By Arrangement

By Design

By Possession

Lord of a Thousand Nights

The Protector

The Seducer

The Charmer by Madeline Hunter
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58591-6
Thanks to the problematic “Duchess in her own right” scenario, I struggled through the first pages of this book. My perseverance was rewarded.

By 1831, the fun and games of the Regency are long gone and England looks bound for its own revolution as the ‘commoners’ demand more rights and the ‘nobles’ retrench. That’s why Sophie Raughley, the new Duchess of Everdon, must end eight years of self-indulgent exile in Paris and return to England. While her father was alive and had hopes of a male heir, no one cared what Sophie did, but when she inherits the King demands her return. She must accept her responsibilities – i.e. marry some man competent to wield Everdon’s power.

To ensure Sophie’s obedience, King William sends Adrian Burchard to bring the new duchess back. The third son of an Earl and an intimate of Wellington, Adrian has a reputation for getting things done.

Sophie, whose wealth has purchased a luxurious lifestyle and a coterie of sycophantic artistes in Paris, has zero desire to return to England. She’s not anxious to assume the privileges of her rank, particularly since they consist primarily of being married off to Gerald Stidolph, a man her father apparently approved of, but whom she despises. Nonetheless, thanks to Adrian, Sophie finds herself on a boat for England.

Once there, she finds herself in an uneasy alliance with Adrian. She manages, at least temporarily, to deflect the marriage, but, in the absence of a husband, the consensus is that someone must protect her – and prevent her from running off again. The need for protection isn’t just a ruse; she’s being attacked by a radical who signs himself ‘Captain Brutus’ and threatens to harm her if she does not support reform. Adrian is to ensure that neither of those dire events takes place.

I enjoyed the first two-thirds of this book very much. In spite of the complex external events, this part of the book is very much character driven and the author does a wonderful job of slowly peeling the layers from these two complex people.

Sophie, while convincing, is perhaps the less interesting of the two. Her motivations are more straightforward and better explained, so she is less mysterious. Her knee-jerk desire to thwart her late father’s ambitions may not be ignoble, but it isn’t exactly noble either.

It is fun to watch as she learns to flex her duchess muscles, though, and encouraging to see her find the positive reasons to accept her responsibilities. She also understands that men underestimate her. What a nice change to watch a heroine use this to her advantage rather than throwing tantrums over it. In fact, in spite of her insecurities, one of the few things that truly unnerves Sophie is her attraction to Adrian, because it is difficult to be sure of his motives towards her.

The fact that the reader must share her uncertainty is just one of the things that makes Adrian a fascinating character. His powers of observation just add to the appeal. At the beginning of the book, he finds Sophie in a very compromising position. Rather than simply labeling her a slut, Adrian actually pays attention to what she does and draws further conclusions without prejudice. It is also nice to see how his empathy with her background affects him – getting to know her changes him in ways he never expected.

In fact, both characters are a nice blend of strengths and vulnerabilities. Ms. Hunter also has a lovely way with the telling gesture, small moments that reveal character more convincingly than three paragraphs of earnest explanation.

Unfortunately, the spotlight eventually shifts from the characters to external events and the story loses steam. The characters stop revealing much new and start to repeat themselves. Since their developing romance was so absorbing, the change of focus was not particularly welcome. Sophie, herself, made couple of dubious decisions that felt contrived, and the total effect was a sense of failing momentum.

In spite of the less than stellar bookends, I found a lot to enjoy in this book. I have not read the previous installments in the series, but I plan to now.

-- Judi McKee

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