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DUTY TO THE CROWN by Rebecca Cohen , reviewed by Mel Keegan

DUTY TO THE CROWN by Rebecca Cohen

Reviewed by Mel Keegan
ISBN-13: 978-1-62380-369-8
Pages: 210
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Dreamspinner Press, 2013
Buy now from Amazon ($6.99 for your Kindle)
See also The Actor and the Earl, reviewed by Mel Keegan

All the world had certainly become a stage for Sebastian Hewel, who continues his portrayal of Lady Bronwyn -- not at the Rose or the Globe, “dressed as girl” in the theatrical works of the late sixteenth century which have come down to us as classics, but out in London and the home counties, where discovery is a very real risk, and the wages of this particular sin could easily be death.

Duty to the Crown is the sequel to The Actor and the Earl, by Rebecca Cohen, and I definitely glimpse a third episode in the story of Sebastian and Anthony, Earl Crofton. (We’re never told the lands of which Anthony is earl, but the way home leads through the Epping Forest, so the Crofton estates can only be a tad west of Chelmsford; maybe also a little to the south, as at one point Sebastian can ride quickly to Kent.)

For me, this second episode is much better than the first. The romantic relationships are established, the sticky question of “does the earl love the actor?” was resolved in the initial book, and this time around the author introduced outside forces providing the torque to develop the story past the comfortable, relaxed “marriage” of the two men, one of whom most of the world believes to be his twin sister.

A little intrigue; a royal command -- a spy, a prisoner, the Valois siblings, brigands on the highway, kidnap, hazard, illicit seduction -- all this adds up to your actual, genuine plotline, rather than the “pure romance” we saw in the first novel. I confess, for myself, plot is where it all happens, with the romance always irresistibly appealing on the side. This one has enough actual extra-romance story to be quite attractive.

Also, this episode gives us a look at the more realistic sixteenth century reaction to the discovery of Sebastian being a man in a frock, to all intents and purposes married to Anthony. Without handing you spoilers, a day arrives when the ruse is up, and death is a whisker away. The real sixteenth century England was little less brutal than Europe, and almost as homophobic -- though not quite. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are redolent with gay overtones; there’s long been speculation that he swung both ways, and even dared to record his feeling in verse. It would be a mistake to assume England of the era would happily turn a blind eye to gay antics, but it would also be a mistake to assume everyone in the country was bloody-minded on the subject. As always, the truth is somewhere between the poles. Less than a dozen people know of the role Sebastian is still playing, and when one outside the support group finds out --

But that would be a spoiler!

The non-romantic action is better handled better in this book than the first, as if the writer is settling down to the story, now the romance has been mostly resolved. To plot junkies like self, this is an enormous plus.

Again, a number of Americanisms and modern day terms sneak through to jerk the reader out of that state of “disbelief suspension.” Expressions like “cleanup,” “dog person,” “delusional,” and “I guess,” belong to much more modern times; “come fetch him” is an Americanism -- Brits would say, “Come and fetch him,” just as they would say bedside table, never “nightstand” … 

In fact, some more background research was needed. Quite a few factual mistakes pop up and were avoidable, with a bit of reading. For instance, in sixteenth century England, soap was made of wood or mouse (yes mouse!) ash and animal fat, scented with flowers if one was extraordinarily lucky, was dark or even black, and had the consistency of slurry -- it was once confused with caviar! The narrative use of the musket squeaks in with around a decade to spare after the word “musket” was first documented in surviving printed history; at the time, the musket was the C16th equivalent of high-tech, say, like our current nanotechnology. Ruffians in the forest would not have had muskets, they were too rare and expensive. The arquebus was the common firearm, not very much like a musket and still fairly common till around 1700. At one point, Anthony is wounded, and the wound was stitched … in fact, wounds of the day were cauterized either with a hot iron or with hot oil. The new-fangled treatment from Europe was an ointment made from egg yolks and turpentine! Similarly, the term “cologne,” for a man’s perfume, is a misnomer before 1709, where it was first known as Kölnisch Wasser, Cologne Water. At the time of Elizabeth I, noblemen certainly reeked of perfume, but cologne it wasn’t.

All this aside, Duty to the Crown is a very readable book indeed. If you’re not a history buff, and either don’t have an ear for the language, and/or aren’t British, you won’t notice the gaffs, and there’s a great deal to enjoy in it. Given that this is light reading with few pretensions to be literature, it would be a mistake to dwell too long on the errors --

So instead I’ll tell you there are couple of really good laughs; one or two sections where you’ll be turning pages rapidly, very much involved with plot and characters; a lot of sex scenes where you can either wallow or skim over, depending on your fancy (I think I’ve said this to one critic before: it’s an e-book, dangitall; learn what your fast forward key is for); city and countryside, the houses of rich and poor, from the royal court to the home of a simple artisan, are described with a fine attention to detail; and overall, the mood, tone and backgrounding are much more evocative of the era and the place than was The Actor and the Earl, as if the author is gradually becoming steeped in this world, this time.

In Episode Two, one is reminded even more strongly of Heyer, and I can see a most interesting Episode Three coming along to wrap the story. I’m hoping for a good, solid plot in addition to the romance; and if the development of Duty to the Crown, as a sequel, can be judged by, I don’t think Rebecca Cohen will disappoint.

Recommended if you’re looking for light, sexy reading, an occasional thrill-and-spill, a chuckle … and if you’re a history buff who’d like to partake of the above, you’ll just have to learn how to blink when an occasional gaff comes along, and -- enjoy.
Looking forward to the conclusion!
Reprinted with permission from GLBT Bookshelf

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