Thoughts After Reading:
Courtney Milan is one of those rare authors whose works I can expect to enjoy before I even know what the book is about. This proved to be only partially true, however, with her latest work The Duchess War. True to her reputation, Milan creates a truly enthralling romance... at least for a good portion of the novel. The protagonists are both well-fleshed out and become almost instantaneously endearing to the reader. A delightful relationship in the form of a "chase" is interwoven with radical ideas on the behalf of the hero, combining both romance and historic politics in an engaging fashion. The steady flow of lighthearted humor had me laughing out loud at times. And yet, as the story progressed towards the end there were two major issues that became apparent, issues that seriously detracted from my reading experience.
The heroine has spent the last decade or so dressing and acting as a mousy wallflower, although that is hardly her innate personality. She is by nature a brazen young woman, whose verbal wit is only surpassed by a strongly analytic and strategic mind. The heroine lives by disguise and under a false name because of the scandal attached to her when she was a child. The scandal involves her father, a famous chess player, who dressed her up as a boy so that she could travel with him and later swore in a court that she had unnatural inclinations. The events that occurred after the scandal left the heroine with a broken view of her father's love and a psychological fear of large crowds.
The premise of the story was a little hard to swallow, and it seems that Milan decided to get it out of the way as quickly as possible so the real fun could begin. A militia official approaches the heroine, suspicious that she is the author of recent pamphlets urging for social reform - an act that he views as seditious. The heroine is innocent of his accusations, but does not want the officer poking into her true background. She makes the sudden deduction that the hero - a duke who recently arrived into town - must be the author of the pamphlet, based on a few moments of conversation she had with the man. She goes to his house with a friend of hers, attempting to blackmail him into stopping writing the pamphlets. I suppose it could be argued that there was some logic to the heroine's reasoning, since the hero is an unusual aristocrat and he was the only recent addition to the area. Still, it seems like a rather extreme jump to blatantly accuse a duke of such a crime.
The hero is one of my favorite types of guys to read about, a duke who doesn't fit the mold in the slightest. Much of his attitude towards life was shaped by his parents. His father was a terrible man, a unfaithful husband who raped his servants and willfully used his son for personal gains. His mother responded by deadening any feelings she had towards her son, however desperately he vied for her affections. The hero has striven to live his life as differently as possible from his father, embracing his bastard brother and remaining sexually chaste. He has developed a great hatred of the aristocratic system, and wishes to promote equality. On a personal level, he desires to be loved over all else, although he struggles with feeling deserving of any love.
The hero is quite taken after his second meeting with the heroine, astonished at the discrepancy between her usually subdued attitude and the forceful way in which she challenges him about the pamphlets. He continues to run into her in the following weeks, slowly revealing his inner conflicts and becoming more attached to the woman with each amusing conversation. He eventually gives her the proof to reveal his secret about the pamphlets, but urges her to "look up" and let her vivacious personality shine instead of constantly hiding. Their relationship had its ups and downs, and - while there are some particularly tender moments - there were other times where the novel disappointed me.
One of the major issues I had with The Duchess War relates to the romantic conflicts. The first conflict occurs about halfway through the book, when the heroine rejects the hero's proposal and betrays him. While I felt the heroine's behavior was unreasonable, given the hero's continual promise to ensure things turn out alright and considerable authority he had, I still understood: the heroine's fear led her to make a poor decision. But the second conflict, the one that occurs towards the end of the novel when the hero betrays the heroine, was much more frustrating. There was absolutely no reason why the hero couldn't talk things over with his wife, even if he believed the only possible solution was to humiliate her. By deceiving the heroine, he acted as a coward and lost much of my respect. By refusing to trust in the love the heroine had shown, and by living with the same priorities he had at the beginning of the book, he failed to show any character growth whatsoever. It truly felt like the only reason that barrier was thrown in was to force a resolution at the end of the book, and it wasn't appealing in the slightest.
The other significant issue I had with the novel had to do with its incongruously modern feel. I admit to being no expert on Victorian history - in fact, most of my knowledge about the period comes from reading historical romance books. But a quick Google search suggests that the views on women's sexuality at the time are very similar to what I expected. So when aristocrats jokingly discuss crude innuendo in front of a genteel lady, or a virgin miss easily masturbates and demonstrates ready understanding of sexual intercourse, I must profess a hefty dose of skepticism. The moment that bothered me the most was when the aforementioned virgin miss makes a comment about hero "being good in bed". I could be wrong, but that seemed like a ridiculously modern phrase. I'm not someone who is typically bothered by an anachronistic word or two, but the occasionally modern context felt jarring within The Duchess War.
The Duchess War was, in many ways, another excellent romance by Courtney Milan. The characters were excellently developed; the dialogue was charming, humorous, and meaningful; and Milan manages to dodge several major pitfalls of the genre. Unfortunately, the book was also filled with twice as many unappealing conflicts as an average romance story, and I was never quite convinced of some of the historical accuracy. The positive aspects were such that I do recommend the novel, but it wasn't a clear-cut win.