I received this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
It’s been a while since Courtney Milan’s last full-length historical novel (After the Wedding, 2018) and as a devoted follower on Twitter, I know that the last few years have been difficult for her because people are terrible and stupid. You might expect her first book to be a fluffy, delightful farce that distracts us all from the dumpster fire of 2020.
You’d be right.
You’d also be terribly wrong.
Somehow, this book manages to walk a very fine balance between being brilliantly charming, fluffy, delightful, and funny while making the reality of characters so heartbreakingly real and devastating that I found myself tearing up at several parts of this book. I don’t understand how some authors do this — how I can go from laughing like a maniac to reminding myself that the characters aren’t real and everything is okay.
That is the Milan brand, and it’s something I’ve been familiar with since I picked up Proof of Seduction on a whim in 2010. That book is good — startlingly good — but it was the second book, Trial by Desire, with her depiction of a hero struggling to overcome depression that put her at the top of all my lists and she’s never faltered.
The Duke Who Didn’t is the story of Miss Chloe Fong who loves to make lists and Jeremy, the Duke of Lansing who owns the entire village where Chloe lives — a fact he has never told Chloe or anyone else in Wedgeford. He tried to kiss her one day, and she told him that he needed to be serious. He left, and it’s been three years since she’s seen him. He’s back — and wants her help to make a list of her qualities so he can get married.
Chloe is Chinese, living in a village filled with people who might not be stereotypically British (read: white) and Jeremy is the half-Chinese, half-British duke who has struggled to fit into British society. Asking Chloe to marry him means asking her to live in his world — a world he’s not even sure he belongs in.
Chloe had me the minute she started talking about making her lists in Chapter 1. The concept of making a list of what could be done if life went absolutely perfectly, then judging herself as a failure because perfection was impossible — if that’s not my life, I don’t know what it is. I make lists for everything. I love to check things off. I also know the pain of making a list that never gets finished and an inability to set realistic goals because people are depending on me and I need to finish things when they need to be done — not when it’s convenient for my sanity.
I love Chloe Fong.
The first time we meet Jeremy, we see his charm from Chloe’s POV, and then we switch to his thoughts. That is the smartest thing Courtney Milan could have done. If we had listened to that first conversation entirely from Chloe’s POV, Jeremy might seem too charming. Too irreverent. But reading his dialogue along with his inner thoughts — you know that there’s more. There’s real substance and as his story unfolds throughout the novel, I really started to wonder if he had a point — could he and Chloe be happy? In Britain? To make me wonder, even for a minute, how the ending could be a HEA is a feat that most authors can’t manage. Courtney Milan always does.
This is a deceptively charming book that will make you smile, laugh, think, cry, and then when you’re done—you’ll want to read it again because there’s a twist at the end of the book that will make you wonder — does it actually work? Does the author play fair with us?
And yes. It completely works, and it makes that second read-through all the more better because now you’re all in on the secret — except for one of the characters. And it’s fricking delightful.
This is a great book with a gorgeous romance, three-dimensional characters, and a world that feels so real that I’m legit mad that I can’t go to Wedgeford, taste the Wedgeford Brown sauce, and play in the Trials. I can’t wait to see where Courtney Milan takes this series next.
The twist is that everyone already knows Jeremy is the Duke which makes complete sense because, as several characters point out, how many half-Chinese dukes are running around Great Britain?
I wasn’t surprised when Mr. Fong confronted Jeremy with that fact, but I was slightly surprised when Chloe revealed that everyone knew it. I wasn’t sure if I could quite buy it — so I reread and yeah — it’s not that Chloe doesn’t know. It’s that Jeremy hasn’t told her. He hasn’t told her his real name — and she says from the beginning that she knows it’s not Jeremy Yu. She’s waiting for him to trust her with the truth.
I was so happy that this not only tracked throughout the book, but it also gave me a deeper appreciation for the characters and for the relationship. I also adore that the true conflict between this couple isn’t the keeping of the secret — it’s so much more than that. The secret is the least of their problems, and I’m glad it’s not a typical dark moment in the relationship.
Can we make this work? Can Jeremy bring himself to ask Chloe to join him in a world that doesn’t value or respect him? And the answer is well, no. But Jeremy and Chloe can create their world where the respect of morons doesn’t matter nearly as much. And that’s the better ending.
Also — that preview chapter for The Devil Comes Courting? Um, I need that immediately.