The Duchess War | Brothers Sinister #1 | ISBN 9781937248093 | Courtney Milan, 2012 | 3.5 out of 5 Points
“Sometimes love is an accident. This time, it’s a strategy. Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly–so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past. Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention. But that is precisely what she gets.
Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to her than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match…”
“The Duchess War” is the first book in the Brother Sinister series, the tale of Robert Blaisdell, a duke with class conscience, and Wilhelmina “Minny” Pursling, wallflower and secret identity haver, which the blurb of this book sadly gives away, even though knowing her real name (Minerva Lane) doesn’t really take away from discovering the juicy secrets that loom in her past. It’s a story about dichotomies – poor versus rich, (in)famous versus anonymous, ignorant versus progressive, and the tension these contrasts create made the whole book extremely entertaining and a generally very enjoyable read. Though the longer I have been thinking about it, the more I have realized that while this book is one of the better romance novels I’ve read lately, it’s still far from perfect.
BIT OF A MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS SITUATION
To be honest, I still don’t know where the title is coming from. Unlike some other historical romance books I’ve read, the wedding in this book takes place at the end, not somewhere in the middle, so our protagonist, Minny, doesn’t actually become a duchess until the end, and the other duchess mentioned in this book doesn’t really seem to wage a war? Strange, but whatever. A title does not a book make, after all.
What makes a book, though, are of course its characters, and Milan has a talent for highlighting the blotches and stains on a person’s psyche. Both Minny and Robert are people with a past that affects their every move, and even though I personally didn’t really feel like a lot of Minny’s problems were realistic, Robert’s abandonment by his parents and his constant childhood fantasies of finally actually having a family, fantasies that he has long learned to suppress by the time he meets Minny, definitely tore at my heartstrings. There is a scene where Minny tells him he is not at all like his father, and the desperate joy he feels at that is so well-written and so viscerally understandable to the reader that it just lingers and echoes in their relationship for the rest of the book. Robert is not a clever man or a witty man, he is incredibly insecure and desperately vulnerable, but he is a man with a good heart, and I would really say that he is one of the best romance heroes I have read.
And then we get to Minny. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Minny as a character, I loved that she isn’t pretty, I loved that she is complicated, that she isn’t clever in public and that she is basically a bundle of fears sewn together by the sheer will to survive. She, like Robert, is a person with a kind and generous heart, but other than Robert’s past, her own scandal-ridden childhood leaves a few questions to be answered. And a lot of those questions are related to the fact that Milan doesn’t seem to know a lot about the ‘common folk’ in Victorian England, especially in London, and about how people of the lower echelons of society would be thinking and perceiving the world.
It’s difficult not to spoil Minny’s story here. Let me just say: Victorians were not very superstitious people, not even the poor masses. They did not believe everything a charismatic speaker would say, they did not believe in supernatural intervention in the real world, for the most part, and angry mobs were reserved for labor protests. While the first part of Minny’s childhood is realistic enough, the big event that changed her life forever is just too unrealistic to make you sympathize with Minny. It is also absolutely not understandable why her life had to change so extremely afterwards – why she had to go from the brilliant Minerva Lane to the mousy Wilhelmina Pursling, who keeps telling herself that she is nothing because that’s the only way she will survive? But why? Isn’t there some kind of halfway point between being nothing and being brilliant? The whole thing with Wilhelmina constantly telling herself how she is nothing, and how she is worth nothing, was not congruous with the character, and it definitely put me as a reader off. I mean, alright, she is poor and she has little options in her life and so on, but first of all, she is not really poor in the extreme sense of the word, she lives on a very nice farm (even though her living situation is precarious), she gets invited to society events, she is acquainted with all the movers and doers of her city, and she is part of a charity through which she knows very well how bad her life could be. It just sits kind of wrong with me that somebody whose life is, if not perfect, then still comfortable, would be so insistent that she is worth nothing.
I’m not saying her life isn’t hard. It definitely is, especially the fact that she and her aunt might be homeless once her aunt’s best friend (and likely life partner) dies. She feels like she has to marry, and she feels like nobody but the lowest of the low would marry her. Still, the scenes where she tells herself that she is nothing are just… I don’t know, it seems too much.
SOCIALIST RANT INCOMING
Just like in Minny’s past, a lot of the behavior of lower class people in this book seems strange and kind of cliché. It is natural that a book about a Duke with socialist leanings and a woman with charity ties would involve a lot of poor people, but bar a few exceptions, most of them just feel stereotypical or just plain unrealistic. They are also exclusively portrayed as either hapless victims of the world they live in, or as ignorant luddites, both not exactly flattering or humanizing descriptions. Like I said, it’s not exactly easy to make relative poverty a big point in a character’s personality when they are surrounded by abject poverty, and that becomes even starker against this background of stereotypes and clichés.
Having a noble character with such strong socialist leanings as Robert was interesting, but his political engagement was sadly undercut by the portrayal of the poor people he tries to help. They are either complacent or show a ‘This is the world we live in, we can’t do anything about that’ attitude, and Robert comes across pretty patronizing at a few points in the book. The rich, educated savior trying to lift the huddled masses out of their misery – that’s not exactly something that sits very well with me, to say the truth.
Of course, one could argue that this is a romance book, and that the focus of course has to be on the main characters, and that too many focus on side-characters might distract from that. But let’s be honest, there are some side-characters that get a lot of focus – we definitely get to know Robert’s best friends Oliver, Sebastian and Violet, for example, as well as Lydia, Minny’s best friend. But as it often is with romance novels, this is a series, and the people we actually get to know in this book are exactly the people who get to star in further books of this series. And, spoiler alert, nobody in Romancelandia is going to romance a factory girl, or get swept away by a gaffer anytime soon. So there is not really a lot of use in actually giving these sorts of people personalities other than ‘This character facilitates the main character’s growth’, ‘This character illustrates the main character’s personality’ or ‘This character stands in the way of the main character’s goal’.
SOCIALIST RANT OVER, SO WHAT ABOUT THE ROMANCE?
I do admit that all this stuff is a little nitpicky and focused on subplots and not really on point regarding the genre the book is in. I mean, this is a romance, so the important part is the relationship between the main characters, right? Well, I’m not quite sure if I think so, dear straw(wo)man, but it has to be said that “The Duchess War” has a really, really good romance plot. The two main characters keep dancing around each other, coming closer, drawing back, hurting each other because they do not realize how vulnerable they are, making stupid decisions and paying the price for it until the misunderstandings and wounds of the past are finally disentangled and laid open, and it really is a joy to read. One of the reasons why most of my criticism on this book actually only formed after I read it is just this incredible pull of the story, which makes you want nothing more than for Robert to finally find somebody who loves him and for Minny to escape her worries and fears, which does happen at the end (and I don’t think I’m spoiling you here, we all know how romances end, and we wouldn’t read them if they didn’t have happy ends). The characters are touching and loveable, and the plot woven around them is just frustrating enough to keep you turning the pages.
One thing that might be criticized about the romance plot is that the resolution just comes too fast. Minny does something horrible to push Robert away, and it would have done the book a lot of good if the inevitable resolution of the whole thing had been drawn out a little more. I have a personal vendetta against rushed endings going, and this book definitely belongs on the ‘rushed resolution’ list.
One last point I’d like to make here is that I really liked the ostensible antagonist of the story, Robert’s mother, as a character. She is not necessarily a likable person, but like her son and like Minny she has a pretty horrible past, and just the process of going from absolutely hating a character to reluctantly understanding them is incredibly rewarding for me. Robert’s mother introduces a conflict that can’t be easily resolved, other than the plot involving another villain of the book, and it gives the book an unfinished, open-ended sort of feeling that definitely makes it feel rounder and more organic.
All in all, “The Duchess War” is a great romance that tries to be too socio-critical for its own good. That kind of flaw might be easily forgiven in a contemporary novel, but since this is a historical romance, and since socio-cultural issues are a large part of its plot, I don’t feel comfortable giving it more than 3.5 points.
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