by Courtney Milan, historical (2011)
Courtney Milan, $11.99, ISBN 978-1468067044
Unraveled is the third full-length book in Courtney Milan's series about the dysfunctional Turner brothers. It can stand alone in many ways, but you may want to read the previous books in the series to get the full picture of the rosy relationship between these three brothers. Let's just say that they are have some ways to go before they throw the best Thanksgiving parties in town.
The story is actually pretty simple and straightforward. Boy meets girl, girl becomes boy's mistress, and they fall in love. Oh, and there is some drama about the local vigilante boss wanting to cause trouble for the girl, but that's nothing true love and a helpful cast of capable and determined secondary characters can't handle.
Smite Turner is all about justice, and in a time when constables and magistrates tend to treat the upper class folks as the only people that have rights, he is an anomaly among his peers. Needless to say, when they call him Lord Justice, they are not complimenting him. Smite is also an unusual man. He has photogenic memory, which can be a curse as, sometimes, he would love to forget the memories of his very troubled past. He also exists in that social strata limbo: he's a middle-class fellow who has connections to the aristocracy but holds no claim to it himself, thanks to his rather complicated pedigree. As a result, he always feel alone and isolated from the people around him. So much so that when he spots Miranda Darling, the woobie lights blink around him, dazzling me and making me want to stand on the roof and perform Bring Him Home like he's the Marius to my Jean Valjean.
Miranda Darling is an unusual heroine too in that she is an orphan who took care of herself and a teenage boy left in her care ever since her father died and his troupe of traveling actors disbanded. She kept them safe all this while by making a deal with the Patron, the mysterious fellow who rules the slums of Bristol with his brand of iron-clad and often harsh judgment. Thanks to her upbringing, Miranda has developed an ability to disguise herself. She can also create her own wigs and costumes. Therefore, in exchange for the Patron's protection, Miranda performs a favor for that person once a month. Nothing shady, just stealing some documents or disguising herself in order to give false testimonies in court.
Unfortunately for Miranda, Smite can see through her latest disguise after having seen her one time too many in his court. He pursues her, she leads him on a merry chase, but eventually they come to a convenient arrangement where there will be no messy emotions, just... business. And we all know how well that kind of thing turns out in romance novels, don't we?
Let's talk about woobies. Nice woobies. And Smite Turner is very nice indeed. He's damaged inside, but what makes him a woobie, as opposed to a whiny attention-seeking "LOOK AT ME! I AM HURTING!" emo twit, is that he never seeks pity and he doesn't care that the world knows - or doesn't know - that he is hurting inside. That makes him an even more endearing hero. It's too easy to want to offer him TLC, because he's so vulnerable underneath that tough big guy exterior of his. I am fond of Smite also because he is a good man, one who is devoted to making sure that justice is done. He's a bit too stark in his morality for my personal preference, but I can easily see the appeal of his solid principles. A man who is wounded inside, who can only be whole with the love of the right woman, and this man is so rock-solid in his principles and his devotion feels so absolute and irrevocable... he'll always protect you, but he will forever need you and only you to save him from drowning. Very nice. Goodness, it is pornographic how appealing this hero is to the senses.
I'll talk about Miranda a bit later because the main reason why I end up not giving this book a keeper grade and a blinding ugly background for this review is because of her. For now, let's talk about the rest of the story. The narrative is engaging, and while some of the banters seem suspiciously contemporary to me, I have no problems getting into the spirit and enjoying them. Unraveled has a nice balanced mix of pathos and humor, tenderness and violent emotions. The external conflict is also nicely integrated as a smooth part of the story, and I also love how the author doesn't sugarcoat how hard life can be for someone in the slums. There are no happy groups of protective poor people who sing Disney songs as they happily toil at the mines here.
Now, Miranda. Mind you, I have no problems with who she is. In many ways, she is in character for someone of her upbringing and circumstance. She is pragmatic enough to accept Smite's offer without squealing about true love and other fluffy nonsense. While she has a kid to keep an eye on, she doesn't martyr herself to unbelievable lengths. When Ms Milan tells me that Miranda can pull off well the things the Patron wants her to do, she also shows me how capable Miranda is.
The issue I have with Unraveled is the healing of the woobie. I've said this before in the past, and I'm saying it again: Ms Milan can create exquisite woobie heroes, but her redemption of them tend to be tad heavy-handed, so much so that there are many instances when the romance resembles a therapy session where the hero lies on the couch and lets the heroine psychoanalyze him. This has me wondering as well how Miranda comes to be such a fabulously emphatic person that somehow knows how to apply band-aids to the wounds in Smite's soul. I'm sure it is possible that there is someone out there who, while busy trying to eke a living and worrying about what comes tomorrow, still manages to become so attuned to a man's finer feelings. But I'd like to see how that person comes to be this way.
Still, that's not something that completely overrides my enjoyment of this book. While it's not something I'd consider a keeper, it's still an entertaining and well-written romance that is emotionally charged, thoroughly absorbing, and showcasing a woobie hero that is just too dreamy for words.
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