Right before I dug into my Cybils reading late last year, I inhaled a huge pile of historical romance novels. I had just learned about Courtney Milan and was reading everything of hers I could get my hands on, even the novellas (and I usually consider novellas a waste of my time). I like all of her books and love a good number of them, so she’s become my new go-to recommendation for someone looking for a good historical romance. They’re feminist and take the “historical” part of the genre seriously.
Sadly, my library doesn’t own her entire oeuvre, so I cannot pass judgment on everything she’s ever published. (Despite my requests, they don’t own either of the Carhart books or the novella, to my everlasting disappointment.) Still, I thought I’d give a quick run-down of the books I have read, in hopes of encouraging those of you who enjoy historical romances to give her a try (or just ask me how I’m so late to the party since you’ve been reading her for years).
(I promise this blog isn’t turning into an adult romance-only blog. I’ll be back with the regular YA programming soon.)
The Brothers Sinister Series
This is the first series of hers I read, and it’s by far my favorite. I talked a little about The Duchess War and The Heiress Effect in this previous post. The series continues with The Countess Conspiracy, which is my favorite of the bunch. It features a female scientist, Viola Waterfield, who for years has been convincing her friend Sebastian to present her findings as his to the public, since the public at this time would never take a woman seriously. Sebastian has been in love with Viola for a long time, and now that Viola has been widowed, he sees an opportunity to discover if their friendship can develop into something more.
This book combines a few things that I really love in my romance novels: a hero who has been pining for the heroine for quite some time; a super-smart heroine who does something unconventional for her time period; and a romance built upon friendship and respect. I’m not a scientist myself, but I loved reading about Viola and her discoveries – which are not historically accurate, of course, since Viola doesn’t actually exist, but the science is sound and fascinating. The dedication to the book is especially moving. This book continues Milan’s trend of blending history and romance in a natural, believable, and engrossing way.
The fourth book is The Suffragette Scandal, which features Frederica “Free” Marshall, the younger sister of the hero from the second book. She runs a newspaper by women and for women, is an outspoken suffragette, and is probably the most independent of Milan’s heroines. I read that Milan initially wanted to pair Free with a man who didn’t at first believe women should have the right to vote, but thankfully she changed her mind. This is the most politically-minded book of the series and I really loved it, though the last third dragged a little more than I would have liked. There’s a secondary romance here (as there was in The Heiress Effect) between two women, and it is equally lovely. Bonus: Check out the Tumblr account “written” by the man who contributes an advice column to Free’s newspaper (and the only man to be employed by her). It is seriously funny.
The novellas in this series are a treat. There’s a prequel, The Governess Affair, about the second book’s hero’s parents. It’s a tricky story since it involves a rape that causes a pregnancy: the heroine has been raped by the hero’s employer, and the rapist basically tells the hero to get rid of her. I was worried the hero wouldn’t be written sympathetically, but he is; the romance between the two is believable and sweet. It’s a bit heavier than normal romance fare, but certainly recommended.
A Kiss for Midwinter is about the friend of the first book’s heroine. She was seduced as a teenager by a man and became pregnant, then lost the pregnancy due to bad medical advice from a doctor. Her hero in this novella is that doctor’s assistant at the time, who said nothing about the bad advice that he knew was being given. And she remembers. This is my favorite of all her novellas. It deals with tough topics – not just the treatment of unmarried pregnant women, but also poverty and illness during this era – but manages to be sweet and optimistic. The chemistry between the two is so apparent, but there’s also a deeper connection built upon the trust that grows between them as they spend time in each other’s company. This is my favorite of all the novellas and I anticipate I’ll be re-reading it a lot.
The last novella is Talk Sweetly to Me, which my library doesn’t own. It’s notable in that it features a Black heroine, which historical romances set in England hardly ever do.
The Turner Series
These books were all published in 2011 and precede the Brothers Sinister. My library doesn’t own the first book, Unveiled, though it does own the second and third. All three books are about brothers who grew up with a mentally ill mother who abused them. They’ve had a hard life, and not just due to that. They’re some of the most tortured heroes I’ve ever read about in romance novels, and that is saying something.
Unclaimed is about Mark Turner, who has taken a vow of chastity and become quite famous for it. His love interest is a courtesan. It’s an interesting twist on the typical romance and I enjoyed it; thankfully, it’s got some humor in it. Unraveled is about Smite Turner, and you guys, I just can’t with this book. It is the most angst-ridden romance I’ve ever read. His name is Smite. He was the one who took the brunt of his mother’s abuse as a child and that’s apparent in his personality and outlook on the world (i.e. not positive). There’s very little humor in this one. I liked it, and it had some nice swoony moments, but overall this was just too much for me. I think Milan’s gotten a lot better at creating complex heroes who don’t veer into ridiculous territory with her later books.
Unlocked is the novella in this series, but I didn’t recognize the characters from the full-length books. The hero bullied the heroine a few years past, when they were both adults, in public, for months on end, and he’s returned all sorry and wanting to make amends. I might have believed it in a full-length novel, with more time for me to see his transformation, but it didn’t really work for me as a novella. (Especially when he claims he made fun of her because he liked her. Please. You are an adult.) This was another I liked but didn’t love.
The Lady Always Wins is about a couple who were friends as children and then fell in love as they grew up. But Simon’s parents said they’d cut him off from the family money if he married her, and Ginny refused to elope with him. She knows what it’s like to be a woman in this era, married to a poor man. They meet again later and rekindle the romance. I liked this story since there wasn’t any secret reason the woman rejected the man – it really was because he would have been destitute. It can seem heartless in our modern era, but it’s a practical and real concern for Ginny, who as a woman cannot make her own money and knows that poverty can lead to hunger, illness, and a short, unhappy life. Poverty is stripped of its romanticism here.
What Happened at Midnight is probably the most traditional of Milan’s novellas. It involves rich people who lose their money and a huge misunderstanding between the leads as the primary conflict. It also has one of the most subtly awful villains ever. I got so angry reading about him, because he couched all of his awfulness in gentle words and false caring. Worth a read, but again, not a favorite.
Have you read any of Milan’s work? What’s your favorite of hers?