Daring the Duke by Anne Mallory
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-076223-3
At one point the hero of Daring the Duke observes, “He couldn’t remember being this irritated with a woman before. Usually women were so pliable. So happy. So docile.”

Well, it’s apparent the duke doesn’t know women all that well, but he’s absolutely right about the heroine.

She thinks and acts in ways that often make no sense, withholds crucial information for no good reason, and behaves with the freedom of a woman in the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. The wonder is that the duke doesn’t turn her over to the hangman to put himself and the reader out of their misery. The plain vanilla hero isn’t as annoying as the heroine, but his willingness to put up with her antics defies common sense.

The murky plot fails to redeem the characters. It’s got a lot of holes (boy! does it have holes!), and it takes effort to make any sense of it. Real life may amble around with aimless meanders at an uneven pace, but a work of fiction should have a plan.

The year is 1824. (This is an important fact because it would impossible to figure out the time period if it weren’t established right at the start.) Stephen Chalmers, Duke of Marston, has identified the notorious thief Hermes. She’s Audrey Kendrick. Audrey has been sneaking into houses, stealing documents, and replacing them with false documentation in order to mess up shipping schedules. She’s doing this because Travers, a high officer in the Exchequer, is forcing her to do so. (It seems an unnecessarily complicated way for Travers to accomplish his nefarious ends, but the only significant thing about it is that it puts Audrey and Stephen in each other’s path.)

Audrey’s father died when she and her sister Faye were very young. Her mother remarried Maddox then died soon after. Maddox ran through their money then sold the two girls to Flanagan, who runs a theft ring. (His name should remind you of Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist–same kind of set-up.) For many years Audrey was a skilled pickpocket and thief. (She states she was raised in the country and learned to appreciate literature from her parents, but this conflicts with her age and the London crime history.) Finally she and her sister retired to the country leaving their life of crime behind. (Audrey doesn’t understand the concept of statute of limitations. Retiring to the country doesn’t mean their many, many crimes are forgiven.)

A year later Travers arranges to have the two young women thrown into Newgate under false names. (There’s ample reason to toss them in the pokey for the crimes they’ve committed so there’s no need for the false identities.) Audrey is released, but Faye is still in prison. Audrey’s only hope of freeing her sister is to follow Travers’ orders. She’s living again with her stepfather, Maddox, who seems to have some entry into society. (Why Travers and Maddox are in this together is another inexplicable plot element.)

Stephen catches Audrey in the act of stealing papers, but rather than turning her over to the authorities, he keeps her around trying to understand what’s going on. (He’s not the only one who doesn’t understand!) Audrey has multiple chances to tell all to Stephen and get his help in freeing her sister, but no, no she can’t do that. She can’t endanger her sister. (Faye’s already in prison; the vile Travers is holding her hostage to force Audrey to commit criminal, possibly treasonous, acts. And she’s worried that telling Stephen is going to endanger her sister further?)

Meanwhile, Audrey’s wearing pants and climbing in and out of windows, jaunting around London without a chaperon, dropping in on the duke for no reason, spending the night in his spare room, going to parties that no respectable woman would attend, and worrying worrying worrying about her sister. (Tell Stephen for heaven’s sake!)

Oh, by the way, it seems that Audrey saved Stephen from drowning in the author’s first book, Masquerading the Marquess, but he doesn’t know. And Stephen, who’s recently inherited the title, is about to learn that his estate is in big financial trouble.

Well, there’s more. Unfortunately much, much more. None of it making any more sense than the rest.

And did I mention this is all terribly boring?

TRR reviewers don’t give one-heart ratings lightly. But when a book has a nearly incomprehensible plot, unappealing characters, a lack of connection with its stated time period, and is a chore to read, there’s really no choice but one heart. Daring the Duke deserves no more.

--Lesley Dunlap

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