Genre: Historical Romance
The Duchess War: Minnie isn’t the person she’s pretending to be, and the last thing she can afford is for anyone to uncover the secrets of her childhood, or how she got the scar on her cheek. But then the captain of the militia starts threatening to investigate suspicions he has about her background, unless the inflammatory handbills he’s convinced she’s writing to rile the local workers stop. There’s just one problem. She isn’t writing those handbills.
Robert, Duke of Clermont, is the one actually responsible for the handbills. The journey of his childhood and his friendship with his bastard half-brother has lead him to question much about his way of life. And he wants to do his best to make up for his father’s cruelties. When Minnie finds out the handbills are his, he thinks there isn’t much she, or anyone, can do about it. But he’s about to be proven wrong. (Preview)
The Heiress Effect: Jane Fairfield is the most ridiculed woman in polite society, tolerated only due to her immense fortune. She seems utterly unaware of how her peers view her…but in fact, she’s counting on it. She must remain unmarried while appearing to be trying to attract a husband in order for her uncle to allow her to remain in his home. And she has to stay, to shield her sister as best she can from abusive medical treatments designed to cure her seizures.
Oliver Marshall is the bastard son of a duke, driven to make something of himself, to gain enough influence to make a difference in society. He’s following the rules and playing the game to get to the point where he can change things. And then a proposition is thrown his way: get enough influence to support a proposal for voting reform in parliament, in exchange for the humiliation of one woman who can’t seem to grasp her place. Jane Fairfield. It goes against all of Oliver’s principles, but isn’t real social change worth more than any one individual? (Preview)
The Countess Conspiracy: Sebastian Malheur is a flippant jokester, a rampant womanizer, and one of the foremost scientists of his age, known for his work on inheritance supporting Darwin’s theories. Except the work he’s presenting isn’t his–it’s his childhood friend Violet’s. Violet is still reeling from the end of her traumatic marriage. Being able to conduct science and put her work out there, even if she has to give the credit to her best friend and partner in crime, gives her something to cling to. But the lies have become too much for Sebastian, and he’s walking away. Now Violet, who’s been coached all her life by her mother to bury any potential scandal, must decide where that leaves her. (Preview)
The Suffragette Scandal: Free Marshall is the creator of the Women’s Free Press, a newspaper by women, for women, and about women. As this is the 19th century, this…ruffles some feathers. And now her business is being targeted by–of all things–a lord offended that she refused to be his mistress.
Edward Clark was abandoned by his family in the middle of a warzone, left to die in the ensuing conflict. The only thing sufficient to get him back home is the knowledge that his brother–having taken over his title–is going after one of his old childhood friends, one of the few people he still cares about and someone he feels guilty for failing the past. That old childhood friend happens to work for Free Marshall, writing a column for her newspaper. In order to help his friend and foil his brother, he’s going to have to convince Free to work with a scoundrel like himself, without revealing any of his secrets. (Preview)
Series: Series consisting of four books, and three novellas.
POV: Third person, from the POV of the hero and heroine of the story, with occasional minor POVs following a subplot in certain books.
Going into the first book of the series which I read (the third book, featuring the female scientist, of course), I’d heard that Courtney Milan writes her novels paying attention to the issues of the time. She deals with issues like social inequality, instead of sweeping them under the rug for a more idealized and romanticized read. It was what piqued my curiosity in the first place–well, in addition to the author having experience in both science and law to draw on in her fiction, which I appreciate. Even so, I wasn’t expecting this series to be so unapologetically non-conformist, in the most amazing ways, while still very much fitting into the genre.
If there’s one narrative that, when done well, will get to me no matter the genre or trappings of the story, it’s this one: It’s about being yourself no matter what society tells you to be–and not in the inspirational way touted by people who don’t really understand what that means. The way that’s hard, where it still hurts not to be accepted, but where you either can’t or won’t change who you are just to earn that acceptance. The way where you have to make sacrifices just to be the person you need to be. The way that even when it’s a choice you have to make, you still get angry and frustrated and exhausted with the obstacles everyone else keeps putting in your path.
Just because you’re different. Because you have to be different, or because you dare to be different, or some mix of the two.
And the books do deal with inequality, and race, and medical malpractice, and women’s rights in the context of the times. These things aren’t ignored.
The heroines can be clever and brave without falling into the stereotypically ineffective fashion of being such. The heroes get to express their feelings and decide who they really want to be. And there is generally a degree of reciprocity in their relationships, with each taking turn to help with the other’s dire straits. All of the characters in general break out of stereotypical roles and have nuance to them, even the supporting ones.
And many of the main ones shine.
Robert is a good person. He’s conscientious about how his high social status can affect the people around him, precisely because his father had used that same status to bludgeon people with. He listens, and he learns. And if his and Minnie’s relationship incorporates another kind of reciprocity than just helping each other–wherein they take turns forgiving each other–it’s mostly at his instigation. He cares more about understanding than he does about nursing his hurts.
Jane’s tastes and demeanor genuinely run contrary to societal expectations. And she chooses to magnify those qualities to her own advantage when the need arises. Then when the need for pretense is gone, she remains as she had always been. She continues to wear the clothes she likes, not the clothes others like on her. Because despite the fact that it hurts when she’s ridiculed, she still refuses to change herself in order to gain acceptance. And she shows Oliver he doesn’t have to, either.
Violet has been through a lot that she couldn’t share with anyone, and then had to hide her talents behind her best friend. Sebastian has been a huge source of support for her, while balancing his own skills against his desire to be liked. (Which resonates with me, because it took me a long time to figure out that everything important is also controversial). These two more than any other stand as a pair–they’ve already had a longstanding partnership, and they spend as much time helping each other figure out their relationships with others as they do figuring out their own. And those relationships with others are pretty heartbreaking on their own. Violet goes to her sister when she needs to be needed for something, and this bring her comfort. Yet their every interaction is a lie. Sebastian only wants to make his older brother proud, but his every accomplishment is met with more ridicule. Violet and Sebastian don’t just see each other for who they are–they help others do the same.
Free is so competent, she initially runs circles around the hero–who’s an expert in scheming, blackmail, and forgery–just because he makes the mistake of underestimating her. And given what she does, she has to be that competent. She’s constantly fending off attacks from people who are too threatened by what she’s doing. I have pretty much nothing in common with her, but she’s such a powerful character for me, and she’s just so admirable.
Secondary characters also stand out. Robert’s mother is estranged from him, and could easily have been the haughty, prideful mother-in-law who didn’t want her son to marry beneath him for her own sake. But it’s more complicated than that. Jane’s sister is an epileptic practically imprisoned in her room who nonetheless fights to take charge of her life and future, and gets to do it from her own viewpoint within Jane’s story. Her love interest is an Indian man caught between what’s right to think and what’s safe to think, between what he wants and what will make a discernible difference in the world.
And despite being part of a genre that’s all about getting various men and women in relationships, it doesn’t assert that marriage is the highest form of happiness, either.
There’s an old spinster who manages to aspire to adventure despite being afraid of leaving her house, and finds a different way to connect with the world. There are two couples where both partners are women, and one of these characters gets a minor viewpoint in Free’s book. And it’s easy to imagine if Free had never met someone, she would have been perfectly fine.
And yes, there is a degree of optimism here. We all want to believe that we can be the brave ones, and that the people around us will join us in our struggles. Because they’re strong enough, or because they’ll become strong enough for love of us. But that also has a place in our fiction. Because sometimes we need to believe. And because sometimes it makes a difference–or rather, every little bit makes a difference, and it’ll be noticed somewhere.
It was the smile of a man who knew he possessed considerable strength, and found it faintly embarrassing.
Keep quiet. Don’t panic. Never tell anyone the truth. She’d lived with their rules for twelve years, and for what? So that she might one day be so lucky as to be forgotten entirely.
“I’m afraid that you’re going to break your heart, going up against the world.”
“No…I’m going to break the world.”
When had she started believing them? That she was a plague, that nobody could truly like her? That every word out of her mouth was a burden for others?
“I’m terrified to go out, and yet here I’m stuck. Without anyone at all, with nothing to do. I don’t even know who I am some days…I opened the door yesterday…I put one toe out before I had such palpitations of the heart that I had to stop…One day, I’m going to open my door. I’m going to walk down the stairs, just like I’ve always been doing it. I’m going to open the front door…And I’m going for a walk in the park.”
“Why couldn’t you have needed a proper rescuing anyway…? I’m your elder brother. You have to make me feel useful.”
But she’d shrugged. “No, I don’t,” she’d contradicted. “You’re a grown man. Find a use for yourself.”
Sometimes, Oliver thought that society was like an infant trying to shove a square, colored block though a round hole. When it didn’t go, the child pounded harder. Oliver had been shoved through round holes so often that he’d scarcely even noticed that his edges had become rounded.
“Anything is bearable if you can fight it, but if you must sit back and take it…That breaks you in a way I can’t explain.”
“When she was three, I told her that she couldn’t contradict the boy next door, even when she’s right, because it’s indelicate for a lady to disagree with a gentleman. I told her that she mustn’t run, because ladies never hurry. Every day, from the moment she took her first step, I’ve told her to stop: to stop thinking, to stop speaking, to stop moving about. And I didn’t know why I said any of it.”