Trashy Read 2012 #9: The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan
Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know by now that Courtney Milan has quickly become one of my favorite romance writers (probably second only to Loretta Chase). Of the nine romances I have read in 2012, five have been written by her. Last May, I became obsessed with her novella The Governess Affair, which was sweet and emotionally engaging in a way that's rare in historical romance. That novella was supposed to be the prequel to a new series called The Brothers Sinister. At the time The Governess Affair was published, the first full-length book in the series was due to be released later that summer. Then it got pushed back to September. Then October. And then Courtney Milan admitted that she didn't know when it would come out. Well, it finally hit Amazon as an e-book at the beginning of December. I bought it the moment she posted the link on Twitter and began reading it as soon as finals week wound down. I worried it wasn't going to be worth the long, agonizing wait I had spent until its release. Luckily, I was wrong.
I loved The Duchess War. I wrote on this blog once that the appeal of Nora Roberts's romances rests in the characters' inherent goodness. I enjoy reading romances featuring protagonists who are good people trying to do the right thing. I think Courtney Milan has become the historical romance equivalent of Nora Roberts. Her books just make me feel warm. A Milan novel is funny, sweet, and VERY emotionally rewarding. This book in particular made me really feel the intense emotional struggles of its hero and heroine and then rewarded me with an ending that felt honest to these people. I actually got a bit choked up at the end, and despite my generally-emotional reading habits, I never, ever cry while reading romances.
The Duchess War takes place almost three decades after The Governess Affair, focusing on the son of that book's villain. Robert Blaisdell, a duke (obviously), knows of his father's horrible past transgressions, and he's made it his life's goal to undo the man's mistakes. He finds himself in an English industrial town, writing handbills under a pseudonym, trying to get pensions for workers and beat the corruption inherent in the factory system. Robert wants nothing more than to be the opposite of his father. He strives to be a good man who never takes advantage of anyone. He meets Wilhelmina Pursling, the ultimate wallflower, who wants nothing more than to be ignored as she tries in her own small way to improve the lives of the town's citizens. Minnie has a sad, weird past that she has been trying to avoid by becoming a non-person. But Robert, of course, sees through the act to the real, passionate Minnie. Their lives become more and more entangled, until they can't help but fall in love.
I'm not used to being surprised by romances. In fact, I often enjoy them for the comfy formulas. But The Duchess War genuinely surprised me in the way it unfolded. Wilhelmina's secret is something I've never encountered before in romance, and it's nice to see a heroine's past be about a very different type of "ruin" than we usually see in historical romances. Meanwhile, Robert's desire to be part of a family and his desire to be loved adds actual emotional stakes to the story rather than feeling like a crutch or a cliche. The way the book's last fifth unfolds actually made my heart hurt. I love romances because of the way they aren't afraid to be emotional, but I tend to read them with a bit of distance, enjoying the emotional ringers the characters go through without ever quite feeling involved in them. The Duchess War kept me involved. I could barely stand how much it made me feel for the hero and heroine, two people whose angst actually felt earned rather than dictated by an all-seeing author. What makes this book, and by extension its author, so good is the feeling that everything is natural and earned. I can't get enough of Milan's books, and this one might be the best yet.
Note: This is probably my favorite Milan book in terms of story, although I'd say that Ned (from Trial by Desire) is still my favorite Milan hero. He's probably my favorite romance hero ever, actually. That being said, Robert was pretty great himself.
Note 2: I absolutely cannot wait for the next book in this series, which focuses on Oliver, the son of the two protagonists in The Governess Affair. Oliver seems made of win, and better yet, he's not a wealthy aristocrat!