It is a truth universally acknowledged that romance novels are not necessarily very well-written; however, if you are curious about them and want to know who is the best writer out there (of the more than two dozen I’ve tried) Courtney Milan is where you should start. Lisa Kleypas is actually my favourite writer, but I’ve already consumed her entire output and am looking out for other authors. Milan is a newer writer, very much better than most, and she makes interesting choices which neatly turn genre tropes, if not upside-down, at least on their side. This trilogy contains one book each for three popular romance storylines: the revenge plot, Unveiled, the reformed rake, Unclaimed , and the tortured hero, Unraveled . I read the books in reverse order, admittedly starting with the best one.
The Turner brothers grew up with an absent father and a deranged religious zealot mother. Their names are actually bible verses, so they each use a shortened nickname from their verse in daily life: Ash, Mark, and Smite, yes, Smite. Each man bears unique wounds of their traumatic experiences. The oldest, Ash (Unveiled), left his brothers behind to build a secure future for them. He was gone for several years, returned a wealthy man (in the manner of self-made men in romance novels, he is hardworking and magic at math, and that is all it takes to become rich), and as we join him at the beginning of his story, he is poised to steal a dukedom out from under a noble family based on his manipulations of primogeniture. Hoping to find his weakness, Margaret, the daughter of the house, stripped of her legitimacy by Ash’s actions, is posing as the current Duke’s nurse to spy on the Turners. Ash takes up residence with his brother, Mark, at the ducal estate, ostensibly to assess the family’s finances before the final act of transferring inheritance takes place. Normally, these vengeful men are dark, intense and intimidating. Ash is a giant mastiff that nuzzles you into acquiescence. While he is intense and “cheerfully ruthless”, he is also a profoundly nice man, plagued by insecurities and not a small amount of survivor’s guilt. Margaret has been treated as a pawn her entire life, reduced to who she can marry and dependent on the (sorely lacking) kindness of the men in her life to ensure her security and happiness. Ash objects to these notions and to the effect they have had on Margaret as a person. Many romance novel heroes become caretakers to the heroine, but almost none wage a campaign of relentless kindness and encouragement regardless of his personal goals. He wants her as a partner, but more than that he wants Margaret to see herself as a person in her own right, and with her own rights, in charge of her own happiness.
The hero of Unclaimed , Mark, is a 28-year-old virgin. Let me repeat that and emphasize that it is unprecedented in my experience: Mark is a 28-year-old VIRGIN, and not just a virgin, one who has become a celebrity after writing a tract on chastity, the first line of which is “Chastity is hard.” Mark is the youngest brother of the trio and while he is chaste, he is not innocent. His elder brothers protected him to the best of their ability, but his mother’s insanity resulted in choices and situations that no child should endure. With a virginal hero, the reformed rake role in this story falls to Jessica, a courtesan who has been hired to seduce and publicly humiliate Mark. She was “ruined” and disowned by her family at the age of 14 and has made her way in the world with a series of “protectors”. It is the most recent of these who has promised a payment equal to lifelong financial security to destroy Mark’s reputation, but here’s the thing: Mark isn’t really concerned about his reputation. He is honest in his chastity, but he dislikes the fame it brings and the resulting loss of control over his very simple message about the societal repercussions of sex outside of marriage. In most romance novels, there is an extreme disparity in sexual experience. The hero has had mistresses and lovers, and in their polite way, the writers make it clear that all of those women were available and unscathed. When the heroine has experience, it is extremely limited, she thought she was, or she actually was, in love and the result was her personal downfall. Even if she is older, she is chaste. In Unclaimed, Jessica has used the one thing she had to survive in the world alone. It has cost her emotionally, and even physically, but she is not viewed with the disparagement normally accorded a woman “no better than she should be”. Mark likes himself and he genuinely likes her, and he wants her to feel the same way. Her transformation from someone simply trying to survive into someone trying to build a real life for herself is believable and charming.
In Milan’s novels, not everything is country dances and house parties. Although I do not look for devotion to historical accuracy when I read these books, I mostly just enjoy the period costume descriptions and the home life details, Milan creates a true sense of the squalor and dangers lurking close to the surface in Victorian England. Unraveled in particular, dwells in the horrifying poverty of Bristol and the severe limitations and prejudices of the so-called justice system of the era – all of which brings us to Smite. Well now, Smite is my favourite. He is a brilliant, dark, pensive man, enmeshed in duty, and possessing of a wry sense of humour. Who could resist a man who says to his mistress, “I would not like you half so much, if you weren’t sarcastic,”? Not I, dear reader, not I. He is Milan’s tortured hero. He bore the brunt of his mother’s madness, he bears it still in PTSD, and in the roles he chooses in life. He works as a magistrate hoping to prevent the disregard of society that brought him and his brothers to such a vulnerable state. But he is still a man, so when he encounters a vibrant and canny young woman, Miranda Darling, posing as a witness at a trial, something happens that is again extremely unusual in a romance novel: he asks her to be his mistress and she accepts. For one month of sexual intimacy, Miranda will receive the princely sum of 1,000 pounds and a house. Miranda has just barely survived on her wits and has fashioned protection for herself by association with the local crime lord, so this business arrangement is an escape, but one which will be complicated by the tenacity of the underworld’s grip on her. She can earn lifelong financial independence in exchange for something/someone she also desires, and it gives Smite gets one month to dwell in the land of the living before returning to his self-imposed exile. What works about this tortured hero is not that he is broken and needs to be fixed by some innocent, inexperienced chit, as would normally be the case, rather Smite is in tact and what he and Miranda both require, and find in each other, is a kindred spirit who can meet each other’s needs and their own together.
Milan’s men have attitudes inconsistent with the era. They have no judgement of past indiscretions at a time when being seen alone with the wrong someone could ruin a woman’s reputation. The Turners treat the women as equals and want the women to see themselves in the same way. It is the latter element that makes her books so wonderful. Mark thinks well of himself and wants the same for Jessica; he wants her to want more, to expect more and to be her own person. Ash wants Margaret to see herself as a complete person, in turn she helps him smooth over his own wounds. Smite and Miranda balance each other and provide the freedom to be who they want to be.
A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.