[REVIEW] The Duke Who Didn’t, by Courtney Milan

A tablet displays the cover of The Duke Who Didn't, depicting a Chinese couple embracing. They are half-dressed in Victorian clothing. The tablet is on a wooden table with a slice of cheesecake and a latte in the background

(Buy it from Bookshop)

I usually cleanse my mental palate with romance after reading horror. A British-Chinese duke in Victorian England is a pretty big switch from depressed teenage ghost hunters–but the cover of this really caught my eye and Courtney Milan’s name was familiar due to her role in calling out anti-Asian racism in the Romance Writers of America Association a few years ago. (I think it’s worth pointing out that the RWA situation was perhaps the best-steeped literary tea of the past 5 years. Romance/thriller author Alyssa Cole was also involved, and the whole thing got some OG Black romance authors–namely Vivian Stephens–some long overdue recognition.)

So, we have Jeremy Yu, the titular, wisecracking Duke in an alternate history Britain. (Think Netflix’s Bridgerton, but Asian and with more peasantry.) We also have Chloe Fong, a stuffy list-making businesswoman trying to live up to her dedicated single father’s expectations. So what happens? We know what happens, this is a romance novel! Romances all have the same basic plot, that’s why we read them! Nothing affirms a belief in love as much as predictability. Our leads meet as kids, fall in love, grow up, have a half-dozen small misunderstandings that seem Very Important, and solve them due to an obsession with each others clavicles and ankles because this is Victorian times, after all. (Jokes aside–there’s a pretty high steam level in this book despite its uptight setting. Note the cover.)

Despite being set in 1800s England, this book feels like it comes very much from an Asian-American perspective. There’s a very American POC-style focus here on reclaiming culture and identity and legitimizing them by placing them in a semi-plausible “white” historical context. Chloe and Jeremy are both children of immigrants–Jeremy is multiracial as well, and that is explored at length. There’s lots of nods to the diversity of Chinese immigrant diasporas–for example, Chloe’s father speaks Hakka, but Jeremy’s mother speaks Yue Cantonese. The kids, however, feel most comfortable in English and this leads to some interesting conversational moments that are well portrayed. Chinese foods are described in mouthwatering, loving ways–seriously the meals are described more viscerally, and with more of a sense of buildup and sensuality than the sex is. There’s also a monologue from Jeremy about how hard it is for him to be taken seriously in British society that echoes a lot of current Asian-American voices in a poignant, touching way.

The author’s note also describes Hakka Chinese culture, migration and her own Chinese family members–the info there is fascinating and she has some very salient insights about perceptions of Chinese culture so don’t skip it.

4 stars and a freshly steamed bao to The Duke Who Didn’t.

(Beautiful people! Hope you have some love, some good food and some good books wherever you are. Friendly reminder that this site has affiliate relationships with Bookshop, and any clicks and purchases you make from here will result in a commission being paid. Peace!)

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