The Duchess War
It’s not uncommon for me to take some time to get around to reading an author everyone else has been enjoying for some time. Our reviewers request their books early, and rather than pulling rank I tend to let others go ahead. So no, I haven’t been living under a rock, but yes, this is the first time I’ve read or reviewed Courtney Milan. Since I heartily enjoyed The Duchess War, it certainly won’t be the last time I read a Milan book. I went in with fairly high expectations, and for the most part, they were met.
The Duchess War begins as so many good books do – with two people hiding in a library. Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont, is hiding from the locals at a party. Wilhemina “Minnie” Pursling is hiding from her boorish almost-fiance. Minnie dives behind a sofa just before the almost-fiance comes in, and she and Robert both get to hear him talk in insulting terms about what a great, biddable wife she’ll make. After the encounter is over, Minnie tells Robert that this is the best she can really hope for – a marriage where her husband ignores her and beds his mistresses while she fades quietly into the background.
Minnie (mostly) wants to fade into the background. A horrifying incident (of the Big Secret variety) during her childhood left her with a scarred face and a crippling fear of crowds. She has no wealth, little family, and a dangerous secret to protect.
Robert has a secret as well, but it’s one Minnie guesses almost immediately. Robert’s father was a horrible man, and Robert plans to spend his life undoing the wrongs of his predecessor. He’s starting by printing up anonymous, pro-union pamphlets in the tiny Leicester town where he owns a factory. He hopes to empower his workers, but also ferret out wrong-doing. He knows that several people were unfairly charged with criminal sedition several years ago. Unfortunately, Robert’s secret becomes Minnie’s problem. Her best friend’s fiance, the town constable, accuses Minnie of writing the pamphlets, and she is terrified that the increased scrutiny brought on by the accusation will mean that her real secret is discovered. She decides that the only way to clear her own name is to out the actual culprit, whom she quickly decides is the duke.
When Minnie confronts Robert with her accusation and threatens to expose him, he offers to pretend to court her so that his presence in town is less suspicious. Minnie scoffs at the idea, but with one thing and another, it kind of starts happening. They run into each other here and there, exchange words, and grow more attracted to each other. It all seems impossible – so impossible that Minnie won’t entertain the idea seriously. A duke can’t just marry a nobody with a scandalous past. Meanwhile, though, there is still the tension of the constable’s witch hunt. He’s desperate to pin the crime on someone, and sure that Minnie is the guilty party.
One of the highest compliments I can pay a book is to call it unpredictable. I’m sure many longtime romance readers feel the same. Plot devices get recycled and repurposed, and usually we can all tell precisely where they are headed. I couldn’t tell where The Duchess War was headed. I couldn’t tell how Robert and Minnie could get together believably. And when they did – with a hefty portion of the book still remaining – I couldn’t tell what was going to happen next. What an unfamiliar feeling – and thank God for it. It all seems surprisingly believable, even the more outlandish parts.
Milan has a nice style, and a good hand with humor as well. Not smack-you-over-the-head slapstick humor, or so-fast-it-makes-you-dizzy witty banter. It’s slier, more subtle than that, but funny all the same.
The story is also surprisingly tender. In large part this is due to the characters Robert and Minnie mostly, but I enjoyed the secondary characters as well (and you can bet I will read their stories). Minnie’s past is ostensibly the more troubled, but Robert’s is actually very heart-wrenching as well. He was a pawn between warring parents, neither of whom offered any of he love and affection he craved. His past drives an important choice that he has to make towards the end of the book. And there is an ending scene involving a children’s primer that brought a tear to my eye – not a very common occurrence for me.
The only real flaw for me was that the plot with the pamphlets and false accusations of sedition was a little too hastily wrapped up. I wanted more of an explanation and a little more talk of how things might be different in the future.
In the end, though, that was a pretty small complaint. I heartily recommend The Duchess War. Whether you are a new Milan reader or a longtime fan, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.