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There were times when I felt that Rachael Miles's Jilting the Duke didn't read like a conventional debut novel: For one, it's amazing how skillfully she handled so many different threads and create this complex, and layered novel. There's the tangle of spies, subterfuge, and secret codes hidden in Tom's manuscripts. There's the story of Sophia's re-entry into society. There's the Somerville siblings (Aidan, Colin, etc.) and Sophia's extended family.
Then there's the very clever way she talks about Malcolm and Audrey, supporting characters whose story happens before Aidan and Sophia's. The author intersperses snippets of their story with Aidan and Sophia', and, though we only get a small portion of their story, one can sense that the author has already mapped out the world and characters surrounding Aidan and Sophia.
At its core, Jilting the Duke is a story about second chances: Before he left for war, Aidan and Sophia were young lovers who were secretly engaged. While away at war, Aidan receives devastating news that Sophia had married his best friend, Tom. All contact between the friends stopped then, and Aidan has been seething and wondering all these years.
When Tom dies, he grants joint guardianship of his son, Ian, to Aidan and Sophia. Aidan sees it as an opportunity for revenge against his former lover. Sophia knows she will need to face the long-delayed reckoning, and she has no choice but to trust in her late husband's decision. It's a complicated arrangement, and the mastermind is a man who isn't even there. Tom's dead, but, before he died, he knew he needed to make things right between his childhood best friend, and his wife.
I have to hand to it Tom -- he had little time left, but he used that time very wisely. He made arrangements for his wife and son, he wrote letters and bequeathed very thoughtful items to members of his family, extended family, and staff. There were moments as I read about Tom that I vacillated between thinking that he was the most organized, most thoughtful person (real and fictional) that I've ever known, and thinking that he was the most controlling, micro-managing person (real and fictional) that I've ever known.
The opening chapter shows that, despite the perceived betrayal, Aidan had always considered Tom his friend, and had wondered and worried about his sudden death. I love that the author highlights how enduring love is, but how equally enduring (and more resilient) friendship is.
Aidan's plan of revenge was quite ruthless. It was scary how calculating he was in his actions and reactions to Sophia. He intended to gain her confidence, find something that could damage her reputation, and destroy her in the most public way. It's also very convenient that Aidan has connections to the Home Office, so he could easily cast doubts on Sophia's loyalty to England. But, despite the numerous opportunities, Aidan never exacts his revenge on Sophia. At every chance, his love for her overpowers his need for revenge. It's especially poignant when our hero and heroine finally have the conversation, and all their questions are finally answered.
While our initial impression of Aidan is that he is cold and calculating, as the story unfolds, Aidan is shown to be quite an amazing (and incredibly lovable) hero. It's amazing to see just how much he loved Sophia, and how much he valued Tom's friendship, which would explain how deeply wounded he felt when she married Tom. We also see how deeply involved he is in Ian's life. But the author is quick to show that our hero isn't perfect -- he made poor decisions as well, and he's trying to fix them in the story.
Sophia is also an interesting heroine. Her entire life, she was always on the fringes of things: she was distantly related to a title, and the early death of her mother made for a rocky childhood. Plus, her brother, Phineas, is annoying. Meeting Aidan allowed her to embrace and accept all her unique abilities and talents, but, it was, ironically, her marriage to Tom, that really allowed her to take flight. I loved reading Ian's stories about his parents and their work. Tom and Sophia had a really wonderful marriage and partnership.
Which made me wonder about love -- and I appreciate that Rachael Miles has presented us with a story not about our "one true love" but of the different kinds of love that exist and can exist side by side. One can see Sophia's loyalty and love for Tom in how she tries to carry out all of his wishes, and in how well she knows Tom's works, but, at the same time, what Sophia feels for Aidan is unquestionable and undeniable.
But that isn't the end of the story -- because Rachael Miles has also added an intricate web of spy stuff -- there's a spy/double agent who has followed Sophia and Ian from Italy, looking for a secret list and code that Tom possessed and had sent home to England. He has killed in order to get close to Sophia, and poses a real danger to her and Tom. There's also the mysterious person who is advising the head of the Home Office, who is taking particular interest in Aidan Somerville.
And, as I write this, I realize that there is still so much more to the story. It really is a story that can be read, and reread, and, each time, one can pay attention to a particular facet and see how that proceeds -- but the end result will be the same: satisfaction.
Jilting the Duke is Book 1 in Rachael Miles's Muses' Salon series, and her debut novel. To find our more about Rachael Miles, click below:
Disclosure: I received this ARC through Netgalley. Thank you to Rachael Miles and to Zebra Books for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.