"How To Dazzle A Duke" by Claudia Dain

Pros: Wonderful humor, development between characters felt completely natural and unforced
Cons: The beginning of this book feels very similar to the plot of her last book
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group


Penelope Prestwick has decided that, since she is of the age to marry, she is going to marry a duke. Enlisting the help of Sophia Dalby, the former courtesan who has married three girls off already this Season, Penelope sets her sights on the Duke of Edenham. But in order to attract the Duke’s attention, she enlists the help of Lord Iveston to appear interested in her in the hope that where a ducal heir goes, another Duke will become interested. To lend an air of authenticity to the chase, Lord Iveston places a bet on White’s betting book that he will be the one to capture her heart. As Society watches Penelope and Iveston together, wagers fly back and forth as to who will win Penelope’s heart.

I’ve been so impatient to get a copy of Claudia Dain’s How to Dazzle a Duke, since I so enjoyed The Courtesan’s Wager. And sure enough there was plenty to love about this book, from the way that the hero and heroine match wits, to the subtle machinations of Sophia Dalby. The first thing that struck me while reading this book, however, was a sense of déjà vu because of the fact that Penelope Prestwick wants to marry a duke (as did Amelia Caversham in the previous book). That repetitive feeling did not last very long for me, however, because the manner in which Penelope goes about getting the attention of both the Marquis of Iveston and the Duke of Edenham is vastly different from Amelia’s strategy.

I absolutely adore the way in which Penelope and Iveston go about courting each other. It is not so much a courtship of attraction (although that element is in there) but almost a battle of wits. Romance novels with this element are among some of my favorites, because I adore the wit and humor that can come out of this verbal sparring and intellectual seduction. Some of the more hilarious conversations take place based on their initial impressions and what they have heard about each other through gossip. Iveston sees Penelope as a bit socially awkward (she’s merely trying to be logical) and Penelope sees Iveston as eccentric and reclusive. Ms. Dain has the genius to arrange the plot so that the characters cannot help but be in contact with each other, and then simply sits back and lets Penelope and Iveston bounce off of each other. This is why, for me, the development of their relationship feels so natural. There are no contrived, clunky plot machinations to attempt to drive the story by external conflict. Instead, both of the characters act as themselves and things progress at a roaring pace from there with just a little help from Sophia at the end.

Another thing that I enjoy about Ms. Dain’s Courtesan series is the way in which Sophia Dalby goes about her matchmaking. Instead of hovering over the characters and controlling or manipulating every moment between them, Sophia is content to let the hero and heroine’s personalities do the work for her, with only brief moments in which she needs to step in and guide the proceedings with a gentle hand. Sophia’s not obvious at all about what she’s doing, either. One of the heroes from a previous novel makes the comment that he knows that Sophia had a hand in his relationship, but he’s not sure how. She can be so subtle that even though I’m a reader, I can’t always catch her sleight of hand. It’s a bit like watching Penn and Teller.

Another little joy of this book for me was watching the reactions of Society to what is happening between Iveston and Penelope. A good chunk of the book takes place at an evening party, and so there is plenty of courtship that takes place in view of the public. Bets are flying back and forth between guests, and some of the male guests are ducking in and out of the party to go place and adjust wagers made on the bets on White’s books. There’s a very funny moment when Iveston’s brother and Lord Penrith make a private wager between them, Iveston’s brother that Penelope will marry Iveston, while Penrith is backing Edenham. The conversation between the two quickly approaches hostility before they settle on a wager, and the deftness with which Ms. Dain paints their posturing made me laugh out loud.

This book was an absolute joy to read, and has definitely earned a spot on my keeper shelf. The brief sense of déjà vu at the beginning of the novel was more than made up for by the interactions between the characters and the absolute hilarity of the storm of wagers that flies around the heads of Penelope and Iveston. Ms. Dain’s love for her characters shines through in the way that she lets them drive the story, as opposed to relying on external conflicts, and when we finally reach the scene at the end of the book where Penelope and Iveston decide to get married, the manner in which Penelope makes sure that Iveston will marry her had me laughing so hard I was crying. This book is full of spirit, heart, humor, and warmth, and I cannot recommend this book, or this series, highly enough.

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