*My reviews of Courtney Milan books are so very boring. "I loved this book. OMG this author. Read it because wow." (How many ways could a fan girl fan if a fan girl could fan girls? I don't know. I'm high on Sudafed.) Anyway. Courtney Milan. New Book. Commence raving.
The Duchess War is a thing of beauty. How you feel about it may depend on how you feel about other Milan books or what you look for in romance. I'm drawn to character studies. I want broken people feeling their way through a broken world, and Milan gets that. Her characters are not heroic by birth or destiny, they are heroic by choice. In The Duchess War we meet Robert and Minnie. Both are working through the legacy of their parents. I found Robert the more interesting of the two, but it's Minnie who is the more powerful.
Robert is the image of a man he has defined as a monster. Being his father's son has shaped him more than any other aspect of his life. Robert's life of emotional rejection and economic privilege has led him to embrace radical political views. He is not an unthinking agitator. Robert has taken pains to minimize the effects of his work on those around him. His goal is to unravel the system he believes sheltered his father and allows men like him to escape retribution for their crimes. Everything about him is a reaction to something else. His intense loneliness is a reaction to his parent's rejection and his subsequent rejection of their values. It's a greater self awareness that makes Robert more socially enlightened than his peers. If his father had embraced him, Robert could well have been a carbon copy of his sire. Without a rejection of his father's values, Robert can't make sense of his place in the world. Because of his mother's inclination to extremism, Robert's life as a radical made sense. I believed he would become this person, that he was this person. He may have frustrated me at times, but he didn't ring false. Robert is emotionally guarded to the edge of self harm.
Minnie is no different. Where Robert has embraced radicalism as a rejection of his father, Minnie has embraced conservatism. Her views may mirror Robert's, but her life does not. Having experienced the darker side of fame, Minnie craves security. Economically and emotionally, Minnie is in a precarious situation she knows she cannot sustain. When she meets Robert she's on the edge of a life changing move, one that she believes will lock down the secure box she's created for herself. Robert doesn't undertake any of the typical Hero Knows Best actions of the genre. He is the catalyst that causes Minnie to really look at the path she's forced herself down and consider if it ends in the victory or ruin. Strategy is a theme that runs through The Duchess War. Both Robert and Minnie lead carefully considered lives, perhaps too considered for their own benefit. I found them completely believable as a couple. The difference in social station and reveal of Minnie's past was also smoothly resolved in a way that felt plausible and true. The only off note may have been a scene between Robert and one of his father's victims. (While it granted Robert an understanding he needed, it felt incomplete. The topic was larger than the scene, but may be revisited later.)
I put Courtney Milan in the top ten, perhaps top five, of writers working in the genre today. She's on the front edge of hot trends (bad sex, virgin hero, Victorian social change) while working with time tested romance elements (family relationships, strength in partnership, issues of honor). It's too soon to say where The Duchess War will rank in her entire body of work but if it's not near the top I can't wait to read what beats it.