Tag Archives: Courtney Milan

The Brothers Sinister Series: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

If you want to try a historical romance, I recommend Courtney Milan’s books the most highly, but not this particular one. Nobody’s perfect and it does open splendidly…

Miss Jane Fairfield has a number of problems, but they can be boiled down to the fact that she a. is very wealthy and therefore marriageable and b. has a younger sister she needs to protect from a rather dim and unscrupulous uncle. In order to avoid marriage and protect her sister, but still give the impression she is trying to find a husband, Jane takes it upon herself to be available but undesirable. It is quite a balancing act. She must repel suitors, but not openly reject them. To accomplish this, she is meticulously awful: loud, ill-mannered, horrifically but seemingly unintentionally impolite, and hideously upholstered in garish clothing.

The Heiress Effect novel begins strongly. It is fremdschämen in chapter form.  Jane is doing her best to be inappropriate and seemingly oblivious to the mocking laughter behind her back. She attends a dinner party and meets Oliver Marshall, an ambitious young man of equally questionable background who simply refuses to participate in unkindness toward Jane, even when given the opportunity to gain his own political ends if he helps put the bright and brave upstart “in her place”.

My reaction to the novel is a disappointed, “Oh, dear”. Courtney Milan is the very best writer currently publishing in historical romance. The. Very. Best. But The Heiress Effect is a bit of a mess. A very well-written and compelling mess, but a mess with structural and character issues nonetheless. It feels like a fabulous novella that other story lines have been slotted into, or perhaps one that simply got away from the author. The extra plot lines were interesting, and the one for Jane’s sister could have been a lovely novella in and of itself, but they didn’t coalesce successfully. The lead characters were kept apart for too long and Jane behaved in a way that contradicted her earlier actions. I was actually gaping whathefu*kingly at my Kindle.

Such is my faith in Courtney Milan’s writing ability that I  went back and re-read portions of The Heiress Effect, hoping the problem was how quickly I had read it. I came to the same conclusions, but assume Milan could have resolved the problems, if she had more time. I suspect that the publishing schedule that many romance authors keep to of one book every six to nine months and her promised publication date was the real issue here.

Courtney Milan is fascinated by medical history and it always makes for interesting and galling story developments, in this case with themes of women’s rights and personal empowerment. Also, she deserves some sort of award for writing stories that take place in neither London nor Bath, the two default locations for all nineteenth century historical romance.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

 

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This Wicked Gift by Courtney Milan

I’ve written about the two men and seven plots that occupy all romance novels, but I’ve given short shrift to the women, so this is what I’ve learned since my first romance novel review 136 books ago: She’s still either a Wallflower or a Victim of Circumstance. The Wallflower is a lovely, pert, overlooked woman who needs to get her light out from under that bushel. The Victim of Circumstance is someone who, usually due to exigencies beyond her control, has dim prospects and has to make her own luck. Both women are bright and self-sufficient, and, contrary to what I suspect many people think about romance novels (when they think about them at all), they are not being “rescued” by the hero. They either rescue him, or they find their way together.

When people are kind enough to ask me to recommend a romance writer to them, I always suggest Courtney Milan unreservedly. Correction: One reservedly, Trial by Desire, her second book. With the novella This Wicked Gift, I have read her entire output and thus have to writhe in anticipation of her next publication; fortunately, this one did not disappoint. It broke my heart and then put a smiley-face band aid around it.

A Christmas story, This Wicked Gift, is part of Milan’s first trio of published works, which also includes Proof by Seduction and Trial by Desire. William Q. White, a clerk scraping by after being perfunctorily disinherited, is in love with Lavinia Spencer. Astute, determined, and vivacious, she runs the local lending library to which he has a subscription, and she thrills to his presence as well. William takes advantage of an opportunity to be of service to Lavinia, and then takes advantage of her indebtedness to him, or so he thinks.

Milan never shies away from the grinding poverty of 19th century England and this book dwells not with the lords and ladies of so many romance novels, but with honest people trying to eke out a living in an often harsh and loveless world. To weave the fight against one’s own penury, place in the world, and the striving for some semblance of a comfortable life into a genre story based around romantic love is quite an accomplishment. It is indeed romantic and it feels realistic.

The last Milan novella I read, A Kiss for Midwinter, contained a heart-stoppingly romantic moment. This book contained a sentence that broke my heart into a thousand pieces, “You would need never feel cold again.” It wasn’t a romantic line, it was meant literally: You will have the financial wherewithal to purchase warm clothing and fuel to heat your home. Imagine a life where being warm seems like an unattainable luxury. Being cold is something I despise and resent. Whenever I read a book with characters living in poverty, being cold always occurs to me. I won’t even read the Highland Laird romance genre because I am always thinking, “God, it must be so damp. It would just crawl through your clothing and envelop you for nine months of the year. I don’t care how good a kisser he is, he’s not worth it.”

Links to my other reviews can be found on The (Shameful) Tally 2014 or my list of books by author.

Also from Courtney Milan

The Carhart Series
This Wicked Gift – please see above
Proof by Seduction
Trial by Desire – one of only two Milan books I don’t recommend

The Turner Brothers Series
Unveiled
Unclaimed
Unraveled – personal favourite
Unlocked

The Brothers Sinister Series
The Governess Affair – very good novella
The Duchess War – great
A Kiss for Midwinter – CLASSIC
The Heiress Effect – the secondary plot was lovely
The Countess Conspiracy – superlative
The Suffragette Scandal – CLASSIC, MASTERWORK
Talk Sweetly to Me (novella) – August 19, 2014 (bouncing with excitement)

Independent Novellas
The Lady Always Wins
What Happened at Midnight

The Brothers Sinister Series: A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan

A Kiss for Midwinter is one of my all-time favourite romances. It’s in my top five.

I read romance novels for the banter, and, indeed, the romance, but writing emotion genuinely and sincerely is very difficult. A Kiss for Midwinter contains one heart-stoppingly romantic moment and such moments are rare. Julie Anne Long almostalmost managed one in her last book , but of the scores of novels I’ve read, I would say there have been maybe 8 times when I was actually overwhelmed by the sincerely romantic nature of what was happening. Not crying mind you, but gasping and covering my mouth, and doing that hand fanning gesture while I took a moment. This was that.

A Kiss for Midwinter is a novella in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. The collection includes two novellas, this one and The Governess Affair, and a full length novel, The Duchess War, so far. I have read and will read everything in the series, and anything else Milan publishes. She is the best writer in the business. Tessa Dare is a lot of fun, Julie Anne Long gives great smolder and is wonderfully funny, but Courtney Milan is an artist. She’s funny, romantic, realistic, and heartbreaking, plus this book has a Spinal Tap reference in the first chapter. Her heroes are exclusively protectors, perhaps slightly forbidding (I’m looking at you, Smite), and possess fierce honesty. They demand the same honesty of their partners which allows the women freedom from Victorian society’s double-standards and strictures.

Lydia Charingford is the best friend of The Duchess War’s Minnie and this story picks up where that happy ending left off. Set in 1860s Leicester, Lydia has recently broken her engagement and is at a loose end. She and Dr. Jonas Grantham volunteer with a group that provides support to the local poor, the same group which populates his practice. Jonas has been in love with Lydia for over a year, but his brusque, brutally frank manner overwhelms her, and, more importantly, makes her feel seen through into places where she does not wish to look. With a terrible sense of humour and a bleak world view, Jonas sets out to court the vivacious Lydia by daring her to accompany him on three house calls and not be demoralized. His prize, should he “win”, is a kiss. If she wins, he must never speak to her again.

Having a wager involving a doctor working in the slums allows Milan to write about parts of the world usually seen only in passing in novels built around cultural necrophilia. The story is well-researched and the quality of it, and the writing, lift her books out of the genre. Not that there is anything wrong with the genre, but when I read Milan it can feel like I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out: A perfectly enjoyable piece of escapist reading suddenly feels like a “proper” book. I don’t know how to say that without insulting the genre, other than to clarify: There are things one looks to these books for and glimpses of workaday reality are not among them, but Milan folds everything in so well, the reading experience becomes more, and with every book she’s getting even better.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

The Turner Series: Unveiled, Unclaimed, Unraveled by Courtney Milan

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.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.