Book

When You Wish Upon a Duke by Charis Michaels

TW/CW

TW For: miscarriage, parental abandonment

When You Wish Upon a Duke is a historical romance with Peter Pan references. Given that the heroine is named Isobel Tinker, I feared a whimsy overload. However, I ended up having a wonderful time with this ridiculous yet utterly enjoyable novel, in which a female travel agent and a duke who is doing one last job for the Foreign Office are forced to confront pirates in Iceland.

I told you it was ridiculous!

This book triumphed by owning its absurdity and grounding it in complex and likeable characters with incredible chemistry. The whole thing is marred by a too-easy ending, but otherwise, if you don’t mind that level of ridiculousness, this is a good fun read. Stay for the author’s note, which breaks down which parts of the book are supported by historical sources and which are completely fabricated for the sake of a good time.

Isobel Tinker, the daughter of a famous actress, spent her youth cavorting about with other teenage theater kids called (of course) The Lost Boys, traveling the world, living off nothing, and breaking her heart over the Lost Boy’s leader, Peter. They didn’t have to worry about losing respectability because they had none to start with, thanks to their theater parents. Eventually Isobel put her misspent youth behind her and settled in to run a travel agency in England, a job which requires her to appear respectable. She keeps her prior adventures a secret.

Jason “North” Beckett works for the Foreign Office but is going to have to resign as he has suddenly inherited a dukedom. In order to complete One Last Job, he needs an expert on Iceland, and lo and behold, Isobel spent the last part of her wild years in Iceland. So they team up and off they go to Iceland, both insisting that propriety shall be maintained.

To which we, seasoned romance readers that we are, say this:

Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) says "Please, tell us more"

This story does a good job of weaving in some Peter Pan references without overdoing it. It’s not a retelling of Peter Pan. Most of the references are limited to shared names, but there is thematic similarity in that both books deal with ambivalence about “growing up”.

Isobel loved her wild years but paid a terrible, realistic, and unfair price for them. With North, she is able to capture some of the sense of imagination, theatricality, and daring that she thought she had to put behind her forever if she was going to survive. Meanwhile North envisions his role as a duke as privileged tedium, something he simply cannot stand but cannot in good conscience avoid. With Isobel, he shares intellectual equality and a great capacity for daring, as well as someone who can empathize with his problems.

The two have personalities that complement each other, they have a mutual respect for one another, and they communicate well, a trait I never tire of in romance. The dialogue between them is excellent and the story does a good job of handling tonal shifts between angst, sexy times, and pirate fighting. I just loved these characters, especially Isobel with her sense of independence and resourcefulness. I also liked that North is protective of Isobel but not patronizing. He respects her capabilities and her judgement.

This book has a few major problems. For one thing, Isobel constantly changes her mind about whether or not she wants some kind of physical relationship with North. To be clear, it’s completely OK for either party to propose sexual activity and then change their minds at any point. My criticism is that Isobel’s constant process of “We can’t kiss…let’s kiss…that was great, let us never do so again” seems to be used sloppily as a device to allow for both sexy times and angst, and it repeats so often that it becomes dull. Issues of consent are handled beautifully. Issues of character consistency, the characters’ motives, desires, and basic personality, are not handled as deftly, making the conflicts between the characters and their internal conflicts feel contrived. The contents of each individual scene are fine but the repetition of one similar scene after another becomes predictable and dull.

Then North’s problems are resolved so easily, and through such obvious means, that I can’t comprehend why these means did not appear until the end of the book when a simple conversation early on would have prevented North agonizing about his future for 411 pages. The ending is certainly happy for everyone involved, and Isobel gets a wonderful triumphant moment that just screams “Sisterhood!” However, Isobel’s shaky position in society is completely ignored despite her having spent 411 pages pointing out the obstacles between their respective social status. The entire ending erases conflicts without resolving them, and is contrived in the extreme overall.

For me, despite the improbable ending, it was the right book at the right time – fluff with enough angst (Isobel has SERIOUS levels of angst) to give the story some weight, with characters I liked accompanying to places that I wanted to be. While this book isn’t consistently well-crafted, the writing is descriptive and fun. If you dislike any level of over-the-top absurdity in your stories, this won’t work for you. However, if you, like a young Isobel, are just looking to have a good time, this is an enjoyable romance with a couple I truly rooted for.

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