I read almost exclusively historical romances, and these usually come in series that feature a certain family or group of friends who each find love in a different volume. This means that the ancillary characters you grow to love in the first book will be revisited in the subsequent books. It also means that protagonists get their own little continuing episodes in sequels.
This is why I particularly love discovering a new romance author. I fall in love with a whole passel of delightful characters, each with their own personalities. I get to keep up with these characters over time, chronicling not just their grand romances, but also their little life experiences afterward, in the sequels that focus on other characters. It doesn’t hurt that romances are usually published in quick succession, meaning the wait for a new novel isn’t usually very long.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve dove into two new authors: Lily Dalton and Courtney Milan. Dalton I picked up quite by accident. She was signing at the Texas Library Association, her book was free, and it was historical romance. That’s all the convincing I needed to give it a try. Courtney Milan I’ve heard talk of for some months now and figured it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about.
Never Entice an Earl by Lily Dalton
Daphne Bevington’s maid Kate has gotten herself into a terrible situation. Kate’s father took out a huge loan from an unscrupulous lender, and now the lender has come to collect. In order to pay off the loan, Kate has taken a side job as an exotic dancer, but she’s fallen ill and can’t make it. So Daphne, without Kate’s knowledge, takes her place for the evening. Naturally, the situation at the dance hall/bar is a bad one; unsurprisingly, our hero is there to save the day.
This was a pretty typical historical romance, I think. The hero and heroine (both upper class and titled) are thrown together into a ridiculous situation where sparks fly immediately. The setting is generically historical: women wear corsets and have to be chaperoned, but other than that, historical detail is almost nonexistent. The story could be happening at practically any point within a 100 or 150 year time frame. All this is fine, actually – I don’t mind any of it when the romance itself is done well. Unfortunately, I never got a real feel for the leads. I have a hard time remembering any of their defining characteristics, and the romance between them happens suddenly and because it’s supposed to, not because their personalities are a match. It’s not a bad read, but not an outstanding one.
The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
This is the first book in the Brothers Sinister series, which features a few full-length novels as well as a few novellas. Our heroine, Minnie, has a scandalous past. Thanks to the meddling of our hero, Robert, this past may come to light and ruin Minnie’s carefully-crafted new life. Of course, Minnie has her own tricks up her sleeve – she has some equally damning dirt on Robert. The stakes here are actually quite high. Milan doesn’t write romances where the hero and heroine are kept apart by mere misunderstandings. Both characters have choices to make, but each choice will hurt themselves or someone they love. The tone of the book is pretty serious throughout, though I’m glad it had the requisite happy ending. I wasn’t wowed by this one, but I did enjoy it, and it was sufficiently different from other romances to keep me intrigued and reading on.
The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan
I liked this one even more than The Duchess War. It’s a great deal funnier, thanks to a premise that is inherently amusing: the heroine has decided she will never marry, and she’s decided to make it happen by being deliberately awful. She dresses in hideous clothing, casually insults lords and aristocrats, and pretends like she doesn’t know the first thing about manners or social niceties. There’s a dark side to the plot, as was the case with the first book, but I found myself laughing out loud a lot despite the gravity of the heroine’s situation. I always appreciate my romances more when they’re funny. I also think Milan’s writing is a bit better here. The affection between the two leads develops at a believable pace and Milan knows just how long to keep them apart before finally throwing them together.
After finishing up this second book, I’ve found that Milan’s books tend to be more socially and politically-conscious than other historicals I’ve read. Her heroes and heroines are usually part of the movement for social change, such as abolishing the peerage, organizing workers’ unions, or expanding the vote to non-landowners. This helps place the books more firmly in a historical context and lends them an air of authenticity that is often missing from other romances of this kind. While the focus is definitely the love story, these historical romances seem almost as much “historical” as they are “romance.” The subplots used to hamper the two leads getting together also seem more genuine since they stem from the characters, who are well-rounded and flawed in real ways (rather than “quirky” ways as is often the case – I’m looking at you, heroines who are delightfully clumsy). As a result, the romance is truly swoon-worthy and all the more satisfying at the end.