Like The Masqueraders, Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades is another unabashedly romantic, exciting adventure story set in Georgian times, with one extra element. The novel is most importantly a tale of redemption. The hero, Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is an amoral, jaded, ruthless nobleman, proud of the nickname "Satanas" given him by polite society. But even this dangerous, dishonorable man has a flicker of goodness left in him, which shines forth when he falls in love despite himself.
Avon impulsively rescues a Paris street urchin from a life of poverty and abuse when he notes the youth's resemblance to the Comte de Saint Vire, his old enemy. Avon makes "Leon" his page, knowing all along "Leon" is really "Leonie," a young woman dressed as a boy. What's more, Leonie is the Comte's daughter. Desperate for a male heir, the Comte placed the infant girl in the care of a peasant couple and passed the couple's newborn son off as his own.
Nursing a grudge decades old, the Duke of Avon intends to use Leonie as an instrument of revenge against the Comte. He brings her to his English estate as his ward and charges a female cousin with teaching her to become a lady. Slowly, Avon's thoughts turn from his own revenge to restoring Leonie to her rightful place. The young woman's innocence, mischievousness and forthrightness awaken tender feelings in him, and her love for Avon as her rescuer makes him strive to be the man she believes him to be.
I was afraid at first Heyer would make Leonie too wide-eyed and adoring for my tastes, but she balanced those elements of her character nicely with stubbornness, hot-headedness and an ability to take action on her own behalf. (In one of my favorite scenes, Leonie backs Avon's brother into a corner with a fencing foil, enraged the young man called the Duke "Satanas" in front of her.) When Leonie's father, the Comte, tries to kidnap her, she proves more than capable of engineering her own rescue. The romance between her and Avon at times seems more of a parent-child relationship, but she is able to stand up to the Duke when she wants to and is sometimes wiser than him, despite their 20-year age difference. She is definitely a heroine who knows her own mind.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the story was seeing Avon's acquaintances and family members reacting to the change in "Satanas." Many of them had reason to mistrust or even hate the Duke, but they all became his allies in the end because they cared for Leonie. Avon finally revealed Leonie's parentage to the world in a tense, exciting scene, with the villainous Comte getting his just desserts.
I very much enjoyed this unusual romance and look forward to reading the sequel, Devil's Cub. My grade: A.