Sunday, 17 January 2016

#CBR8 Book 1: "Dukes Prefer Blondes" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Clara Fairfax, eldest daughter of the Marquess of Warford and sister to the Earl of Longmore, was raised to marry a duke. The Duke of Clevedon, to be precise, but he ended up falling in love with a dressmaker instead. Not that Clara is lacking in high-born suitors. Twice a week they show up in her mother's drawing room to ask for her hand in marriage and Clara, well bred lady that she is, politely refuses them. Clara wants to make a difference. She wants to make her mark in the world. However, no matter how wealthy and powerful her father and brother are, how rich and privileged she is, the fact remains that on her own, as an unmarried lady, there is very little she can do. She bestows as much patronage as she can on the girls apprenticed with the Milliners' Society, but when a girl comes to her, confessing that her brother's been taken in by a gang of street thieves, she is determined to get the boy back, no matter how difficult or dangerous it proves.

She seeks out Oliver "Raven" Radford, a barrister famous for championing the cause of the poor. Radford was a schoolfriend of her brother's, but she hasn't seen him since she was a girl, trying to pummel his unfortunate cousin Bernard for teasing him. Now the odious cousin Bernard is a duke, and through a strange set of events, Raven is second in line to inherit. He has no wish to do so, and does his very best to get his cousin's financial affairs, not to mention health in order, so the man can go on to re-marry, sire heirs and live a long life, not bothering Raven or his ailing father, who just want to practise law in peace.

While most men are struck dumb by Clara's staggering beauty (and/or the overwhelming outfits she wears), Raven is merely very curious as to why she has sought him out. Highly intelligent and ambitious, he's used to being the smartest person in the room at any given time, and doesn't bother to hide his disdain for the stupidity of others. He wants to become a judge and perhaps even rise to Lord Chancellor one day, and helping Lady Clara Fairfax search the slums of London for a kidnapped street urchin is not the way to go about such things. Yet he cannot forget the little girl who jumped on his cousin's back and chipped a tooth biting him, and when Clara actually loses her carefully maintained composure and actually yells at him, confessing what a gilded cage she is stuck in, frustrated by all the unfairness in the world and unable to do a thing about it, Raven promises to help, even though he knows it's a bloody stupid idea. As they work together, Raven is surprised to discover that while she may be angelically beautiful, Lady Clara also has one of the sharpest minds he's ever encountered, often able to keep up even with him. He begins to understand how stifled she feels by society's rules for women and keeps going against his better judgement to allow her to participate in the search for the orphan boy.

The urchin in question is eventually rescued, but Clara pays a high price for her impulsiveness while on the rescue mission. Struck down with typhoid fever, she is close to death, and Raven, having been alerted by Clara's irate maid, takes it upon himself to nurse her back to health, as he already survived it. The high society doctors refuse to even believe a marquess' daughter could have contracted such a disease and their suggested treatments would kill her for sure. Clara's dowager aunt has no choice but to accept the obnoxious barrister's help if she wants her niece to have any chance of survival. During her long recovery, Raven and Clara's maid work in shifts to monitor and care for her. Nearly a month later, Clara is well again, and the unflappable and arrogant Raven Radford, barrister extraordinaire, has been added to the list of men who want Clara as his wife. Once Clara provokes him enough to confess his true feelings, they just needs to convince her parents that he will be a suitable match for her.

Lady Clara has been a supporting character in the previous Dressmaker books, but as I was extremely underwhelmed by the first two in the series, I can't be bothered to go back and re-read to see exactly how she appeared in those books. Suffice to say, you can easily read this book without any previous knowledge of the series, as it stands fine on its own. Chase has taken two characters that could be absolutely unbearable and made them not only a suitable match for each other, but very entertaining to read about. Lady Clara has been raised in the lap of luxury, always knowing that her ambitious mama wanted her to be a duchess one day. Suitors without titles or with very low ones need not apply for her hand in marriage. She has a dresses that cost enough to feed a family for a year and the freedom to move about London as she chooses. She is stunningly beautiful. Yet she's discouraged from reading and improving her mind or wanting to spend too much time bestowing charity on the poor seamstresses of the Milliner's Society. Until she gets married, she is under the control of her father and brother and once she does get married, her husband will have total power over her and the frighteningly large dowry she'll bring to the marriage. Most men see only her face and figure and completely disregard her formidable brain.

Clara has had many suitors and while she has been very sheltered, she knows what attraction feels like. While Raven Radford may be the most infuriating man she's ever met, he also makes her heart beat faster and after their first encounters, he actually seems to listen to her and see not just her polished looks, but Clara as a whole person. After he drops everything at his cousin's estate and rushes back to London to nurse her back to health, she has all the proof she needs that this man would make her the perfect husband. She just needs to provoke him into proposing and hope he is clever enough to win over her parents.

Raven Radford was clearly an obnoxious little oaf even as a child. While he may have been the grandson of a duke, his father became a barrister and married a divorced woman, causing quite the scandal. His many rich cousins tried to make his life hell in school, without much success. Always aware that he's most likely smarter than those around him, Raven grew up to be just as arrogant and frustratingly rude as he was as a child. He doesn't suffer fools and has made many enemies as a result. He assumes Clara is a pretty, yet frivolous lady, bored with her lot in life and seeking some adventure. He keeps being proven wrong, and while he has managed to keep his baser instincts firmly buried to get ahead in life, being as frustrated by lady Clara as she is by him makes it impossible for him to retain a professional distance. Raven, rudely blunt and annoyed at the stupidity of everyone around him, reminded me a lot of Doctor Jonas Grantham, one of my favourite romance heroes. It would also not at all surprise me if Chase has modelled him on Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes - there were similarities there in both looks and demeanour. Neither of these things made him any less attractive to me.

The plot of the book, it must be said, is a bit all over the place. It starts out with Clara's mission to rescue the street urchin from the band of thieves, intertwined with Raven's difficulties in getting his cousin to take his role as Duke seriously. Then there's Clara's illness, followed by Raven having to win her parents over. They get married and have to negotiate married life together, all the while nefarious individuals from the criminal underworld are determined to have their revenge on Raven, and possibly his new wife. Raven's father is old and ailing, his cousin Bernard the duke is oafish and reckless. It's mentioned enough times that Raven is second in line for a dukedom that it'll come to no surprise to anyone at all, when the Radfords suddenly have a change of status. Here, at least, Clara comes into her own, having been trained from girlhood to manage large households.

I can see why Chase might have thought that just having Raven and Clara meet and try to negotiate their relationship might have been a bit dull, so she had to throw in criminal court cases and police raids and vengeful crime bosses with colourful side kicks to spice things up a bit. I don't think it was necessary at all, but it didn't detract or derail the story enough that I was annoyed either. While I found it extremely unlikely that the French seamstresses of slightly dubious descent all ended up married to a duke, an earl and a marquess, it doesn't actually seem that inappropriate for the daughter of a marquess to marry a man second in line to a dukedom. While Raven doesn't hold a noble title at the point in which he proposes to Clara, he's clearly of good family and with his ambitions, would have risen to a position of prominence in society, even if he weren't likely to inherit a dukedom.

If you've liked Chase's books in the past, but were scared away because of the first two books in the Dressmaker series, I have good news for you. This book is, while not Chase at her best, a very enjoyable read, especially if you don't mind obnoxiously rude men being brought low by love. It celebrates intelligence in both its protagonists and continues to give insight into the truly ridiculous fashions of the late Georgian, early Victorian era. The scene where Raven falls asleep on his wedding night waiting for hours for Clara to have her gown properly removed made me laugh. Look elsewhere for your bodice ripping.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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