Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

The Duchess War - Courtney Milan

One reason I've read so many books by Milan (and I only just went through my ereader and noticed this) is that she seems to make an effort to try something a bit different - example: using characters of different classes (not all aristocrats), educational backgrounds, etc. You don't have to have just one character be The Intellect - you can have multiple clever people with various histories. I like that variety - and that I don't feel like I'm reading the same story over and over (I can sometimes enjoy plot repetition, depending on how well the story's told). That doesn't mean I love everything she's produced. Often the traumatic backgrounds she gives her characters are a bit much for me - sometimes I'm not in the mood for loss, betrayal and/or suffering, for instance.


The other thing I like about Milan is that we not only get inside the heroine's head and thoughts, but the hero as well. And usually fairly equally, so that you're aware of what both hero and heroine are like as people. Duchess War in particular is about the hero questioning what it means to be an aristocrat, and to have a family - while the heroine struggles with her own identity, and what parts of it (and herself) to hide, and what to reveal.


I actually started reading this months ago and then never finished it - and that was because of a combination of real life and content. There's a lot of discussion of family and how they effect the hero/heroine - and some of it was enough to make me stop reading to have a good ponder. It always feels odd when a romance makes me all introspective in a way that tons of nonfiction reading never has. But that was the case with this book at least.


Because I'm always nervous in spoiler territory, I'll hide much of the next bit...


Two things which happen that I hate - yet somehow I didn't hate the book as a whole. This is why I'm not adding any stars yet - I'll have to ponder it over a bit. [Which means I'll someday rewrite this paragraph. Maybe. I could get lazy and just leave this without a thumbs up or down. I'll admit it, I'm one who will waffle over this kind of book.] It didn't make me change how I feel about Milan's books, or her writing. I just don't think this particular book will go on my reread shelf. (Not a lot of romances do, actually - that's just how I read romance.)


Later (10/21/2013): You know what? This book has made me decide to have a new policy. Romance gets to be its own special genre, since I consider it a different type of reading experience for me than the other genres I read. So I'm not going to worry about grading it because that's work - from now on I'm just going to write about what I thought about the book. No stars, no grades, no worrying - well, not for me anyhow.


Anyway, on to those two things:


1) When Robert decides

not to tell Minnie he's going to bring up her chess champion past before the Big Courtroom Scene near the end - though he does chicken out and leave her a note.

(show spoiler)


I really, really hate the whole trope of "X does not share Vital Secret with Y and will it separate them?!" And it's always something that's going to be revealed/told to others and the characters never take time out and just talk things over, face to face. You know, like adults tend to do. This happens even though we're often assured that the characters are intelligent and logical beings. Whenever this happens in a plot - and you can usually see this plot point coming soooo many pages before the scene happens - I inwardly cringe and say "oh come ON, do NOT do this to me again!" But of course I keep reading, hoping that it won't turn out as stupidly as it often does.


In Duchess War this isn't as badly done as I first thought it would be. I thought the book was doomed when Minnie

specifically reminds him that she's an ally and yet Robert still said nothing, then had bad dreams about her time in court as a child, when her father blames/betrays her. The idea that his choice is either to betray her by telling her story and letting the public know who she is or forsake his imprisoned brother is stupid - those aren't his only choices, and in fact it's not even a real choice - he can easily not betray either of them. Also the entire book has repeatedly emphasized how clever Minnie is at strategy, and how Robert recognizes it - if anyone can help him plot how to turn the tables, it would be his clever wife. That he doesn't think to do this had me grinding my teeth.

(show spoiler)


After that build up I had little hope that the book was going to end well for me. But it did sort of redeem itself.

Robert had been shown to have a history of not always thinking clearly when emotional. That Minnie is given a "what you are thinking, you are not leaving, silly man" speech/scene to explain his stupidity to him helped a lot. Because it makes sense that Minnie can grasp that Robert was trapped in that situation - BUT it would have been even better if they'd had the scene before the trial. I understand that this is all about a couple learning how to be allies - it just made no sense that if he really believed in her ability at strategy he'd not even think to consult her about court, where strategy is vital.


Perhaps it would not have worked as well dramatically to have that "hey, I'm your ally, remember" talk before the courtroom scene - but I would love to read a story where one spouse/significant other realizes it's more trouble to keep a secret than just tell your loved one. Which is why I love Minnie's explanation of her anger that he didn't come talk to her first - and that is what he should do next time.


Also the following quote totally helped me forgive the book:


92%, Minnie, after reading a newspaper headline: "..."Well," she finally murmured. "I suppose 'Duchess is a former fraud who dressed as a boy and deceived hundreds' wouldn't fit. Three cheers for restricted paper size." "
(show spoiler)


Second on the list of things that annoy:

2) The backgrounds of both the hero and heroine have such pain and trauma in them that in reality there would never be such a quick happy ever after without a lot of therapy.


It's very sweet to think that two broken people could help and mend each other - but in reality it doesn't work out that nicely, and mending what's broken doesn't happen just because you've found true love or a spouse who accepts you as you are. Or that each spouse can somehow be the therapist/healer for the other. Support buddies maybe. But both of these characters have issues that need healing over time. I realize this happens a lot in romance, it's not supposed to be realism, blah blah - but if an author wants to be believable, then there is such a thing as a happy ending with qualifiers.

At the end Minnie is shown to be gradually getting over her issues with crowds, and Robert apparently is fine on all counts. It's a little too neat.

(show spoiler)


I did like that hat tip to Pride and Prejudice and Lady Catherine - even though it did take you a bit out of the story to suddenly have a literary reference pop into the story that way, and out of the Lady Catherinesque character's mouth

(Robert's mother). Of course in this scenario Lady Catherine gets a happy ending, so that's rather nice (again, not realistic) - even though I hated Lady C, and for the most part equally disliked the old Duchess/mother. I understand that this was a "character trying to be redeemed" plot area, but I don't think hers was a particularly forgive-able offense. The book didn't make it seem like life was suddenly all hearts and flowers - but I still thought things went a bit too quickly in the forgiveness direction. And the idea of "I'll make it up with the grandchildren" is kind of repellent to me - because that doesn't erase all the harm to the original children. I realize that shouldn't be an either/or, but I suppose I'm just not that forgiving a person when it comes to adults neglecting/not caring for children.

(show spoiler)



The thing I enjoy most about Milan - her conversations and humorous asides. Often these asides are in the characters' thoughts, sometimes when they think about what they wish they'd said - which I think anyone can relate with. Of course the amount of fun for the reader often depends on which characters are conversing. But that's the part of her writing that will keep me reading her work.


Examples from this book:


1% "..."Aha!" he could imagine himself proclaiming, springing out from behind the curtains. "I was admiring the plaster. Very evenly laid back there, did you know?"


33% "..."This is true," Sebastian said. "The Countess of Cambury is like a deep, dark hole - secrets go in, but none of them ever come out."
"Sebastian," Violet replied, calmly looping the yarn about one of her needles, "it is neither proper nor respectful to let a woman know that you think of her as nothing more than a hole."


35% "Normally he'd have loved passing time like this - listening to his friends bat the ball of conversation back and forth between them like deranged cats."


69% "The duchess extended a hand. "Do not pollute my perfectly acceptable figurative speech with irrelevant facts!" she thundered."


And now I'm off to go read what everyone else thought!

(Do we even have a tag everyone's using for this?)