The Countess Conspiracy is a feminist treatise wrapped in a historical romance. It made me cry. I have read scores romances in the past two years. I have laughed, swooned, scoffed, gasped, cackled, writhed, and sighed, but I have NEVER cried. What’s more, I did not cry over the romance, I cried over the gender politics. Once again, Courtney Milan has upended the tropes of the genre and crafted something tremendously entertaining that rises above the theoretical limitations she works within.
Violet, Countess of Cambury, and her dearest friend, Sebastian Malheur, have been keeping secrets from each other and from the world for many years. As the story opens, Sebastian has decided that he can no longer lie, not about the fact that he loves Violet, nor to continue his scientific work on her behalf. He is tired of secrets and exhausted from the hostility and derision their work is greeted with. Sebastian is a bright, kind, charming man, but while romances frequently come down to the hero, The Countess Conspiracy is not really about him, despite his strong subplot, or even the two of them together. This is Violet’s book. Milan blends the love story with an examination of society’s limitations, the roles we play, the restrictions we create on our own lives, and the prices we pay when we struggle against them.
A splendidly complicated, strong, and wounded character, Violet is closed-off and abnegating, brilliant and driven. She has been told by others for so long who she is that Violet has begun to believe them and, worse, believe that she must be this way to survive. She broke my heart. Her world that tells her very clearly what a woman, a woman of worth, must and must not be. What is considered good, proper, and natural, and what will happen if any woman, even one of privilege, transgresses against these rules. Violet’s story is about the perception of oneself and the fear those rules create, and the strength it takes to defy them.
The story makes its way towards a happy ending. Milan’s writing is clever, well-researched, and diverting as always, her characters well-drawn and visits to old favourites included. In the past, she has taken on poverty, the class system, and even women’s health issues. Not every book is superlative, but when she’s good, she is one of the very best historical romance writers ever. To my mind, Lisa Kleypas is one of the genre’s master craftsmen, but Courtney Milan is an artist. If you want to read a superior, entertaining, and heartfelt romance, read The Countess Conspiracy. Was it entirely realistic? No, but it is still a romance and its escapist vindications need not be only in the relationship sphere. Was it wonderfully romantic? Not quite, but the decline in swoon was made up for by the excellence of the other story elements and the fist pumping I engaged in while reading. Read The Countess Conspiracy, read the Dedication, and read the Author’s Note. It is Milan’s most fully realised work so far and I am saying that with the addendum that I feel she has already written one truly great romance, Unraveled, and one classic, A Kiss for Midwinter.
A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.