It's always refreshing to read a historical romance set in a slightly different time period. Published this month by Sourcebooks, Shana Galen's The Making of a Duchess is set in 1801 England, after the Treaty of Amiens that saw a temporary cessation of the Napoleonic Wars. Sarah Smith, a governess, is horrified when her employer proposes she spy for England, but when he threatens to turn her out onto the streets, she agrees. Sent to the home of Julien Harcourt, duc de Valère, a French emigré, she poses as Serafina Artois, a friend of the duc's family who no-one has seen since before the Revolution. The Foreign Office suspects Harcourt is carrying English secrets to his homeland on his frequent journeys across the Channel and Sarah must find proof. In reality, Julien is searching for his long-lost brother, Armand, who he and his mother were forced to leave behind when they fled their home during a peasant uprising in 1789.
Julien's mother hopes for a match between Serafina and her son and is delighted by the young woman who arrives, but begins to suspect there is more to the situation when Sarah's social gaffes mount. Nervous that she'll be caught and unprepared for the many social situation she faces, Sarah works quickly to find the necessary information that will set her free. But when she and Julien are caught in a compromising situation and marriage is called for, Sarah learns her employer expects her to follow through. What will her new husband think when he learns he has married an orphaned governess? And when she learns that Julien is no spy, can she work with him to outwit her employer? Or will they both perish?
Ms. Galen has fashioned a believable love story between two sympathetic characters. Though I found the story a bit slow to get going, once Sarah and Julien started working together and fighting their attraction for each other, I was hooked. Julien is a perfect hero - handsome, kind and considerate, yet tortured enough to have a dark side he can't always control. Sarah is more than a match for him, quickly overcoming her inital intimidation to stand up to him. Her character development from nervous young woman to confident duchess is delightful to follow. They soon learn that together they are stronger and their love for each other is genuine and brought to life vividly.
I loved the historical details, the social interactions at the various public events Sarah and Julien attend and the steadily increasing pace of the story as pressure mounts on Sarah and Julien to prove his innocence. But what I appreciated most was the author's skill at advancing the story without falling back on clichéd devices. At one point I thought for certain she would go one way with the plot and was so happy when she chose instead to go with a more believable way that did justice to her protagonists. Also, there are a couple of little plot points that I figured out quite early, but this did not detract from the story and my feeling is the author meant for her readers to make these discoveries well before her characters do.
So if you love well-written, historical romance with lots of detail, interesting and engaging characters and plots with twists and turns, I highly recommend you pick up The Making of a Duchess.