Emme Fifield has fallen about as far as a gentlewoman can.
Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, her only hope of surviving the scandal that threatens to engulf her is to escape England for a fresh start in the new America where nobody has ever heard of the Duchess of Somerset.
Emme joins Kit Doonan's rag-tag band of idealists, desperados and misfits bound for Virginia. But such a voyage will be far from easy and Emme finds her attraction to the mysterious Doonan inconvenient to say the least.
As for Kit, the handsome mariner has spent years imprisoned by the Spanish, and living as an outlaw with a band of escaped slaves; he has his own inner demons to confront, and his own dark secrets to keep...
Ever since Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement in Virginia was abandoned in 1587 its fate has remained a mystery; The Lost Duchess explores what might have happened to the ill-starred Lost Colony of Roanoke.
I absolutely love reading about early America (having grown up a hop, skip, and a jump from Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement in the New World), and Jenny Barden is an author I've been wanting to read, so I jumped at the chance to read her second novel, The Lost Duchess, which is a stand-alone follow-up to her first novel, Mistress of the Sea. The Lost Duchess tells the story of Emme Fifield, daughter of a baron, dutiful lady-in-waiting to a demanding Queen Elizabeth. Her world is turned upside down when she is compromised by a treasonous lord, but her future brightens when Sir Francis Drake returns to court with tales of the New World and a handsome mariner in tow, Kit Doonan, both of which ignite Emme's curiosity and desire for adventure. As the queen's favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh, pleads his case for a return to the new land of Virginia, named in the queen's honor, Emme finds herself swept up in the plans, a pawn for spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, who is keen to help England outwit Spain's plans for the New World. Traveling under an assumed identity with strict instructions of what to look for and what to report back to Walsingham, Emme sets out with Kit and a group of hearty souls prepared to make a new life in the New World, with no intention of ever actually going back to England.
But the journey is a perilous one, fraught with mishaps and misfortune, and though Emme's courage never wavers, her plans for a new future free of court obligations does. But with Kit's assured guidance, and a few new friends, she determines to prove her worth to the new colony, and to Kit himself, as the bond between them grows stronger and sweeter. But they are both hiding secrets, secrets that could have devastating consequences for their fledgling relationship, just as the hidden dangers and outright hostility from the original inhabitants of the New World could have devastating consequences for the success of the colony. As the struggle to subsist becomes a struggle to survive, Emme and Kit will have to decide what is worth fighting for . . . and what is worth letting go.
I'm torn in my rating of The Lost Duchess. I really wanted to love it more. At the halfway mark of the book, I was loving it, and I felt sure we were headed for four or five-star territory. But then, just as our heroine and her hero arrived in the New World, where things really should have started to get exciting, the story seemed to get bogged down in details and slow-moving narrative. I had been willing to overlook the fact that the "scandal" that caused Emme to flee had not been set up and expanded enough to make it totally plausible for such a drastic course of action because I was intrigued by Kit and the spark between he and Emme, and I wanted her to follow her courageous heart, but I found their love story to be rather superficial and even sappy at times, and I grew tired of Emme pining for the day Kit would ask her to marry him, especially when she was surrounded by so many more pressing problems.
The climactic scenes, which depict a very believable account of what could have happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke, were very well done, but ultimately, the ending did not sit well with me. It was probably pretty realistic, but since these were fictional characters in a fictional scenario, it could have been a little more upbeat and satisfying. And on a final note, which I'm not holding against the book but which did make me stop and wonder, I found the title and back cover copy to be misleading and rather confusing after having read the book and not making much of a connection.
But while I have mixed feelings on the story itself, there's no question Ms. Barden can write. Her meticulous historical research shines, as does her descriptive capability. Her depiction of life aboard a sixteenth-century ship and of a New World filled with beauty and wonder, yet full of peril and uncertainty, is masterful. I think The Lost Duchess is well worth a read just to get a sense of what it must have been like for those first tough, brave souls who ventured into the complete unknown, attempting to carve out a new life and a new England with no idea of what awaited them. As Ms. Barden continues to write and hone her craft, she could become an author to watch in the world of historical fiction.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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