From the back cover:
Society believes the worst of Justin Alastair, the notorious Duke of Avon, who is clearly proud of his sobriquet, “Satanas.” It is he who buys Léon body and soul from a scoundrel in a Paris backstreet. The red-headed urchin has strangely familiar looks, and should play a fine part in Justin’s long-overdue schemes to avenge himself on the Comte de St Vire—until, that is, Léon becomes the ravishing beauty Léonie…
These Old Shades is the supremely entertaining tale of the clever and manipulative Duke of Avon and his spirited page-turned-ward Léon/Léonie. The book has an interesting publishing history, in that it’s a sequel of sorts to Heyer’s first novel (The Black Moth) but with the characters’ names changed since the events of said book did not allow for a direct sequel. It stands alone perfectly well, though, and I experienced no disadvantage from not having read the earlier work.
The basic plot is pretty simple, if slightly improbable. The Duke of Avon has many enemies, and chief among them is the red-haired, black-browed Comte de St Vire. When Avon should happen to run into a youth who bears a striking resemblance to the Comte, he immediately realizes the boy, Léon, must be the result of some indiscretion on St Vire’s part and resolves to use him as a weapon to destroy his foe. Most of the rest of the book consists of flaunting Léon under St Vire’s nose, both as a boy and later as the lovely Léonie, and trying to induce St Vire to admit to what Avon has surmised but has no concrete proof of. It all wraps up tidily at the end, and with a terrific final line, to boot.
The characters are the real charm of These Old Shades. I love characters like the Duke of Avon—seemingly foppish, but really incredibly dangerous. He always speaks languidly and sardonically and kind of reminds me of what Mr. Bennet (of Pride and Prejudice) could’ve been like had he been ruthless instead of indolent. Léonie is irrepressible (yet completely devoted to Avon), and though she (eventually) submits to learning to be a girl, still derives great delight from traditionally boyish pursuits. Supporting them are the Duke’s siblings, friends, and neighbors, who are all charmed by Léonie and make a fun audience for Avon’s schemes.
The one complaint I could make is the eventual direction of Avon and Léonie’s relationship. Avon states at one point that he has only a fatherly affection for Léonie and that he is convinced that she looks upon him as something akin to a grandparent. It would appear he was mistaken about that, but a paternal vibe was planted so firmly in my brain that when the story proceeded to pair them up romantically it was kind of icky.
All in all, though, I really enjoyed These Old Shades. It’s somewhat of a relief, coming after a rather disappointing first attempt at reading Heyer, since I was so convinced I’d like her books that I once bought a whole slew of them on eBay. Happily, the story begun here is continued in three more books, so those will likely be the next of her books that I tackle.