Book Review: The Duchess et al

The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their Lover: An Erotic Novel
by Victoria Janssen
Published by Spice

The Duchess et alPlease note the title and study the cover a bit. Does that say “romance novel” to you? Me, neither.

And yet, despite the absence of the word “Harlequin” anywhere on the cover, on the copyright page, on the “coming attractions” back matter, apparently, Romancelandia thought this was a romance. I don’t know why, unless Romancelandia simply has no history with pure erotica.

There is a difference between romantic erotica and pure erotica (aka could-be-porn-if-that’s-your-definition) and perhaps Ellora’s Cave has just trained Romancelandia to read “romance” or “romantic erotica” where they see “erotic novel” or “erotica.”

I don’t know how this could have been mistaken for a romance.

Moving along. Jessica, over at Racy Romance Reviews, reviewed this and while her review wasn’t necessarily favorable, it was academic (’cause she R 1) and in no way (I thought) insulting. She also admitted that she didn’t have much experience with whatever “pure” erotica really is.

I wanted to read this book, but balked at paying $11.30 for the ELECTRONIC book, so someone took pity on me and sent it to me, requesting that, if possible, I review it because that person was interested in my opinion (though heaven only knows WHY!).

My opinion is that I can’t finish this book.


The nastiness that went on concerning a liveblogging “review” incident between Dear Author and Smart Bitches (NOT linking). I didn’t read the transcript, so I am not speaking to whether the liveblogging was nasty or not, but the comments on the thread really, really disheartened me. It destroyed any enjoyment I might have gotten out of it and made me want to pick nits where there were no nits to pick.

I read 40% of the book before I simply had to put it down, so I feel very cheated and I’m going to address others’ complaints of the book that apply to what I read and comment on those, then I’ll pick the two very big nits I actually did have.


1. Nobody could figure out the setting, but thought it might be somewhere in 17th-18th Century France.

Okay, first, it’s erotica. Have we established this fact? It doesn’t need a setting. It’s a fairy tale and the descriptions were such that I envisioned a Neuschwanstein-type castle.

As long as the descriptions of the castle let you know these characters were amongst lush, and candles were the major source of light, and the clothes were voluminous and bulky, the exact place and time weren’t important.

2. That the sexual situations were totally ridiculous.

Yeah, they sure were. It’s erotica. Have I mentioned that? The “plot” of escaping the abusive-cum-murderous husband is a lot stronger than in most erotica I’ve read, but still more flimsy than that of a romance novel. I suppose if one were reading it as if the plot were the strongest element, I could see how one would be tempted to want to call it “romantic erotica” and be disappointed in the result, but let’s get real: erotica doesn’t need an actual, fleshed-out (heh) plot.

3. That Camille’s reasoning for escaping her abusive-cum-murderous husband RIGHT THEN was flimsy.

Actually, I thought that part was very well set up and the strongest point of the plot. Camille was on the last upswing of the abusive-husband cycle and she knew it. I’ve volunteered at battered women’s shelters. There comes a do-or-die point (literally) for the woman to run and she usually knows when that is. Whether she runs or not…well, that’s up to her.

4. That there just happened to be brothels everywhere along the path they took on their escape route, doubling as inns.

Yeah, there sure were. It’s erotica. Have I mentioned that?

5. There are eunuchs! In a place we think might be 17th-18th Century France. Eunuchs! What the fuck?

Fuck, indeed and precisely. It’s erotica. Have I mentioned that?


I think Jessica summed it up best when she said this:

In some ways, despite the sexual sadism of the Duke, this book offers a very positive view of sex. Sex is the go-to coping strategy for most of life’s problems: Need an heir? Feeling stressed? Husband trying to kill you? Lonely? Bored? Want to show someone you have power over them? Need a place to stay for free? Want to escape those thugs? Need a favor? Want to convince someone to ally with you? Want to thank someone? The answer is sex, sex, sex, sex, and more sex.

That was its strength and its purpose. Why? Because it’s erotica. Have I mentioned that?

Okay, so now that we’ve got all that out of the way, here was my problem with what I read:


The cover. Come on. It’s gorgeous, absolutely breathtaking all textured and ripe with hot redhead right there in the center of groping hands and a pearl necklace around her neck (make of that what you will).

Except…Camille is described as having black hair with gray streaks.


NIT TWO, which is the genuine weakness of the book:

The sexual logical inconsistencies. “What?!?!” you cry. “You just finished telling us it was erotica and don’t get hung up on the ridiculousness of it. What could you possibly mean?” Not that way, you silly goose.

1. Camille needs an heir or her husband will kill her. Her husband is shooting blanks. She summons the groom to attempt to impregnate her because any child of his could pass for her husband’s. Okay, so far so good. Sounds like a plan. But immediately after finishing with the groom, she is summoned to her husband’s wannabe de Sade dungeon.

[Her husband] had to fuck her at least once, in case she had managed to become pregnant that afternoon.

Okay. We know she doesn’t want to, but we get the timing issue. But then he doesn’t. And not only does she not worry about this, it doesn’t even occur to her that she missed her chance to cover up her possible switcheroo.

2. Camille’s been married to this dude for 20 years and has been exposed (as a spectator and submissive) to every sexual deviance possible because he’s sick and twisted that way. And yet, this night, the relatively mild antics are…different? And now she’s aroused by them? After 20 years of debauchery? Really? Just now? No, I don’t believe it.

a. She has eunuchs who are her bodyguards and, ostensibly, sexual servants. She has an ivory carving (dildo). In 20 years of exposure and being aroused (for the first time!) that night, she finally—FINALLY!—asks her eunuchs to pleasure her? No, I don’t believe it.

b. In 20 years of exposure and forced sexual obeisance, she’s never given head until this night? (That’s the way I read it, anyway.) No, I don’t believe it.

In other circumstances, she might have enjoyed tasting so large a cock, but not in front of the duke.

So…has she or has she not experienced pleasure before? Has she or has she not given head? The implication before this passage is that she had (by force), but at this moment thinks about how delicious it might be if her husband wasn’t watching? Say what? No, I don’t believe it.

c. It’s discussed that she was never unfaithful to her husband—in 20 years!—and just that day with the groom was the first time for seeking her pleasure elsewhere and the first time, in fact, that she’d known pleasure at all. No, I don’t believe it.

d. Once the entourage takes to the road, it’s as if everything is a new experience for her, as in, she never knew X activity existed. She becomes lovers with her maid and the author makes a point of letting us know that she hasn’t had a woman. Really? In 20 years of Duke Debauchery and forced sexual obeisance and his own propensity toward voyeurism and she’s never done a woman? No, I don’t believe it.

I think I would have had a problem with Camille’s contradictory sexual history anyway, but I don’t think it would have made me simply put the book down and not want to pick it up again. The unpleasantness surrounding it combined with that simply destroyed any enjoyment I might have had.

Quite simply, it was a chore to read, which frustrated and disappointed me to no end because it was a book I wanted to read and expected to enjoy.

Since this was given to me, I’d like to pass it along. First person to email me gets it.

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The Duchess et al

  • January 4, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I believe good erotica has a plot. I’ve read a lot of it. Some of it isn’t so much erotica as porn. And there is a difference. Erotica isn’t romance and it’s not “about” romance. But it still has a plot if it’s good erotica. And it still tells us something worth knowing about sex and very often power.

    I believe literary porn and erotica are two different things. There are correlations in movies. I’ve watched some truly erotic films with full nudity, and shows absolutely everything. But it was erotica, it wasn’t porn. Porn is different.

    Porn is about shame. It’s the same of the participants and the shame of the creators. It’s not even about casual sex, which I don’t have any kind of theoretical problem with.

    It’s hard for me to give a list of what makes something porn vs. erotica or erotica vs. porn. But it’s one of those things that I know it when I see it.

    And others who have both read and watched and written a lot of erotica, know what I’m talking about.

  • January 4, 2009 at 10:36 am

    I hate that it was ruined for you, and I’m with you-that cover is totally gorgeous. I’m going to pick it up. And she’s a Diva and a sweet one at that.

  • January 4, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I have to agree with you. The title and cover don’t lead me to expect an earnest historical romance in which a downtrodden but deserving woman in a carefully detailed setting finds twu wuv with a soul mate. (I love the cover, BTW, especially with the referential title.)

    I’m struck by the irony that romance is frequently decried as fantasy, particularly sexual fantasy; and yet romance readers often decry the lack of realism in romance, and the more so in that particular work of erotica–which *is* sexual fantasy. Which leads me back to a thought I’ve had ever since I started reading romance blogs: for being called a bunch of escapist fantasy readers, we don’t always evince much enthusiasm for the fantastical.

    The number of discussions ending up in a face-off between the “it’s just escapism” and “it’s not realistic” camps reminds me a bit of the schism in speculative fiction. Some prefer far-out speculation; others prefer near-present-day settings that allow a near-reality working-out of contemporary issues. Perhaps that’s a pointless analogy, but I think it does highlight the way “escapist” fiction can be anything from thinly disguised reality to almost unrecognizable worlds. I’m not sure why one end of the spectrum would be abhorrent to the other, but it sometimes looks that way.

  • January 4, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    the referential title

    And THAT!!!

    For a while there, I thought I was the only romance reader to get the reference at all. I mean, when I first saw the title, I chuckled and thought, “Very clever.” Maybe too clever. Harrumph.

    for being called a bunch of escapist fantasy readers, we don’t always evince much enthusiasm for the fantastical

    Unless it’s couched in other-worldly terms where it’s safe to explore otherwise non-romance-PC issues.

    Which really simply flows into your question about how “speculative” should “speculative” fiction be, anyway? And no, I don’t think it’s a pointless analogy. What I think is that people have different tastes and needs and wants, and they have a hypervigilance concerning what they DON’T want (i.e., the glass is half empty).

  • January 4, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I believe good erotica has a plot. I’ve read a lot of it. Some of it isn’t so much erotica as porn. And there is a difference. Erotica isn’t romance and it’s not “about” romance. But it still has a plot if it’s good erotica. And it still tells us something worth knowing about sex and very often power.

    Then I guess we’d have to define “plot.”

    In other comments about this book elsewhere, the comparison to Anne Rice’s “Beauty” series was made. (I figured that would have been the first thing everybody thought of, but it took a long time for that to be mentioned.)

    The only “plot” to speak of in the Beauty series is that the princes and princesses of a bunch of possibly-16th-17th-century-middle- European-countries-with-gleaming-white-castles-like-the-one-in- Germany get sent off to the Grand Kingdom for their sexual education.

    Yet I think it’s a bellwether work of erotica and well written (depending, of course, on whether you like Anne Rice or not; I do). One reason I wanted to finish this was so I *could* do a comparison of it to Beauty.

  • January 4, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    And she’s a Diva and a sweet one at that.

    I did see her name on the Diva roster, but I figured her to be a sweetheart by the way she responded to Jessica’s review. Very gracious.

    Which is ANOTHER reason I’m so conflicted about this.

  • January 4, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Unless it’s couched in other-worldly terms where it’s safe to explore otherwise non-romance-PC issues.

    That’s interesting in this case, because Janssen says she intended a fantasy setting (and Jessica seemed to get that immediately), but that intent may not have been clear enough up front for other readers. I remember saying on the Gab a few months ago that I think we can be harder on novels that are *almost* historical than novels that blatantly don’t even try. So, had Janssen opened with a vampire, a eunuch, and a talking dog piling out of a cab and entering a Norman castle, the book might have been received quite differently 😉

  • January 4, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    a vampire, a eunuch, and a talking dog piling out of a cab and entering a Norman castle

    So what did the priest, the rabbi, and the reverend Jerry Falwell have to say about that?

  • January 4, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Um, probably “Ho ho ho”? And not in a jolly way.

  • January 4, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    “for being called a bunch of escapist fantasy readers, we don’t always evince much enthusiasm for the fantastical.”

    Boy did you hit the nail on the head. I’m having this discussion with a few other writers and readers and ALL of us have differing opinions. I know that when I write a historical romance I’d better get my facts straight or the letters will come. The reader is of the opinion that if it says FICTION than anything goes, just entertain her. I hate condoms in stories, but if a writer writes a contemp with an Indian reservation in OK then I’d be pissed. But I’m of the same opinion re:

    “a vampire, a eunuch, and a talking dog piling out of a cab and entering a Norman castle”

    You start off as you plan to go on and the story sets the rules. It’s all the story. I guess if you plan on making a sharp turn, just explain to me why.

    Mojo, how do you do the quote thingie?

  • January 4, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    The code is:

    < blockquote >blah blah blah< / blockquote >

    Just run the symbols and the “blockquote” all together without the spaces.

  • January 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Finally, after three tries, I had the time to sit down and read your review. I totally agree with you about those inconsistencies. And I agree with you that inconsistencies WITHIN the world the author has created — no matter how fantastical — are problematic.

    Authors can make the most statistically unlikely things believable, it’s like magic to me, but I agree that some of the duchess’s behavior was under motivated and odd — for her and her situation.

  • January 5, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Jessica, I’ve had word counts on my mind lately and now I’m beginning to wonder if some of that could have been alleviated with more room to elaborate or if they were simple oversights.

    I’m not going to say I don’t have continuity errors in my work (I do), but I tried to minimize them by asking, “Why would s/he do that?” and “What are the consequences?” and “What are the long-term ramifications?” and “THEN what would s/he do about THAT and why?” of X decision.

    What I read gave me the impression that it was the DUKE who wasn’t fleshed out in the writer’s mind enough to answer those questions for CAMILLE. After 20 years, she should’ve been able to deduce what he might or might not do in any given situation.

    Whatever continuity errors are left that were either A) not solvable or B) not caught, the fantasy should be able to bear up under the weight of them in either frequency or severity, or both.

    But AGAIN, I don’t know if I’m reacting to the story or others’ reactions. I think I should’ve waited a couple of months to read it and let that settle.

  • January 5, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    What I read gave me the impression that it was the DUKE who wasn’t fleshed out in the writer’s mind enough to answer those questions for CAMILLE.

    See, and this is the kind of insightful comment that only writers can make about books.

  • January 5, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this some more and I’ve come to the conclusion that this was a good example of sloppy editing.

    Asking the questions I asked is the editor’s job.

    When you’re writing, you’re so far in sometimes you can’t see your way back out again. You know these people (or you should) and you know why they do what. You assume that it’s obvious to everyone else. And you know? You’re ALLOWED to do that because you’re the writer. You assume that if it’s bought, the editor will help you work it out.

    Once the editor buys the manuscript, the onus is on the editor to make the writer step back, take a deep breath, and work out the tangles if there are any.

  • January 6, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Belatedly, thanks for the post!

    Another reason the Duke isn’t as thoroughly fleshed-out is because I didn’t want to dwell on the more horrible parts of the story. I was trying to maintain a balancing act–show Camille had good reason to flee, but not force the reader to suffer through all the abuse, because I was afraid it would be a turnoff for most people.

    In first draft, the scene with the Duke and a later scene with one of his cronies were much darker and more explicit. After getting some feedback from my workshop, I ended up trying to make the scene with the Duke have more humor and absurdity, to give the reader more distance from it, if that makes sense.

    So far as Camille and pleasure, her early days of marriage were relatively normal, so she had that experience for comparison.

    As for all the “first time” scenarios involving Camille, I actually was thinking more of using her as a viewpoint for a reader who wasn’t that familiar with erotica as compared to romance–hence she thinks through what she’s seeing and experiencing as if it’s new to her. That might have worked better if I’d done it with Henri, as he’s the ingenue. I tended to give her more simply because she’s the main character. I might have thought more about that decision, given more time, but I was writing pretty fast.

    That would be a great dark erotic novel plot, though–the person who’s been forced into watching all these things, and now has to decide if she wants to try it for herself, from the other side.

  • January 6, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Victoria, as I have been from the beginning, I am just incredibly impressed by your graciousness.

    Personally, I would’ve liked it darker, but I’m only one reader.

    I thought using Henri as the ingenue was brilliant and I should’ve said so. It does turn that device (I don’t use the T-word) on its head, doesn’t it?

    And I do understand your point about wanting to bring the uninitiated reader along, as if introducing her gently.

    Now, I am curious about something: Was your word count limiting to you in any way as to what you felt you could/should include or not?

  • January 6, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Trope, woo! I love tropes. You should see me chortle over Rakish Dukes.

    I don’t feel I was limited as to wordcount–the problem for me was that the original conception of the novel was much LESS than it turned out was required. When my agent was shopping the proposal, I had no idea where it would be bought, so I wrote an outline for an 80K book, an average novel length.

    Once Spice bought it, I didn’t immediately realize their line was in the 100-120K range, and didn’t think to check, either [duh! in my defense, I was pretty excited!]. That was early September 2007; it was due the end of October. I had to expand a lot of plot elements and add description and such in the final month before the due date, while at the same time doing some edits based on workshop comments. So there are a few things that didn’t get the attention they deserved.

    I fixed some things in revisions, but again I had a tight deadline, and had to replace two major scenes that were cut for pacing reasons. I suppose it’s a good thing that time is often limited in publishing, because otherwise I would rewrite and rewrite forever, and never move on to something new.

    I really think I plateau if I keep rewriting, either from my skill running out or my brain just getting too tired of the project. I can’t get better until the next project, when I can apply what I just learned.

  • January 6, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    That was early September 2007; it was due the end of October.

    Well. Now I’m just in awe.

    I’ll be looking for another one. 🙂

  • January 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    About 2/3 of the book WAS done by the time it sold, though–I had a little advance warning. I just had to do like 40-50K in a few weeks.

    Weeks after I turned in the manuscript, I finally, tentatively, glanced at a couple of pages and promptly found a spot where I’d pasted the same 3-4 paragraphs twice in a row. *forehead smack*

  • January 7, 2009 at 9:28 am

    OT, but …

    Victoria, The Duchess is showcased at my Borders, very prominently, in the middle of the fiction/romance section, on a shelf with the reissues of Georgette Heyer and some Jane Austens. Some folks are in for a surprising read…

  • January 12, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Ack I forgot all about this thread. I read the Sleeping Beauty books and I thought there was way too much spanking, haha. WHich from me, that’s saying something. haha.

    I like things more like “Story of O” something that has some depth of meaning to it beyond just the sex.

    That’s the kind of erotica I want to write with my other pen name. Erotica that makes you think.

    All Sleeping Beauty made me think was that there was too much spanking and not enough of anything else.

  • January 12, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Oh, and “Topping From Below” by Laura Reese (I think that’s the author). It’s not “strictly” erotica, but it definitely leans in that direction and it’s got plot out the whazoo.

  • January 13, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Oooh, Zoe, I’ll look into that title. Thanks!


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