I loved A Duke by Default so freaking much. This is the second book in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series and it focuses on Portia, the best friend of the heroine of the first book, A Princess in Theory. A Duke by Default is fine as a stand alone although characters from the first book do show up. In the first book, Portia was introduced as a party girl who couldn’t stick to anything and who frequently imposed on her friends despite having a heart of gold.
In A Duke by Default, Portia is working on “Project: New Portia.” She has very sensibly launched this project by quitting drinking, finding a therapist, and taking a break from casual sex (not that there’s anything wrong with casual sex, but in Portia’s case it was part of an overall pattern of heavy drinking and lack of commitment that had become problematic for her). Don’t worry if you didn’t meet Portia in the first book. All of her issues are explained or implied in A Duke by Default.
Anyway, Portia takes on an apprenticeship in Scotland with a swordsmith. She’s supposed to learn how to make and use swords in exchange for helping the armory business with its social media game, which is nonexistent. The swordsmith is a very sexy guy named Tavish who immediately dismisses her as superfluous. His brother set up the apprenticeship. Tavish is not a social media kind of guy.
Portia quickly meets a sublime group of supporting characters, impresses the hell out of Tavish, and accidentally discovers that Tavish is the son of a duke (it’s very complicated). In short order the reader learns about ADHD, immigration in Scotland, and how to stir your tea at an aristocratic event (move the spoon in straight lines to stir your tea as opposed to in a circular motion). Portia learns about boundaries and that she’s not a “fuck-up.” Therapy is portrayed in a positive light, which is awesome, and while the press tries to slut shame Portia for her previous casual sex encounters, the other characters refuse to do so. There’s very much an attitude of “Whatever works for you and your partner(s) is fine.”
Meanwhile, Tavish learns, as he puts it, not to be such a “wanker.” By “wanker” I mean that he tends to take the people around him for granted even though he is extremely empathetic towards the larger community. He’s fiercely loyal and protective of people in his life, but he doesn’t always appreciate the hard work they do on his behalf. He also has to make a decision about whether or not to take his place as Duke and how to deal with the press given that he is intensely private.
The book has plenty of plot but the plot is pretty much there so that the characters can react in different ways. Also, the novel ends abruptly as soon as the protagonists resolve their feelings towards one another. The novel is a little overstuffed with people’s issues but all the issues are important and all are handled well. I liked the settings – a gentrifying urban area that’s pushing out long term residents, the armory with its forge, shop, and school, the Ren Faire, and Holyrood Palace as a change of scene. It’s a great combination of gritty, historical, and glamorous. I also liked that the characters demonstrated that urban Scotland is an economically and ethnically diverse place. Tav’s mother is Chilean and his adoptive father is Jamaican, Portia is African-American, and many of Tav’s students are refugees from Syria. Portia becomes fast friends with Cheryl, Tav’s sister-in-law, who runs a food stand called “Doctor Hu’s.” It’s a lovely depiction of a tight-knit family in a tight-knit community.
I liked Tavish very much, but I found I cared more about Portia, who has a complex and well-done character arc. Again, I LOVED it that therapy is presented in a positive light! I was more invested in Portia’s personal growth than in the romance, which is saying a lot, because I was really into the romance. This is such a solid book – it’s tear-jerking, it’s inspiring, it’s sexy and romantic, it’s interesting (sword history!) and it’s funny. I can’t wait for the next book in the series.