Unexpected and brilliant. This is not your standard historical romance.
A stunning debut for author Evie Dunmore and her Oxford Rebels, in which a fiercely independent vicar’s daughter takes on a duke in a fiery love story that threatens to upend the British social order.
England, 1879. Annabelle Archer, the brilliant but destitute daughter of a country vicar, has earned herself a place among the first cohort of female students at the renowned University of Oxford. In return for her scholarship, she must support the rising women’s suffrage movement. Her charge: recruit men of influence to champion their cause. Her target: Sebastian Devereux, the cold and calculating Duke of Montgomery who steers Britain’s politics at the Queen’s command. Her challenge: not to give in to the powerful attraction she can’t deny for the man who opposes everything she stands for.
Sebastian is appalled to find a suffragist squad has infiltrated his ducal home, but the real threat is his impossible feelings for green-eyed beauty Annabelle. He is looking for a wife of equal standing to secure the legacy he has worked so hard to rebuild, not an outspoken commoner who could never be his duchess. But he wouldn’t be the greatest strategist of the Kingdom if he couldn’t claim this alluring bluestocking without the promise of a ring…or could he?
Locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own, Annabelle will learn just what it takes to topple a duke…
I read a lot of historical romances so I went into this thinking it would be the usual, funny, flirty, light and fluffy read I’ve come to expect but this was so much more.
The blurb does make you think it’s going to be a classic enemies to lovers story (which I do love) or maybe a fairy tale romance with echoes of Beauty and the Beast, there is after all an unconventional heroine who is tasked with changing the view of the brooding hero but it goes a lot deeper than this.
Annabelle Archer does have a bit of a Belle feel to her, she’s the brilliant but poor daughter of a clergyman who after her father, who she was very close to, dies is forced to rely on the charity of her not very nice cousin. But Annabelle wants more out of life than being an over-educated scivvy so when she gets the opportunity to be one of the first women admitted to Oxford University she jumps at it. There’s just one problem, her studies are sponsored by the women’s suffrage movement and she’s been given the job of convincing one of the most influential men in the country to support the cause.
Her target is the elusive Duke of Montgomery, a rich and powerful man who has been tasked by the Queen with making sure the very conservative and traditional Tory party win at the next election. He has a lot at more at stake in this than just keeping the Queen’s favour however and regardless of his own beliefs or his growing attraction for Annabelle he can’t risk failure.
Two people on different sides who can’t help falling in love, so far so tropey right? And it does have a lot of the standard romance scenes, there are misunderstandings, arguments, a rescue (or three) and even the trapped together but it plays around with them and openly acknowledges them for what they are. Our damsel chides herself for falling into the clichés and knows she can’t count on a man to rescue her.
I really loved Annabelle, she is not as naive and innocent as she first appears. She knows from personal experience how dangerous this man’s world is for a single woman with no fortune, family or name to protect her. I liked how independent she was but what I loved was how self aware she was. Annabelle knows that with her relatively low social standing a Duke is not going to marry her but she doesn’t want to just settle for the first man who offers protection and she won’t sacrifice her principles or what little freedom she has. I also loved how loyal she was to her friends and how she constantly tries to protect them.
Sebastian (the Duke) is a little more difficult to like. He’s very reserved, principled and thinks that he knows best about everything. He’s unwilling to compromise or risk his position and reputation and holds himself (and everyone around him) to a ridiculously high standard. There are reasons for this and as these are revealed and his character develops he does grow on you but I’m still not wholly sure I liked him.
With their respective positions this is a relationship that’s doomed from the get go and I loved how realistic the story was around that. Any fantasy around love conquering all is quickly dispelled and while there are some wonderful moments between them reality very quickly comes crashing in to sour them. The obstacles between them seem insurmountable and I genuinely had no idea where the story would go. The chances of it ending badly were just as high as everyone living happily ever after.
For a debut novel this truly is impressive. The pacing is spot on and the writing is witty and clever. What I love most though is how accurately it captures the attitudes and issues of the time. I will confess to being largely ignorant of what it was really like to be a woman in that time or even the challenges the women’s suffrage movement faced. Most historical romances tend to pick different time periods when women were happier or at least more accepting of their lot. I think the author did a wonderful job of portraying the challenges of the time without glossing over them.
Overall this was an absolutely wonderful and unexpected read and I highly recommend.
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Thanks to the publisher and netgalley for providing me with an advance copy. This has in no way influenced my review.