The Cultural Gutter

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For the Win!

Chris Szego
Posted September 3, 2009

smmer.JPGCover blurbs can be tricky things. Some authors see them as good publicity
tools, and who’s to say they’re wrong? After all, it puts their name on books not their own, right there for eager readers to find. Others see them as favours to pay back to writers who have helped them, or forward to writers they’d like to see succeed. Sometimes they backfire: if I try a book based on an author’s recommendation and hate it, it’s a double blow. Not only to do I not like the book in my hand, but my opinion of the blurbing author’s taste has been seriously tarnished.

Of course, the corollary is true as well. If an author I like recommends a book I like, I’ve scored twice. Confirmation that my own taste isn’t suspect, plus a brand-new author to enjoy. Such was the case with The Duke of Shadows, by Meredith Duran.

Though I’ll admit it wasn’t only the seven word blurb* by historical author Liz Carlyle that made me pick the novel up. I was also curious about the little thought balloon in the upper right corner. ‘Gather.com contest winner’ it said. I’d never heard of the site, or the contest. The idea coupled with Carlyle’s blurb made me read the back cover. Which led me to read the first pages. Which
made me buy the book, which turned me into a serious fan of Meredith Duran.

Hey, look: marketing works!

At least, it does when applied to a book with as much depth and appeal as Duran’s debut novel. The
Duke of Shadows
was an excellent introduction to an extraordinary new author. Her contest win was only the beginning of career that will likely be filled with all the honours the field can bestow.

The Gather.com First Chapters Romance Writing Competition is very much as it describes itself. Sponsored by publisher Simon & Schuster and national bookseller Borders, the contest had entrants post the first chapter of their complete-but-unpublished novel on Gather.com. Site readers then had the task of winnowing down the entries. Twenty-five semi-finalists were chosen, who then posted second chapters. Of those, the site readers selected five finalists. A panel of pre-selected judges chose Duran as the Grand Prize winner. That prize was a publishing contract from Simon & Schuster, complete with five thousand dollar advance, plus guaranteed promotion in
Borders’ bookstores.

(Incidentally, the judges were so taken with the talent displayed in the contest that they awarded a second prize to Starr Toth for her book Trust Me. She also got a publishing contract, with a slightly smaller
advance.)

duke 250.jpgThe story is, in essence, quite simple. It begins in 1857, in Delhi, when Emmeline Martin meets the titular Duke of Auburn, Julian Sinclair. They are intrigued by one another, then are forced to flee together as the city erupts into violence. They fall in love, are separated by war, and reunite in London several years later. But Duran’s assured hands, this simple story is anything but.

For one thing, Duran doesn’t skimp on the difficult details. Emmeline arrived in Dehli under less than ideal circumstances, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Rescued by common sailors, she was delivered into a community that feels she should have had the decency to drown rather than endure a stain on her reputation. That tightly knit snobbish society personifies every one of the worst aspects of British colonialism: the stultifying adherence to rules and rituals so far out of context as to be nonsensical; the abysmal ignorance of anything outside of their own expectations; the unthinking and vicious racism. For his part, Sinclair is desperately trying to awaken his compatriots to the dangerous consequences of their behavior. But since he bears Indian blood himself, his warnings are dismissed at best as cowardice, at worst as treason.

The two outsiders are drawn to one another. But of course, Sinclair is right about the rising native outrage. Rebellion erupts. And here again, Duran doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff of history. She’s not afraid to get blood on the page. Julian and Emmeline don’t face a nameless, formless rebellion: they flee bayonet attacks, beheadings, civilians hacked to pieces. The violence isn’t gratuitous, it’s earned. It happened, and Duran’s characters are our witnesses. And the damage stays happened, it stays with them. Both are changed by their experiences, haunted for years. Which makes their eventual reunion that much more powerful.

Duke came out in April of 2008. Since then, Duran has had two more books hit the shelves. The two, Bound by Your Touch and Written on Your Skin were linked to one another, and came out a mere month apart (a sign, by the way, that your publisher is deeply invested in your success). Though the plots of each are quite different, they share the same attention to detail, the complex characterization, and the evocative
language of Duran’s first novel. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

*for anyone wondering, the blurb from Liz Carlyle (herself an NYT bestselling author) was “A luscious delight… romance at its finest.”

~~~

Chris Szego wishes more first novels were this good.

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