Attention Bridgerton fans. If you’re looking for a book to tide you over whilst you wait for the next season, J. J. McAvoy has you covered. Aphrodite and the Duke is a diverting Regency romance with a diverse cast of characters, a sharp heroine who knows her own mind, a dashing love interest haunted by a troubled past, and an antagonist who wouldn’t be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. McAvoy wears her period drama influences firmly on her sleeve, making this a treat of a book for anyone who enjoys the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Sanditon and the great Georgette Heyer.
Aphrodite Du Bell has always resented her goddess namesake. She might be famed for her beauty, beloved by her family, admired by the ton, and a favourite of the Queen, but Aphrodite’s loveliness wasn’t enough to stop the love of her life, Evander Eagleman, from jilting her and marrying another. Having hidden herself away from London ever since, Aphrodite is summoned back to aid in her younger sister Hathor’s debut into society. But Aphrodite’s scheming mother has an ulterior motive – one that involves the now widowed Evander, who has also returned to town.
As the societal events of the season get underway, Aphrodite finds herself pulled into Evander’s orbit once again. She doesn’t want to forgive him, let alone admit that she might still have feelings for him. But Evander isn’t the same young man who broke her heart, and he’s set on proving it to her. If only the eyes of society weren’t always watching and waiting for Aphrodite to be humiliated a second time. If only Evander wasn’t still holding his secrets close to his chest. And if only he didn’t have to deal with his wicked stepmother and conniving half-brother, who believe they were cheated out of an inheritance and intend to steal it back, whatever the cost.
Plato said love was a grave mental disease, and I feared returning to London would make me realize I was still quite ill.”
By self-admission, this is the book McAvoy has wanted to write for years, and she’s created a dazzlingly wealthy world where a Black girl can get the classic happily ever after almost always reserved for white heroines in the past. The likes of Bridgerton, Mr Malcolm’s List and Sanditon have led the way in promoting diversity in period dramas, but Aphrodite and the Duke goes one step further by celebrating characters of colour in positions of power, wealth and nobility without needing any explanation or reference to the spaces that Black characters have been traditionally relegated to in historical fiction. It makes for a refreshing and inclusive read.
Of course the real charm of a novel like this is the romance and high society drama, which Aphrodite and the Duke has plenty of. Aphrodite might be the daughter of an affluent and respected family but she’s still a woman and there were very strict expectations of women in Regency times. Like any eligible young lady, she is expected to marry or be branded a spinster. Aphrodite isn’t a character to settle, and she has plenty of willing suitors, but her heart has always belonged to one particular man. It doesn’t take long for both her and the reader to realise that she is still holding out for Evander. It’s just a question of whether they can recapture their love for one another after everything that’s transpired.
Aphrodite and the Duke has all the best bits of Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I – the weighty expectations of high society, the longing looks and sizzling sexual chemistry between its central couple, the complicated dynamics of aristocratic families – and thankfully none of the uncomfortable plot devices that caused so much controversy with both the Bridgerton book and TV series. It has everything an engaging period drama should have: romance, tragedy, witty verbal sparring between ladies and enraged fisticuffs between men, not to mention sparkling gowns and even more sparkling balls. Let’s hope that, like Bridgerton, there will be more books to come following the other spirited Du Bell siblings.
Aphrodite and the Duke was published by Quercus on 23 August 2022