The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
(Book 1, The Brothers Sinister)
E-book (Kindle), 265 pages
As a general rule I don't think of myself as a fan of historical romance. I say that in spite of the fact that Diana Gabaldon's Outlander is one of my favourite series of all time. Somehow I don't think of those books as historical romance. But I read Justin Landon's Letter to Dudebros as part of Smugglivus, about using historical romance as a lens to examine privilege, and (even though I'm not a Dudebro) I thought I'd follow his basic instructions. I got myself a candle and comfy spot, downloaded Courtney Milan's The Duchess War to my new Kindle Paperwhite (a Christmas present from my parents and I. love. it.) and set to work.
I enjoyed myself quite a bit. Despite the cover.
It's historical romance alright, so there are some foregone conclusions in the plot equation. There has to be a man and a woman, and each has to have their vulnerabilities. So: Minnie Pursling is quiet, retiring and getting on in years for 1863; she is 24 and lives with her spinster aunts Caro and Eliza in Leicester in constrained circumstances. She has a scandalous past to conceal, and a loveless marriage to an unremarkable man is the best she can hope for. Robert Blaisdell, the ninth Duke of Clermont, on the other hand is handsome, intelligent, well-regarded in politics and rich. An aristocratic wife and a life of luxury is on the cards. But he had a loveless childhood, with a manipulative philandering father and a cold absent mother, and is constantly trying to make up for their mistakes. The pair meet under rather unlikely circumstances, behind a sofa in the library of the Leicester Guildhall, and the rest you can guess.
Except perhaps not these things...
1. Minnie isn't ravishingly beautiful. She has a scar on her face - and not one of those 'oh this tiny cut beneath my eye is a hideous deformity' scars, but a scar that comes of having your eye socket fractured and nearly loosing your eye in a violent attack. And she is plain with it; only pretty in certain lights, in certain moods. Like most of us I guess. Even when Robert has fallen for her, she isn't magically transformed. At the moment he sees her naked for the first time, he notices that the smooth skin he had imagined is actually downy and goosepimpled with excitement.
2. Point of view is shared. We alternate between seeing through Minnie's eye and Robert's eyes, and - wonder of wonders - they don't just think endlessly about each other. I mean they do think about each other, but they also think about their family and friends...
3. ...which means that conflict in the novel isn't just about the lovers. Robert has an illegitimate brother, Oliver (the subject of the next book in the series I think), as well as a sour mother and scandalous friend Sebastian, a scientist dabbling in evolutionary theory. Minnie has her great-aunts, who aren't the spinsters they seem, and a best friend Lydia, who is having her own romantic difficulties.
4. Minnie and Robert have ambitions for themselves that have nothing to do with each other. He takes his seat in the House of Lords seriously, and is an advocate of radical electoral reform. Minnie is involved in Leicester's Cooperative movement and the development of sanitation. She is also a cracking chess player, and not just for plot purposes either. She is a strategist by nature, whereas Robert absolutely is not.
5. Boy gets girl really early on. Around the mid-way mark in fact, so early I kept checking down at my percentage read to make sure I wasn't imagining it. Courney Milan uses the rest of the book to explore how Minnie and Robert's relationship actually works when confronted with a testing scenario. I don't know whether this structure is usual in historical romance these days, but I thought it was a world of refreshing.
6. Robert is hyper aware of how privileged he is, both as a man and as a peer, and is always seeking to redress. He recognises that his privilege is arbitrary; but that it is both inscribed in the legal system and in society itself. He understands that he benefits from it constantly, in a hundred small and unspoken ways. Subtract the romance and The Duchess War is really about his attempt to insert a wedge between his privilege and the world, and leverage it off like a scab.
7. The prose is good. Not perfect, but good. There are info dumps (and attendant mistakes) you would expect from an American writing about Leicester, and there are some squirmy oddities. My favourite: 'If eyes were windows to the soul, hers had been bricked up to avoid taxation'. Surely the only window tax reference in historical romance? But otherwise it flows smoothly, and the dialogue is really lovely in parts, and the sex scenes are great.
8. I loved the ending. Loved it. There is one of those '4 years later' chapters and, lo, the point of the chapter is not to celebrate how many babies Minnie has had or what a great mother or wife she is. It is entirely about something she is achieving for herself.
There is stuff I didn't like. I didn't like the fact that servants are almost absent from the novel, except for throwaway comments and cameos, and I didn't like the way that Sebastian and the conflict around evolutionary science disappeared from the book after serving its purposes. There were some far fetched emotional leaps too. But all in all, I loved this first book in the Brothers Sinister series, and I'm looking forward to reading more from from Courtney Milan and more from the genre.
Oh wise people of the internets, does anyone have recommendations for more historical romance like it?