Desert Isle Keeper
Courtney Milan has ruined my day. First, this book was so damn good I had to stay up to finish it, so now I’m tired. Second, it was so damn good I had to immediately write a review to tell other people how good it was, and do you know how hard it is to write a review that lives up to this book? Especially when you didn’t get enough sleep? Come on, Courtney Milan. Can’t you write a stinker and give us reviewers a break?
Sir Mark Turner is Britain’s most famous virgin since Queen Elizabeth I. Having literally written the book on chastity, he earned himself a rock star-like following as Britain’s preeminent moralist. The problem is, none of his slavish followers seem to actually get Mark’s point. They envision Mark as a saintly paragon above desire, which not only undermines his teachings of self-control (unnecessary to a saint without urges), but definitely is inaccurate in light of his reaction to former courtesan Jessica Farleigh. When one of Jessica’s former clients sets a bounty for the ruination of Sir Mark, Jessica throws the dice, spending her last reserves of cash letting a house in Mark’s home village. If she can seduce Mark, she can earn enough money to get out of the game for good. If she fails, she’ll have nothing.
Mark may be my new favorite hero. He’s a philosophical ethicist, and I love how thoughtful he is about his choices and what they mean. Moreover, he’s thoughtful about Jessica’s choices and her past. When she pushes him to revisit or justify his positions, he’s open to the possibility of having been wrong. But Mark wouldn’t like it if I mistakenly characterized him as passionless, rational, and calm. Mark has an explosive temper and lust which he can barely keep under control. I love the fact that after so many heroes who declare things like “I must have you,” Mark remains completely aware that wanting Jessica and acting on that want are two different issues.
Jessica, of course, notices immediately that Mark is no cool saint, just as he notices that she is no eager seductress. Jessica’s courtesan career began too young and, in addition to two major traumas, has been marked by the equally devastating day-to-day erosion of her identity as she subsumed her own wants and desires to keep her clients happy. She did not begin this book ready to have sex with anyone, for either personal or professional reasons. I loved Jessica for her fight to reclaim her body, I loved Mark for paying close enough attention to Jessica that he knew he wanted to turn her down, and I loved the author for giving me such an interesting dynamic to read about.
Milan did a brilliant job keeping this story teetering on so many different brinks: Mark toying with his self-control; Jessica grappling with choosing a path she can’t live with or a path she won’t survive; Mark and Jessica skittering on the edge of utter sexual combustion. Every conversation is a cliffhanger; every chapter just raises the stakes. It’s no wonder I couldn’t put it down.
Unclaimed is incredibly and rewardingly complicated. If I were in or teaching one of the new college courses on romance literature, I’d want it on my syllabus. What role does sex, and having or not having it, play in being a man? What role does having or not having sex play in being a woman – or, more to the point, a lady? Jessica’s history as a courtesan raises issues of consent and agency. Mark squares off with his unwelcome followers, the Men’s Chastity Brigade, which portrays restraint as a manly competition and women as the temptress enemies.
Unclaimed also earns points with me for being the first book in which I saw a heroine shoot somebody and thought to myself, “Yes. Well done. Utterly appropriate and fully deserved.”
Some readers have complained about the long denouement. While I agree that there is a slow, gradual tail to resolution, it worked for me. Jessica has been through a lot, and consequently she has many internal and external obstacles to a happy ending. If the wind-down of the story had been shorter, I don’t think I’d have been convinced that it had brought Jessica to a place where she could be personally happy and socially a successful part of Mark’s life. (Is Mark less complicated? Yes, somewhat, but mostly for reasons he points out: he’s male, rich, and related to a duke. He has fewer issues than Jessica to begin with, and society will ignore most of them.)
Nothing made me happier than discovering Unclaimed so I could have the pleasure of sharing it with you. Please, please go read this book!