By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
Tessa Dare is one of my favorite authors, but I'm not sure what to make of this first book in her new Castles Ever After series. I couldn't tell while reading it if Dare meant for this to be a gothic romance. It certainly has gothic elements -- penniless ingenue in desperate straits at the mercy of bitter, scarred, misanthropic (but tall, dark, and handsome) man, set in a creepy, crumbling, isolated old castle that might well be haunted -- but if Dare was aiming for gothic, she missed her mark. Despite the creepy ambience, this book doesn't have the dark, spooky, suspenseful tone of a gothic novel. Instead, I think (hope?) Dare was spoofing the old gothics, and if that was her intent, she hit the nail on the head, because the gothic tropes seem not so much eerie as entertaining (example: the story is set at Gostley Castle, and the heroine's solicitor asks whether that rhymes with "ghostly" or "ghastly.")
The heroine, Izzy Goodnight, finds herself destitute after her father fails to provide for her in his will. She's down to her last shillings when she learns she's inherited a crumbling castle in Northumberland. Unfortunately, the castle isn't empty: Ransom, the Duke of Rothbury, has been convalescing (read: hiding) there since being gravely injured in a duel with his ex-fiancee's lover. Rothbury contests Izzy's inheritance, since he owns the castle and didn't authorize its sale to the guy who bequeathed it to Izzy. However, he's ignored his correspondence for the months since his injury, and both agree that there might be some clue to the dilemma amid the pile of letters awaiting Rothbury's attention. Since Rothbury's condition still doesn't allow him to read his mail without assistance, Izzy agrees to act as his secretary while they sort out the mess.
The reader has to be willing to approach this story with an open mind, because much of it is just absurd. That a gently-bred, unmarried woman would be willing to stay, unchaperoned, in a ghost- and pest-infested old pile with a cranky, unmarried duke (and said duke would be willing to let her) is the first of many disbeliefs the reader must willingly suspend. (It helps that Izzy is penniless: she hasn't really got any alternative; it also helps that Ransom's injuries are significant enough that, duke or not, he's not a hot commodity on the marriage mart anymore.)
Izzy is penniless, but she's not alone in the world. Before his death, her father published a serial novel which is so popular it inspired LARPers to tour the countryside, re-enacting the scenes. To this band of misfits, Izzy is a celebrity -- though they don't know, and don't want to know, the real Izzy; they just want to know the timid, innocent little girl immortalized in the novel.
Though Romancing the Duke is undeniably entertaining, and there were several points where I laughed out loud (Izzy has a pet weasel, and come on, how often do you find LARPers in romance?), much of the plot didn't really work for me. Ransom is attracted to Izzy, and eventually his number one priority is to see to her well-being, but he's really slow in getting there: in the first scene, she is literally fainting because she hasn't eaten in days, and when Ransom learns that, he doesn't try to feed her or even seem worried that she's gone hungry. Later on, Ransom uncomfortably close to a bodice-ripper-style angry-sex seduction scene, and while I should have trusted Dare to avoid a dubious consent love scene (as she eventually does when Izzy calls halt), it was a close call and turned me off to Ransom as a romantic lead.
Worse, there's a huge hole in the plot. Ransom and Izzy come together to try and sort out his correspondence and who owns Gostley Castle, and it's rapidly clear that someone has been taking advantage of Ransom's inattention to his business affairs to rip him off. Figuring out the scheme and unmasking the thief should have been the climax of the novel, but instead it was barely touched upon, only glancingly mentioned as an afterthought in a final scene that was a chaotic shitstorm of badly-plotted WTFery.