I read this book in December, but I never got around to fleshing out my thoughts, so here is my belated review of A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall.
I’d been hankering for a good trans romance after enjoying the Portland Symphony series by London Price. This one had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t picked it up because I had this idea that I wouldn’t like historical romance. But then again, I hadn’t read any contemporary romance before reading Price’s books, and I loved them, so I figured it was time to expand my horizons beyond the cozy zone of fantasy romance where I spend half my reading time.
The setup is laid out nicely in the Goodreads blurb:
When Viola Carroll was presumed dead at Waterloo, she took the opportunity to live, at last, as herself. But freedom does not come without a price, and Viola paid for hers with the loss of her wealth, her title, and her closest companion, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood.
Only when their families reconnect, years after the war, does Viola learn how deep that loss truly was. Shattered without her, Gracewood has retreated so far into grief that Viola barely recognises her old friend in the lonely, brooding man he has become.
As Viola strives to bring Gracewood back to himself, fresh desires give new names to old feelings. Feelings that would have been impossible once and may be impossible still, but which Viola cannot deny. Even if they cost her everything, all over again.
WOW what a gorgeous book. The relationship is so beautifully done, and the trans themes are carried out with seemingly effortless perfection. The writer manages to show us the challenges Viola faces passing in the post-Napoleonic era without centering the story around her transness. It’s a friends-to-lovers romance, and while one of the characters is a trans woman, it never feels like it’s about that. It’s about the love between two people coming to terms with how the war changed them and how they feel about each other, how they’ve always felt about each other: that they are the most important people in each other’s lives.
The writing is absolutely stunning, proving once again that the anti-romance bias in some literary criticism is DEAD WRONG. Hall crafts gorgeous sentences that slingshot the reader through the early parts of the book, where we get a perfect setup: grumpy alcoholic war veteran who has given up on himself slowly returns to life as he gets to know a woman who seems oddly familiar, but he can’t place just why. The growing closeness between the two, the little moments of flirtation, of will-they-won’t-they, are an absolute delight, and I was head over heels in love with this book for the entire first half.
My favorite scene: the shaving scene where Viola helps Gracewood shave because his hands aren’t steady enough to do it himself. Gods, how sweet, sexy, perfect. Hall had some interesting things to say about that scene in the interview I did with him a short while ago, which is linked at the bottom of this review.
What I didn’t love: the pacing fell off about halfway through with subplots that were fine, but to me didn’t add to the main attraction, the romance between the two main characters. The plot felt a little bloated in the second half, but it doesn’t change how much I loved the book, and the ending was fantastic.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how outstanding the sex scenes are: hot and tender all at once, with some negotiation about what is and isn’t okay, what the two characters do and don’t want, which frankly is something I could use more of in romance. Once again, the trans themes are dealt with perfectly by both the author and the characters. Gracewood is an absolute peach, open, considerate, and willing to do whatever it takes to make his partner happy. And Viola handles Gracewood’s disability related to his war injuries with aplomb, and the result is some of the most emotionally satisfying and frankly thrilling sex scenes I have read.
If you’re a fan of historical romance, I expect you’ll love this fresh take on some classic tropes.
And if, like me, you’ve never read a historical romance before but the idea of a transfem lead in a historical romance sounds great, look no further.
In short: READ THE BOOK.