In Which We Jointly Review “I Spy a Duke” – and find it falls short of expectations

I Spy a DukeI Spy a Duke by Erica Monroe
Quillfire Publishing: October 5th, 2015 (Historical Romance)

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

At long last, another joint review! Jaclyn and I compete for your attention in this post.

We had high hopes for this one, but this was a bit of a dud for both of us. Do you agree with us? Disagree? What did you think of I Spy a Duke?

If you were hoping for a duel, or a joint review in which we at least both liked the book, don’t despair! We’ll have another joint post coming up in which we review Juliet Marillier’s Tower of Thorns.

The Book…

In the first in an adventurous new series, USA Today Bestselling Author Erica Monroe introduces the Covert Heiresses: four women who by day are the talk of the ton, and by night England’s top spies.

She wants revenge…

When bluestocking Vivian Loren becomes the governess for the wealthy Spencer family, she’s searching for clues about the murder of her brother, not a husband. But Vivian didn’t count on James Spencer, the infuriatingly handsome Duke of Abermont.

He needs a wife…

As head of Britain’s elite intelligence agency, James has no time to woo a wife. When he discovers Vivian’s quest for answers has made her a pawn in a treacherous plot, James realizes they can help each other. She’ll become his duchess, and he’ll keep her safe from one of Napoleon’s deadliest spies.

What begins as a marriage of convenience quickly becomes anything but, as they find out love is the most dangerous mission of all.

Stacey’s Adventure

False start (could not finish)
No suitcases

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that Jaclyn and I have slightly different tastes in genre fiction: she favors romance, while I prefer science fiction and fantasy. But in the end, it’s all genre fiction, and we both read across genres. In this joint post, I review the first historical romance I’ve reviewed in quite some time. My last was probably Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden.

Anyway, generally I enjoy modern twists in historical romances. Such as female spies. Not this time – I could not get into this book. The most prominent issues for me were the melodrama and the internal monologues.

The story opens with the two protagonists bonding over lost loved ones, which just did not seem authentic to me. Everyone has their own ways of grieving, and the experiences of these two characters did not ring true for me. I could not relate.

I found myself bored by the narrators’ lengthy internal monologues. The world-building and descriptions of the environment suffer for it, and the action seems not as urgent or immediate. I would rather read about actions, and be able to infer emotions from described body language, than listen to a character gnawing over their own thoughts. If you like that sort of thing, you might enjoy this tale.

I also found the 18th-century-women-spies to be unbelievable in this case. It has been done well in several novels, but with its other issues, this book did not win me over. See the Similar Reads at the end of this post for a few examples of historical female spies I have enjoyed. The other unbelievable aspect? The romance. They have one conversation at the beginning of the novel, and suddenly they’re in love. Even the hero remarks on it in one of his long internal monologues. There’s no mention of any historical attraction, or none that I believed or remembered, anyway.

Read to page 60 (Once a time I promised 100 pages, but sometimes, even that is too much).

Jaclyn’s Adventure

The view was nice, but the food was bad.

Like Stacey, I didn’t have a great experience with I Spy a Duke. As she mentions, I read a lot more historical romance, so I was prepared to enjoy reading it more than she did. This was not to be.

I Spy a Duke is grounded in one of my favourite historical romance tropes: the marriage of convenience. Couple this with spies? This was a recipe for success! Unfortunately, I Spy a Duke missed the mark for me and I ended up skimming the last third of the book. The premise was great, the execution left something to be desired.

From the start, I Spy a Duke was melodramatic and underwhelming in the romance and spying departments. The book begins with a frank conversation between James (the Duke Who’s a Spy) and Vivian (the governess who’s spying on the Duke). This conversation revolves around their shared grief of those that they have lost, thus creating a connection between the two. However, the connection came across as contrived and forced. Vivian comes across James after he’s cut his hand after manfully squeezing a drinking glass too hard. James is immediately charmed by Vivian’s lack of hysterics over the injury and overcome by her ability to “field dress” his wound. Dude, you’ve cut your hand. Methinks you’re reading way too much into the situation.

The opening scene is just one of many instances when the hero (and later the heroine) ascribe deeply felt emotions to rather innocuous events. For me, the disconnect between the event and the emotions that the event caused in the character (i.e. love, respect etc.) contributed to the overall lack of depth to I Spy a Duke. Quite frankly, I never bought that James loved Vivian or vice versa. James continually set Vivan’s average, everyday actions on a pedestal and it just didn’t work as a means to give their romance a solid foundation.

The spying element, like the romance, also seemed lackluster. The spy training that Vivian undergoes was a little, well, boring. Fencing and a few self-defense tips do not make a spy. So, if you were hoping for a stronger suspense theme here, I think you might be disappointed. I’m all for the lighthearted side of spying (Pink Carnation, anyone?) but I don’t think I Spy a Duke really carried this off. Personally, I found the spy details and the suspense plot to be ambiguous and suffering from the same incongruity that was evident in the romance between James and Vivian.

Ultimately, I Spy a Duke started out with a strong premise but its high level of melodrama (both romantic and suspense-related) with little emotional connection to support its characters left me feeling underwhelmed.

The Verdict

While Jaclyn found I Spy a Duke worth some merit, we both agree that I Spy a Duke could have been a better read. There are a lot of spy books out there and this one just doesn’t live up to the numerous predecessors. Read on for recommendations for better reads featuring spies.

Similar Reads

Not only do we have some recommended follow-up reads, We also has an awesome list featuring spies. Let’s face it, spies are an awesome trope in fiction in general and in historical romance in particular. We’ve got your reading list covered with Top 10: Spies and Spying (and we even include some titles that aren’t categorized as historical romance).

If you’re looking for a sexy historical romance with intrepid, brave, clever heroines smart, determined heroes, and plenty of action. danger, and excitement, Stacey definitely recommends Joanna Bourne’s Spymasters series. The Spymaster’s Lady is Stacey’s favorite.

We both agree that Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series is a delightful foray into fictional female spies in history. All the books in the series follow the spies themselves, and also a modern sleuth, Eloise, as she investigates the Pink Carnation and her team of spies for her PhD. Jaclyn has loved the latest book in the series; see her reviews of The Garden Intrigue, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, and The Lure of the Moonflower.

If these sound interesting, you need to read the original romantic spy novel by Baroness Orczy. You’ll have heard of it, it’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. The spy in this one is a man (it was written in the early 20th, after all), but it has the same light texture and adventurous plot, with a standard romantic arc. Do check it out! And if you’re into classic movies, watch the black and white version of this. So. Good.

Liked this post? You may also enjoy…

Our joint review of Uprooted

Our duel review of Murder of Crows

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