by Courtney Milan, historical (2012)
Courtney Milan, $12.99, ISBN 978-1481207478
The Duchess War is the first official entry in Courtney Milan's Brothers Sinister series, although she released a prequel short story The Governess Affair shortly before this. Still, this story can stand alone very well. It's an interesting series from the looks of things, as it features main characters who are in their own ways black sheep of their generation mostly because they are working to challenge the status quo. It's the late 19th century, after all, a time when scientific discoveries and social reforms are threatening the old ways.
Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is burdened by the guilt of being his father's son. Let's just say that when his father passed on, there weren't many people who was going to miss him. Years of emotional abuse had taken a toll on Robert's psyche, so much so that he now lives solely to prove to himself that he is not like his father. Part of his daily "I'm not my Daddy" regime includes composing, printing and arranging for the distribution of seditious pamphlets - anonymously, of course - all aimed at riling the working class to raise against the tyranny of their employers.
He met our heroine Wilhelmina Pursling entirely by chance one evening in a library when they both seek to retreat from the party outside for their own reasons, but they really come into contact when they realize that they share the same interest in improving the lot of the working class in England. What could have been a joyful meeting of two like-minded individuals, however, is complicated by their class differences, Minnie's secret that comes along with a big closet full of skeletons, his own issues with his family, and efforts by the local authorities to discover and locate the identity of the author of those seditious pamphlets. Since Robert is Duke and can't be touched by the law, and since someone needs to be held accountable... who knows, maybe Minnie will end up taking the fall for Robert's actions.
Indeed, there is an interesting theme to this story - the consequences of someone from a privileged background that comes with various social and political immunity playing politics. For a long time, it's pretty clear that Robert has more arrogance and enthusiasm than actual humanitarian instincts. Oh, he means well, and we all have to start somewhere on the path of doing good for all mankind. But he knows he's protected by his very title that he claims to despise, so it is on this hypocritical platform of his that he launches his torpedoes, so to speak, with gusto and, alas, without much concern as to whether he'd end up accidentally hitting the people he is championing or, worse, someone very close to him who does not have the same protection as his title afforded him. This comes back to bite him in the rear end - big time - late in the story.
That's his arc. Robert is not a very likable hero despite his enthusiasm and passion, because he is reckless and he doesn't listen, confident that he knows everything and can do anything. He'd come crashing to the ground soon enough, and by the epilogue, who knows, maybe he will understand that he'd make a change far better if he discards his anonymity and uses his political clout to try to make reforms openly. Ms Milan does a pretty good job in showing me this growth of Robert's character as the story progresses, and I really like this.
Minnie is a bit of a wasted opportunity, though. All that set-up about her past - which is horrifying as she was only a very young girl when life poured a whole gallon of pig's blood on her, so to speak - leads to a "So what?" climax as it finally comes out in the open. Also, the fact that she's protected from the full extent of ruination by Robert's title makes Robert's constant disgust about the privileges of his rank that often come at the expense of mere mortals even more hypocritical, especially when he has no qualms using these privileges to get his way in the end. It is as if Ms Milan couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted Robert to fully work at dismantling the excesses of the aristocracy or to end up just being part of the status quo again.
Still, the romance is a memorable one. I've stated in the past that Ms Milan tends to have her characters overly analyze themselves and each other so much that these characters often seem like they are making sales pitches for whatever psychology textbooks that are in favor at the moment. Here, however, the emotional drama is less didactic - more subtle, if you will - and I only get an occasional moment or two in which I wonder whether Minnie is actually a shrink and Robert is her patient.
What I like about this romance is how Robert manages to see beneath Minnie's deliberate efforts to stay out of everyone's radar to discover this passionate person that challenges him intellectually and emotionally. There is an element of highly charged eroticism and turbulent undercurrents of emotions throughout the whole thing that has me glued to my seat, waiting to see whether Minnie and Robert will kill or love each other. I also love how being in love doesn't turn these characters' brains into mush. Robert and Minnie can often be pragmatic about their relationship too, and often, they are aware of all the reasons why they shouldn't be together. But that's why I find this romance believable - by the last page, both characters have to make good on all those sweet idealistic promises lovers tend to cling to. The fact that they are still together despite how real life often made it impossible for these promises to come true has me convinced that they are into this for the long haul.
I wish I could give The Duchess War a keeper score because, in many ways, it's different from the usual historical romance, and more importantly, it is a well-written love story that works. It's just too bad that for the most part, there are many things here that don't fit together well. When Ms Milan focuses on Robert's story arc, the story works. But the rest of the plot elements are all over the place, especially when it comes to Winnie's past, which ends up seeming more like a tacked-on plot device to give her and Robert an excuse not to end their story by page 150. Still, I have no regrets paying trade paperback price for this one, so that should tell you how much I like this one.
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