merchant ship has delivered her to Delhi unharmed, the local British expatriates are sure the sailors must have assaulted her.  Emma is the target of much disdain in the Anglo-Indian society of Delhi.  Her fiancé, Marcus Lindley, is indifferent to her; their betrothal was set when Emma was a child, and as long as she keeps her mouth shut and overlooks his philandering, he’s more than happy to marry her.  There’s all her lovely money, you see.

Emma, who has been educated far above the norm for an English miss, is appalled to find herself stuck with the loutish viscount, now a colonel in the British army.  Shortly after arriving in Delhi, she meets Julian Sinclair, the Duke of Auburn.  He’s a cousin to Lindley, and though his mother was Indian, their grandfather declared him the rightful Duke.  Julian has a foot in both cultures and is semi-despised by both.  He knows that the rumors of unrest among the Indian sepoys, or soldiers of the East India Company, are true: India is a powderkeg ready to explode, and the British are in danger.

Julian is drawn to the intelligent, forthright Emma, and the two societal outcasts find they can be honest with one another.  Emma finds Julian attractive, but constricted in her betrothal and aware of his rakehell reputation, she can’t pursue her feelings.  Then the sepoys rebel, Lindley leaves Emma to fend for herself, and Julian is the one to help her escape to safety.  Their passion ignites and they become lovers, but are soon separated. Julian leaves Emma in safety in the city-state of Sapnagar and returns to Delhi to help negotiate a truce. He vows to return for her.

Four years later, they meet again in London.  Julian had searched for Emma for months, and had been told she was dead by - who else - Lindley.  Emma had finally found Lindley, only to be told that Julian had left for London already.  Now Emma’s paintings of the horrors of the uprising are taking the ton by storm.  The Urdu inscriptions on the bottom of each painting will place Emma in danger.  Julian is shocked to find Emma alive, and stunned when she completely rebuffs him.  As for Julian, Emma can’t forgive him for deserting her, nor can she forget the brutality she witnessed in the months after he left her.  She is wrapped in a defensive cocoon and their romance lies in ruins.  The only good development is that the engagement to Lindley is a thing of the past.

This is a short overview of a complex plot.  Both Emma and Julian are instantly sympathetic; Duran gives them a few flaws, but right from the outset we see that they are two people who are deeply honorable.  Julian is much less of a rake than his reputation implies.  His loyalties are divided; he understands the oppression and frustration of the Indian people, yet has no wish for bloodshed.  His is the attitude of someone who can see a train wreck coming, but can’t look away and doesn’t know how to stop it.  His surprise and delight in Emma feel genuine; she is the last thing he expected to find, and she quickly becomes the most precious thing in his life.  But they have little time to cement a bond, making his apparent betrayal all to easy for Emma to believe.

Emma is a fish out of water.  Unconventionally beautiful, artistically talented, and far more intelligent than most of the women around her, she is haunted by nightmares of her parents’ drowning.  Julian is a lifeline, someone who seems to accept her just as she is and revels in her unique personality while understanding the demons that haunt her.  Against the backdrop of British colonial society, in which morals were loose and women were basically ornaments, Emma stands out in relief.  The first half of the book deals with their romance and separation; the second half, set four years later, deals with their reconciliation. It’s a plot structure that works exceptionally well for this story.

Duran’s prose packs an emotional punch without descending into purple.  Julian and Emma both feel their share of loneliness and despair, and readers will feel it right along with them. The historical detail is sometimes graphic, but this only serves to underscore the traumatic setting and the intensity of Emma’s and Julian’s unexpected romance. 

The climax may strike readers as being rather standard-issue, which was a bit of a letdown for such an otherwise inventive novel.  I hope Ms. Duran has a companion book up her sleeve, as there are several side characters who’d do well in their own story.  Regardless, Duke of Shadows is an excellent debut from an author who is going to leap right onto many “must-buy” lists.  With its combination of engrossing story and emotion-packed romance, this is a guaranteed page-turner and a book to savor. Historical romance lovers are in for a real treat! 

--Cathy Sova


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