I have a small confession to make: Courtney Milan writes my flavor of book addiction. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this issue, based on the way my twitter feed looked after her latest book posted to Amazon before Christmas. But in trying to explain just what it is that draws me back to her titles and keeps them permanently on my e-reader, that is harder to explain.
Reading romance novels is like being a member in a giant club, and like many clubs you have factions. Some of these factions are determined by type, such as historical romance, suspense, paranormal and so forth. Other factions get to cross-genre ideas like dominant male voiced, socially conscious and female empowerment. Milan’s books hit on a range of these subgenres, which may be why she is a favored author for so many of us.
When you start looking at the books themselves though, that’s when you really start to see examples of why people come back again and again. Take the current series, which starts with a duke who isn’t what he seems at all. When his mother confronts him about a potential scandal concerning our heroine, we get a picture of just how our duke feels about his father and how he behaved:
“I make it a habit to ruin a pair [of genteel young women of the middle class] before tea. I find the anticipation makes the morning hours pass with delightful alacrity.”
She sniffed. “That is the sort of joke your father would have made.”
Robert’s hand clenched in his glove. “No,” he said. “That is the sort of thing my father would have done. He would never have joked about it, not in mixed company.”
We actually have a duke who knows how his actions can cause harm to the woman he is falling for, even if he has the most noble of intentions. Throughout The Duchess War, Robert is trying to make amends for the wrongs done by his father. The heroine, Minnie, is a great foil for his actions as she doubts his intentions until he at last wins her over. And once he does, we have fantastic moments that feel true to life. First, there’s the approval from his mother, which includes a touch of mentoring that includes this gem:
“...Everyone respects a cat.”
“Well, actually, … in the time of the Black Plague —”
The duchess extended a hand. “Do not pollute my perfectly acceptable figurative speech with irrelevant facts!”
The duchess recommends that it is all about poise and attitude that will lead people to believe you are a duchess. Then, the honeymoon:
“I don’t wish to alarm you.” Her voice was a little cool; he tipped his head to one side and looked at her as best as he could in the failing light.
“What is it?”
“I think we were doing it wrong. … I know what it’s supposed to feel like, at the end. And what happened for you? It didn’t happen for me.”
“I know,” he snapped. “God. You don’t have to tell me that. You could barely tolerate the act. You don’t need to rub in the fact that I couldn’t bring my wife to orgasm. I’m well aware of the truth.”
“I’m sorry.” He let out a sigh. “I shouldn’t yell at you. It’s not your fault.” He took a deep breath.
Minnie took his arm. “We’re intelligent. We’ll figure it out. We have ten days in Paris to get it right.”
I remember cheering when I read this. For the first time in a very long time there was no magic explosion with rainbows and glitter as the hero and heroine got everything right the very first time resulting in perfectly synced orgasms. Adding a cherry to that hot fudge sundae of awesome was the fact that the heroine, not the hero, suggested just how they could figure things out together.
The Brothers Sinister continued on with fantastic moments of fun that you find in some of the best historical romances. You have a (shudder) middle class hero who is trying desperately to make a name for himself winning over a heiress, who is trying very hard to be unmarriageable to protect her sister. The subplot of the sister and her love interest really made this one for me in addition to the introduction of the women’s rights movement. Milan brings back in this novel one of the reasons I adored the Turner Brothers series—the atmosphere of the time and place she sets her novels. The women’s voting rights is a driving plot line through the novel and is a backdrop for why the hero and heroine are put in each other’s path. Without this, the plotline would still work but it would not have the urgency that drives the two together.
For those of you who want science with your romance, I offer up The Countess Conspiracy. The novel picks up some of the hints we had in the earlier two novels concerning our left-handed men concerning Sebastian and expands his relationship with Violet, their childhood friend. While this book occasionally does not ring true for characters we have met earlier in the series, the relationship between the hero and heroine is sound. What struck me as interesting was the way that female scientists were handled—as a point of fact that Society just preferred not to recognize rather than the end of the civilized world. (For another glimpse of this, pick up Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked.) The final touch on this where our heroine is empowered to present her true self to Society and appropriately deals with the effects.
The Brothers Sinister has two novellas associated with it as well: A Kiss for Midwinter and The Governess Affair. These bring in the social issue of children out of wedlock handled in two different ways. In one, we have the origin story for our first two heroes and in the other we see the changing of thought processes at the birth of modern medicine. In both, we have men who do not view the women as damaged goods. More importantly, we have women who do not view themselves as such either.
If you want more strong men confronting social issues of their time, you have to pick up the Turner Brothers trilogy. We continue to see a duke that wants to be a duke for how he can fix the world instead of the abuse of power that can come with it. For Ash, the power that comes with the dukedom allows him to help his brothers in ways that was not possible when they were children. It allows him to highlight his brother Mark’s writings which brings with it the unwanted notice of the public. For his middle brother Smite, Ash is able to first help him realize his goal of helping prevent others from being trapped as they were as children and then financially is able to assist in overhauling the legal system to realize that goal. Throughout all three, these men are given a counterpoint in their heroines—a woman born to class for Ash, an unchaste woman bent on bringing him down for Mark and an educated, rule-bending woman of the world for Smite.With these women, we are able to see the dark side of these men and understand that their intentions are noble while their methods are not always perfect.
It really is complicated to exactly put a finger on the flavor of catnip that Milan uses throughout her novels, but I am very glad to have it.
Rae Alley herds cats for a living as a project manager & theatrical stage manager and is kept hopping at home with an energetic toddler and a music-afficianado husband. She can be found online at RaesAlley or on Twitter as @rszalley.