The Duke in this, the eleventh book in Erica Ridley’s 12 Dukes of Christmas series, is actually a horse - a prize stud stallion belonging to Olive, the story’s heroine, a hyper-competent Horse Girl. Asked by her father to marry the son of their greatest enemy in order to resolve an ancient feud, she very sensibly says, absolutely not… until she discovers she stands to lose everything if she doesn’t even give her potential suitor a chance.
The only thing Elijah Weston wants to do is pursue his botanical research studies as he seeks to identify a medical treatment for the condition that killed his mother. Held hostage by his father’s refusal to fund his research, he’s forced into going along with his father’s wishes… which aren’t necessarily what Olive thinks they are.
There’s an awful lot going on here and so many things to notice, including Olive’s Deaf father and the way they speak in sign language, the horsey knowledge sprinkled all over the place, and Elijah’s botanical research, plus the romance, the parental manipulation (and abuse) and more. There was also a slightly weird thing where Elijah’s father, the fifth son of an earl, had a courtesy but non-hereditary title of marquess - which is higher ranked than an earl - which just would not be a thing, something I would expect an author of Ridley’s stature and skill to know.
I feel like, as Ridley has got deeper into this series, she has constrained herself a bit too much with the limited word count on these novellas. There is just Too Much Plot for a story this short. There’s no space to revisit the characters who charmed us so thoroughly in the earlier books, something that’s usually a ‘selling point’ in a big series - getting to see other couples progressing with their relationships. There’s just no word count for anything more than a couple of quick mentions in passing, because the plot of this one is so complex Ridley doesn’t have the words to spare… and even then some things get skimmed over. I was disturbed, for example, by the fact that Elijah’s father clearly physically and mentally abused him and then they just… encouraged his father to ‘kiss and make up’ his old feud with Olive’s father, without actually addressing the abuse of his son? You don’t just handwave that stuff away because you haven’t left yourself enough word count to deal with it.
I do love this series. It’s charming and (mostly) light-hearted and delightfully diverse, but the later books in the series have suffered due to the constraints of a short word count, and I think Ridley needed to ease up on herself a little and just make the later ones a bit longer. Or cut back on the sheer amount of plot she was shoehorning in, one or the other. I’ll give this four stars for all the things I did like about it, but I wanted a lot more.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.