I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
In 1870s Victorian England, Annabelle didn't have a lot options when her father dies and is forced to live with her cousin who treats her like help he doesn't have to pay. When a former friend of her father and professor from Oxford who she has been corresponding with offers a scholarship to their women's college, she works out a plan to attend. There she joins up with the National Society for Women's Suffrage, makes friends, see's a pathway to gaining any smidgen of freedom, and meets a Duke.
Having to take over the Dukedom at the age of nineteen, that his father did his best to gamble away, Sebastian has always felt the heavy weight of responsibility. The Queen has personally asked him to be strategic advisory for the Tory party and he never shirks his duties. When a suffragette boldly approaches him, she definitely catches his attention.
In a time where societal strictures are felt everywhere, Annabelle and Sebastian are going to have to decide what consequences they're willing to face to follow their hearts.
“Fortunately, an old spinster from the country should be quite safe from any scandals,” she said brightly, “even at Oxford.”
The first in the League of Extraordinary Women series and Evie Dunmore's debut, Bringing Down the Duke was a romantic but grounded historical romance. Annabelle's set-up could be any number of women's story from this time period and the consequences of her wanting to pursue her dreams and snatch any kind of freedom for herself are never far from her mind. Becoming friends with and joining the Suffragettes is dangerous for her but fighting to amend the Married Women's Act and wanting the right to vote is essential to the freedom she craves. I loved how the author kept Annabelle grounded in reality and while this kept the tone from being light and airy, it also gave the character and setting the gravitas it deserved; acknowledging the danger and societal norms they were pushing against only gives more feeling to what these women did. Annabelle was courageous with what seems like a simple act of handing out pamphlets (the author does a fantastic job of differentiating how the consequences were different for commoner Annabelle and her nobility friends) and wisely wary of what a relationship with a Duke would mean for her.
This was intimacy, knowing he could look this way. Very few people would ever see him like this, Montgomery the man, not the duke. How she wished he were only a man.
Due to Sebastian's background of given such a heavy burden at such a young age, he is more closed off. I would have liked a little more depth to his background to be seen on page, especially regards to his first wife (we get a little more much later on in the story) and more with his younger brother. He's a cool customer and we get glimpses at how strong his heart beats but I think he could have been fleshed out more.
Annabelle and Sebastian's relationship is more of a slow burn and given their positions and situations, this fits perfectly. The spark of attraction is there when their eyes meet but they're forced to do more of a reach for and retreat, which creates some great burning for. The very real obstacles of a Duke and a commoner having a relationship provided the angst and I loved how the author handled this with an authenticity that, I personally, feel has been missing from historical romances lately. It is the very reality that make this fairy tale romantic.
“Don’t,” he said hoarsely, “don’t throw away what we have just because you cannot have everything.”
Secondary characters like Annabelle's friends, Hattie, Lucie, and Catriona, Sebastian's brother Lord Devereux, a wicked Lord Ballentine, and a Queen Victoria, who reminds us not all women are part of the sisterhood, round out the story well. We will obviously see some of these secondary characters again (Lucie the leader of the suffragettes and the rakish Ballentine look to be next up) but the author did a good job giving us just enough to entice and not have them clog or steal from Annabelle and Sebastian's story.
She knew then that she would never be able to unsee him again.
I thought the first half had some shorter and choppier sentences that broke up some of the flow of the story, background depth was at times missing from the characters, and I thought it took too long to see and feel the heart of Sebastian. However, this felt truly grounded in a historical romance sense and Annabelle's struggles with following her heart, rather due to laws, consequences, or fear, will have you fighting the emotion back. This debut will definitely have me waiting in anticipation of the next in the series.