Best selling Boyfriend Material author Alexis Hall delivers his latest with the luscious, queer historical romance A Lady for a Duke. His second released novel of the year, Hall yet again solidifies that he is one of the finest and most engaging writers in romance today.
When Viola Carroll was presumed dead at Waterloo she seized the opportunity to live as her true self. However, that freedom doesn’t come without a price, and Viola paid for hers with the loss of her wealth, title, and her closest companion, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood. However, the two are united after an unusual letter, and, from there, a new yet familiar relationship is lit aflame as the two develop feelings for one another so mighty they threaten to spill off the page.
Elegant and thoughtful, the book is perhaps Hall’s greatest triumph yet. Refusing to refrain from humor in a setting that all but screams a necessity for stiff upper lips and stuffy exteriors, there are instead moments of such vulnerable joy, sensual intimacy, and laugh-out-loud character beats that create a piece of writing that escapes any sense of genre confines. It’s a great use of the historical setting by showcasing all that can be done on its stage with Hall once again showcasing how effortless it is to highlight LGBTQ+ characters in spaces that writers often don’t allow them to inhabit.
For fans of Boyfriend Material, fair warning that A Lady for a Duke presents more explicit love scenes (this is definitely adult romance fiction.) However, the moments of erotica in the novel are earned and, rather than titillate for the sake of it, instead manage to further engage in the character’s vulnerabilities, exposing greater depths to the audience while they simultaneously expose more of themselves (literally and figuratively) to one another.
An enduring romance and refuting tragedy
A Lady for a Duke delivers beautiful and insightful prose and characterization so instantaneous that we immediately understand the pull between the two and the near urgency that works itself into their relationship. Viola and Gracewood’s romance is dazzling in the characters’ open pining and want for one another, the two each in their own instances referring to the other as parts of one another’s souls for how well they know each other now that they’ve been reunited.
When Gracewood believed he had lost Viola in the war, he was left but a hollow husk of the man he once was, one already riddled with trauma borne from the abuse he suffered in his childhood. Their reunion, first unbeknownst to him as he doesn’t immediately recognize Viola and, later, as time moves on in their full reunion with Viola openly declaring her need to run away when presumed missing for the sake of living a life in her true, full identity, is packed with tangible emotions.
Their longing, their relief in being reunited, Viola’s trepidation in their dynamic and how society might perceive it; all of these moments, real and human and lovingly detailed sink their teeth into us as we become further enraptured in the pairs breathless love story.
One of the greatest turns of events is how the greatest conflict isn’t due to Viola being trans but by the different statuses the two hold in society. At this time it would be unheard of for a Duke to marry a lady’s companion – her role to his sister by means to keep the two close when otherwise they might have no reason to from society’s point of view. Allowing the socioeconomic friction to be the pair’s burdens as opposed to her identity makes for a stronger, more compelling piece as it frees the story from tepid conflict and instead further emboldens the main relationship in their ‘I’d die for you commitment’ to each other.
The supporting cast of characters could so easily have been lost amidst the central love story of Viola and Gracewood, and yet Hall once again demonstrates his affinity for the smaller players. While their parts aren’t as crucial to the overall narrative, their lives are no less developed or given substance. Miranda at first might seem curious and naive but the book strips layers to reveal her as capable, sharp, and seeking adventurer and a lease to a type of love she’s yet to find the language for.
Similarly, side characters such as societal enigma Lady Lillimere, the domineering yet loyal Lady Marleigh, and her devoted husband Badger, are given enough inner lives separate from the main plot that they too could center an entire story.
Still, it is the tender and scorching chemistry between Viola and Gracewood that makes A Lady for a Duke such an engrossing read. They are the heart of the novel, and the complexities of their characters are highlighted by the simplicity of their love for one another, both made only more interesting by their mutual adoration. It’s fitting then, that the words reflect the dazzling warmth emanating from the two characters. A pivotal moment between the two is particularly breathtaking, as the two share a private moment, away from any peering and nosy eyes, dancing together as they were meant to be.
“While in the endless horizon of the ballroom mirrors Viola would occasionally catch glimpses of a handsome man and a woman in a blue dress.
And it was strange because it could have been anyone. Any couple reflected there. But it wasn’t.
It was the Duke of Gracewood and Viola Carroll.
And they were dancing.”
A rich and textured world
Hall possesses a keen ability to enrich his settings with such fine attention to detail that, from the very first page, we’re completely immersed in the experience. It’s doubly true in A Lady for a Duke where we can smell the gunpowder Gracewood believes he’s surrounded by, can feel the texture of Viola’s lace gloves, and sense the damp interiors of Gracewood’s lodgings when Viola first comes to him at first, him so consumed by his PTSD and opium that he believes her a figment of his imagination. It’s detailed without going to the point of excess, simply a natural extent of his writing that further brightens a world already so full of light and color – even when the characters themselves are drowning in doubts.
That detail is leveled at the characters in both the exterior touches from Viola’s meticulously fashioned outfits to their internal fears and doubts, from Gracewood’s insecurity in his physical disability to Viola’s fierce protectiveness over her hard-earned sense of agency. They are immaculately fully built characters whose pain and joy we experience, grieve with, and exhilarate in.
While the story runs a little long overall few will fault it for indulging in these characters’ lives – even if there are moments of social functions and parties that don’t add quite as much joy as the central romance. Still, from start to finish, from refusing to force excessive suffering into a historical queer romance, to the stars in their eyes yet foundationally sound love story at its center, an affinity for lofty humor and decadent prose, A Lady for a Duke is both a highlight in Hall’s career and one of the years best.
A Lady for a Duke was released May 24, 2022.