Creating an engaging romance is an art form, requiring an almost supernatural ability to tease and captivate a reader. This is especially true for period romances, which have the additional hurdle of transporting a modern reader into an unrecognizable world. What grounds a historical romance is its characters, who must draw the reader in and give them a foothold into a time gone by. With A Lady For a Duke, Alexis Hall has created a masterpiece that isn’t just good by romance standards. It is easily my favorite book of the year so far across all genres, and the central love story will linger with its audience long after it is over.
A Lady For a Duke follows Viola Carroll, a former soldier presumed dead at Waterloo who used the chaos of the battle to finally live as her true self. She is content with a quiet life, not daring to hope for much more. But she still worries about the Duke of Gracewood, her best friend that she left behind. The duke was devastated and broken emotionally by the loss of his dearest friend, as well as the PTSD and physical injuries he sustained during the war. He isolates himself in Northumberland, unwilling to face the world and dealing with internalized ableism along with addiction.
When his younger sister Miranda sends a letter to Viola’s benefactor and sister-in-law Lady Marleigh hinting at Gracewood’s struggles, she decides that the younger Gracewood needs to be rescued. Lady Marleigh, knowing Viola’s history with the duke, decides she knows just the thing to help Gracewood and Miranda: she and Viola will visit. If anyone can cheer him up, it will be Viola, right? What follows is an emotional reunion as Viola sees the impact her “death” had on the man she once loved. She struggles with how much of herself to share with a shattered Gracewood as he tries to understand why he finds himself drawn to the mysterious and vaguely familiar lady’s companion.
The characters in A Lady For a Duke are all beautifully drawn. Viola is an instantly sympathetic protagonist who makes for a wonderful heroine. Her reaction at finding Gracewood still devastated by her “death” years later is heartbreaking, particularly when she struggles with whether to tell him that she is the friend he lost. You root for her instantly, wanting her to find happiness and joy in a world that deprives her of it. Gracewood is, without a doubt, one of the best leading men in recent memory. He is best described as a combination of Rochester from Jane Eyre and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, but he is so unique that it almost does him a disservice to make the comparison at all. The scenes from his perspective that delve more deeply into his PTSD and the lingering effects of his war wounds were some of the strongest scenes in the whole novel.
But it is the chemistry between him and Viola that really stands out. From pet names to lovely monologues confessing deeply hidden feelings, Hall knows how to write an emotionally fulfilling main couple. With Viola and Gracewood, you want them both to find love for different but equally as important reasons. Watching them find their way back to each other is a journey, one that will have you turning the pages as fast as possible. One of the aspects I most loved was the tender dialogue that will leave readers gasping in both delight and heartache. Every conversation between Viola and Gracewood feels intimate, like the reader is invited into a private moment. The only word to describe it is beautiful, and yet that word is inadequate for how Viola and Gracewood’s unfolding love story will make you feel.
Readers more familiar with Hall’s modern romantic comedies like Boyfriend Material should be aware that A Lady For a Duke has a much darker tone and deals frankly with difficult subject matter. While as a cisgender woman, I cannot speak to the accuracy of Hall’s portrayal of Viola’s experience, I found the depiction of her life as a transgender woman to be moving. Gracewood’s arc dealing with his chronic pain and mental health is handled with care and thoughtfulness from the start. For readers worried that a period-accurate romance novel couldn’t possibly contain diverse characters and stories, rest assured that Hall takes a modern approach to his characters and to the history he depicts. While transphobia and racism certainly exist and are depicted, a happy and satisfying ending is reached.
There are only a few books in my life that I have reached the end of, closed, and immediately wanted to read again. A Lady For a Duke joins that list, and the second read is just as rich and gorgeous as the first. A swoon-worthy and touching queer romance, this novel is one to be savored.
A Lady For a Duke is available today wherever books are sold.