Love and Science: Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy

The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan

The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan

Oh. This book. From the dedication to the very last word–it’s so good.

And this review is full of spoilers because–as usual with Courtney Milan’s books–it’s impossible to talk about her work without them.

The Countess Conspiracy is the third book in the Brothers Sinister series and it focuses on Sebastian Malheur and Violet Waterfield.  Sebastian, as characterized in the previous books, is a flamboyant and rather famous scientist and Violet is a widow and friend of the Brothers Sinister who attends all his lectures.  There’s a reason for this and that reason is: she’s actually the scientist and he’s her mouthpiece.

But since she is a woman, she was unable to find a scientific journal willing publish her first paper until Sebastian agreed to put his name on it. At which point it became a work of genius, not just a woman messing around with flowers.

When this book starts, Sebastian is at the end of his ability to cope with the ongoing social repercussions of Violet’s research and has decided that he’s no longer going to be her mouthpiece–which puts her in an awkward position.  And it sets the main conflict of this book in motion.

There are other conflicts–between Sebastian and his brother, between Violet and her sister and mother–but the main one is this internalized conflict between Violet and herself. There’s never really any serious conflict between Violet and Sebastian and when there is, they generally talk it out like adults (so refreshing to see characters in a romance use their words). The conflict here is all inside Violet.

Violet has been told throughout her entire life that she can’t want–things, happiness, friendship, love. She has been told repeatedly that she is fundamentally unlovable and she’s completely internalized that message–her father rejected her, her mother set her out in society with an incredibly number of rules both public and private, and her first husband abused and raped her.

I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion around whether or not what happened between Violet and her first husband was rape or not.  I think it was–she did not want to have sex with him after it became clear that she was not going to be able to carry a child to term and that her life was increasingly in danger with each pregnancy–and he coerced her into consenting. There can be no true consent when coercion is present.  I do not care that her first husband’s actions were within legal bounds for the period.  Reproductive coercion is  abuse. He raped her.

But just as surely she also recalled what it had turned into: the slide into icy nothingness, every thrust of his hips attempting to erase her from the world.

And Milan has done something pretty remarkable with her characterization of him: that’s all he is.  We don’t know if he was otherwise kind to Violet or if he also kicked puppies.  We don’t know if he was generally well-liked by his peers or if he was a good dancer or if he was a terrible cart player.  All we know is that he is a rapist.  The text doesn’t provide the reader with any way to mitigate or excuse his deeds. And he never gets a name.  As far as I can tell, he’s never even referred to by his title.  He is essentially erased from the narrative. He is, ultimately, invisible–except for what he’s done to Violet.

It’s a really interesting parallel to the main theme of this book which is, to wit: women who have been erased from history.  This book is dedicated to Rosalind Franklin and to Anna Clausen–as well as to all the other unnamed women whose accomplishments went unrecorded.  I knew who Rosalind Franklin was and how, without her contributions, Watson and Crick would never have figured out the structure of DNA and how neither Watson nor Crick gave her credit. I didn’t know who Anna Clausen was, though, and wasn’t able to find anything out about her until I read Milan’s note at the end of the book.  Here, I’ll let the relevant passage from the paper that Milan cites speak for itself:

The research work was done almost exclusively during leisure  hours, and it had not been possible to get through without the kind and  very accurate assistance yielded by my wife, Fru ANNA CLAUSEN, during  the seasonal work on the experiment field. Artificial pollinations, back-  crossings, fixations, baggings and harvesting were made almost exclusively by her, and she assisted me also in the enumeration of  segregated types.

Hover for a more readable version.
Clausen, J. “Cyto-genetic and Taxonomic Investigations on Melanium Violets.” Hereditas. Volume 15, Issue 3. July 1931. Page 221.

Milan is pretty clear in her note that she doesn’t want to criticize J. Clausen. However, I will: You long-dead asshole, your wife did all your research for you and you took the credit.

Anyhow. Back to the book!

Violet, oh. I feel for her so much–she is so self-aware and so self-conscious. She knows what is expected of her and swallows down everything she wants for herself in favor of what other people want.

So Violet retreated into silence. She pushed away everything she didn’t want to hear. The rest of the world was swaddled in cotton, its sharp edges dulled so it couldn’t cut her.

And Sebastian–he’s been in love with Violet for practically his entire life. And he tells her so very, very early in the book. Much earlier than I was expecting him to.

“Violet, I played a role for you for five years. I bought a house near yours in London and installed gates by hand so we could talk about your work in secret. Don’t tell me that I’ve never given any indication that I loved you.”

And then he waits.  He is so incredibly patient and kind because while he doesn’t know exactly what hell she’s been through, he knows it’s been hell.  He acknowledges her experiences and her pain and knows that this isn’t something that can be forced. She has to come to him.

Nearly every single physical contact between them, after the first time he touches her hand, is initiated by Violet (“he might one day seduce her into not flinching when he took her hand”–oh the feels). She sets the pace of their physical relationship.  He asks to touch her. This is a book that is, very much, about consent.

This book is also a master class on how to do sexual tension.  It’s builds slowly and it’s absolutely agonizing and then the pay-off. So, so worth it.

One thing I thought interesting about this book was Milan’s decision to include PIV intercourse despite Violet’s terrible experience with it during her marriage–and the consequences thereof, which almost killed her (19 miscarriages. Nineteen.  I can’t even). It’s not their first sexual encounter with each other and Sebastian does use a rubber condom as well as withdrawing before he ejaculation.  I also noticed that this scene was written using much gentler language and even though it is fairly explicit, the gentler language keeps it more on the sweet side. I do wonder, though, if it would have been more subversive to forego the PIV intercourse altogether and only show Violet and Sebastian engaging in other kinds of sexual activities with each other. I think that would have been so, so, so interesting.

Sebastian is really remarkable in so many ways. One of my favorite things about him was the way he so easily slipped into a support role for Violet–making sure she eats, helping her with her experiments. At one point he even jokes about becoming a faculty spouse.

He smiled. “That is the entire point. Get your back up all you wish. Rage at me for hours. Feel uncomfortable. At the end of the day, I’ll still bring you apples and make you laugh.”

At the same time, he stands up for himself and what he needs–from Violet and from others in his life. He’s not a doormat. He knows what his boundaries are and, in fact, the trigger for Violet’s internal conflict is his decision that he could no longer pretend to be the author of Violet’s papers.

And then finally, Violet has an epiphany.  She has it after the scene which is, to me, the fulcrum of the novel: when she and Alice Bollingall, through collaboration and serendipity discover and photograph chromosomes.  That scene completely reduced me to tears, utterly.  But the epiphany:

Violet contemplated the mirror. When her husband called her selfish for refusing to go to bed with him, what had he meant?

I deserve my chance to have an heir more than you deserve to live.

When Lily said it would be selfish of Violet to ally herself with Sebastian, what did she mean?

My attendance at balls is more important than your happiness.

When Violet called herself selfish, that was what she meant—that she didn’t deserve the thing she wanted. Not happiness. Not recognition. Maybe not even her own life.

From this point on, Violet allows herself to want. She allows herself to become close to Sebastian, both emotionally and physically.  She stands up to her sister and mother (and her mother is one of the most interesting secondary characters–Violet’s relationship with her isn’t healthy but her mother’s actions at the end are unexpected and there’s a reveal which was both surprising and unsurprising at the same time). She reveals herself as the author of the papers Sebastian has been presenting.

There are also some really very funny bits, too.  I loved everything about the rake phylogeny and how it made something that was very difficult for Violet easier for her because it wasn’t serious–that the anticipation and buildup to the physical act was as–or more–important to Sebastian as the culmination of the sexy times.  I loved the scene where Violet is writing an angry letter to Sebastian while he’s sitting next to her and he has absolutely no idea.  I love that she gets drunk on some sort of horrible home brew liquor made from thistles and still manages to kick everyone’s ass at cards (the thistle home brew liquor reminded me, so much, of the maple mead from Bujold’s Vorkosigan books).

The reaction of the populace to her revelation is a bit far-fetched, but I didn’t care by that point.  I was way more interested in reading about how Violet and Sebastian come together as a couple, as two adults who know their own minds and who are capable of talking to each other about their problems than about the public aftermath of Violet’s talk, although she does get a magnificent speech:

“But they want to stop me. They want to shut me up—me and everyone associated with my work. If I show fear, they’ll never stop. I shall always be forced to defend myself from ludicrous charges.” Her chin went up. “They need to know that they have no recourse. That I am not afraid of them, not even if they throw the entire weight of the law at me. So yes, Your Worships. I discovered the truth. I told the world.” She straightened and glared at them. “I’m guilty.”

The whole book is just really wonderful.

Since I finished this book, I’ve been thinking about it and about the others in the series.  They’re all about women who have been denied their voices finding them–assisted by the men in their lives, but never at the whim of those men.  Serena, Minnie, Lydia, Jane, Violet.  All of them amazing women with agency. They are constrained by their time, but they still make choices.  And of all the women in this series so far, Violet is the closest to my heart.  For oh so many reasons but especially the way in which she is often her own worst enemy. Until she’s not.

Now, if you’ll excuse me: I need to reread this book.

The Heiress Effect, Courtney Milan

The Heiress Effect, Courtney Milan

The Heiress Effect, Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect is a wonderfully complicated tangle of a book. And this review is full of spoilers and I’m sorry, but I simply cannot write about what is so great about this book without talking about a bunch of things in detail.

And I know I’ve raved about Milan’s books before and every time I finish one of them I think, “Self, there’s no way the next book is going to be as good as this one,” and then: the next one is even better.  These are extraordinary books on so many levels.

I’m just going to copy and paste the blurb from Milan’s website  because I’d rather talk about things other than the basic plot summary when it comes to this book.

Miss Jane Fairfield can’t do anything right. When she’s in company, she always says the wrong thing—and rather too much of it. No matter how costly they are, her gowns fall on the unfortunate side of fashion. Even her immense dowry can’t save her from being an object of derision.

And that’s precisely what she wants. She’ll do anything, even risk humiliation, if it means she can stay unmarried and keep her sister safe.

Mr. Oliver Marshall has to do everything right. He’s the bastard son of a duke, raised in humble circumstances—and he intends to give voice and power to the common people. If he makes one false step, he’ll never get the chance to accomplish anything. He doesn’t need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn’t need to fall in love with her. But there’s something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can’t resist…even though it could mean the ruin of them both.

Okay, now that we know what’s going on, more or less, on to more interesting things.

This book is both a romance novel and a dissection of power and how it works in Western society–it’s really remarkable how Milan manages this, considering that so many other historical–and other subgenre–romance writers completely disregard this aspect of their stories.

From the beginning of the book, we see Oliver contrasted with Bradenton, a marquess. Oliver, as the illegitimate son of a duke, has some claim on power but not much and thus he feels that he must curry favor with those above him.

Bradenton explains this right at the beginning of the book:

“But the riffraff usually manage themselves,” Bradenton continued. “That’s the point of an institution like Cambridge. Anyone can aspire to a Cambridge education, so everyone who aspires chooses to start here. If you do it right, by the time they’ve finished their degrees, the most ambitious ones have become just like us. Or at least, they want to enter our ranks so badly that the next thing you know, all their ambition has been subsumed into the greater glory.”

And this is what Oliver has done. He has things he wants to accomplish and he’s willing to put his ambition into service to the likes of Bradenton in order to achieve his goals–in this case, extending the franchise to more adult men (but not women!–and this comes up later in the book with Free, his marvelous youngest sister).

Enter Jane. She’s an heiress who dresses and acts obnoxiously–and not without cause, though. Oliver doesn’t know that right away and when he first meets her he’s taken aback at her appearance (“But looking at her was like picking up a luxurious peach and discovering it half-taken over by mold.”) and demeanor but he also finds himself charmed as well. Jane can tell that he’s intrigued and while she wants–desperately–for friends, she can’t allow herself any, not if she’s going to save her sister from their uncle Titus (who is Awful, more about him in a bit).

It is at this point, where Oliver is intrigued by Jane that Bradenton makes his demand: if Oliver will put Jane in her place, publicly, Bradenton will not only deliver his vote but also the votes of his cronies–nine votes total–for the extension of the franchise: “It’s one annoying girl against your entire future.” And thus, Oliver is torn. He doesn’t want to do to Jane what was done to him but he also needs those votes. And then–he tells Jane what’s been asked of him and still, she trusts him. It’s really remarkable the way she comes to trust him so quickly even as he tells her that he will betray her:

“Anyone in my position, anyone born without power, who aspires to more… Trust me, I didn’t arrive here by standing on principle my entire life. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when it must be shut, to do what a man in power asks because he asks it. I count myself lucky that I’ve survived as unscathed as I have. Don’t fool yourself, Miss Fairfield. I could hurt you. Badly.”

But Jane, stalwart defender of her sister, Jane who wears clothing as armor and as weapon, oh Jane: she declares that he’s her favorite betrayer and they enter into an friendship with each other.

Why does Jane’s sister, Emily, need defending? They both live with their uncle Titus who is so, so, so very concerned with Emily’s well-being–she has a convulsive disorder, see, and must be kept safe. And Jane is a terrible influence and Titus, being possessed of a penis, naturally knows what is best for them both. He means well but he doesn’t see them as people and he certainly doesn’t listen to either of them–he is a gaslighter extraordinaire. It is, at time, extremely difficult to read both Jane and Emily’s interactions with Titus for this reason. He is the very model of a well-meaning major sexist: he is steeped in privilege and the patriarchy and he has always been comfortable and both Jane and Emily make him uncomfortable and he isn’t sure how to deal with that except through paternalism and threats.

Titus also has a habit of allowing anyone who can convince him that they may be able to help Emily experiment on her–and Jane has established a procedure by which she bribes members of the household staff as well as the quacks in question to leave Emily alone (the way Jane wields money in this book is fascinating–she throws money around in a very hero-esque way). There’s a harrowing scene near the beginning with a galvanist who wants to apply electrical shocks to Emily and it is later revealed that she was also subjected to aversion therapy in the form of red hot pokers. It’s truly appalling and since Emily is not of age and since Titus is her guardian, without Jane’s money she would be dealing with more than not being allowed outside or a free choice of reading material.

The constraints on both Jane and Emily are real. Jane is allowed to live with her sister and their uncle as long as she’s actively looking for a husband–but she also knows that as soon as she receives an offer, any offer, she will have to accept. And she is unwilling to do that until Emily is of age. But her inheritance makes her a target for fortune hunters and impoverished nobles, so she must put on a persona to undermine her efforts on that front. Emily is not of age and has a medical condition: her position is, as becomes clear through the course of the novel, is more tenuous than even Jane’s is.

And yet: despite her tenuous position, Emily doesn’t actually need Jane to defend or save her–she ultimately saves herself in what is one of my favorite secondary romances ever in a romance.

While out for an illicit and unchaperoned walk, Emily begins to feel a seizure coming on. She ducks into a nearby inn and sits down to wait for it to pass–her seizures aren’t what we normally picture when it comes to seizures–more of an absence seizure than the tonic-clonic type. She happens to sit down at a table that’s already occupied–by a young law student named Anjan Bhattacharya. They strike up an acquaintance. Emily tells Anjan where she’ll be walking the next week and he just happens to be there–then it’s two walks a week, then three before she’s discovered by her uncle (to be sneaking out, not to who she’s sneaking out to see).

They talk around the subject of a more permanent relationship between them, but they both are aware of how difficult it would be. They appreciate each other for themselves, but there’s also a vast cultural divide between them, one that is made abundantly clear in a scene early in their relationship as Emily is trying to explain a point of English culture to Anjan and mentions that Napoleon was horrible (an amazingly common trope in historical romances–I’d go so far to say that Napoleon is often cast as a 19th century Hitler in these books) and he proceeds to tell her about the Sepoy Mutiny. This is, perhaps, a bit heavy handed but I’m willing to give Milan a pass on heavy handedness in return for puncturing the unchallenged idea that Napoleon is the Absolute Worst. Emily’s realization of this is, well–read it for yourself:

“You’re being ridiculous. He was bent on conquering the entire European continent, never mind the cost in…in…”

She swallowed, as her mind raced to a conclusion ahead of her.

“Oh,” she said in mute horror.

He didn’t even raise an eyebrow.

“Oh,” she repeated, setting a hand over her belly. For a few moments he said nothing at all.

Ultimately, Emily’s illicit excursions are discovered by her uncle and he puts a stop to them–and, in the process, sends Jane to the north to live with her aunt. At this point, Jane realizes that she does have some small power over her uncle and she leverages it in such a way that she is allowed to continue communicating with her sister. And then, when it becomes clear that Titus is going to have Emily committed, she saves herself: she escapes and goes to Anjan in London where they solidify their relationship and she is made aware, by his mother, that he is from a family of consequence himself and that she must prove herself worthy of him–I thought this was a really nice touch and it made me happy that Emily rescues herself from her uncle and that Jane is able to realize that, too.

The happy resolution of Emily and Anjan’s relationship is, perhaps, a bit pat but I have to say that I did enjoy the way that Anjan used Titus’s own prejudices to gain his acquiescence to marriage with Emily.

There is just so much going on in this book and it’s impossible to talk about all of the plots at the same time!

Jane is so, so aware of the delicate position she’s in–she has to walk a very fine line in order to maintain her charade publicly while not giving the game away to her uncle. After she befriends Oliver, she also befriends two women she kept close to her because they unerringly steered her wrong in terms of fashion–it turns out that they had good reasons for wanting to associate with Jane and they three turn a brittle faux friendship into one that is real and nourishing (unfortunately, it takes a terrifying encounter between Jane and Bradenton in a greenhouse to cause this to happen).

Something else about Jane: she’s fat. And it goes almost completely unremarked upon in the text. There’s a mention at the beginning that her waist is larger than is fashionable (uncorseted, her waist is 37″–this puts her in a 2x in some modern sizes and possibly larger depending on how much larger than her waist her breasts/hips are). Oliver appreciates her ample flesh (in a non-creepy and non-fetishistic way) but other than that, the text lets her body pass unmarked. I don’t even know if I can convey how rare this is–there are so few fat people in romance and they are usually used as moral or object lessons. The fact that Jane is fat and is not shamed for it is astonishing.

In the face of the awesome that is Jane and Emily and Anjan, Oliver feels a bit like a cipher in some ways. He’s almost pure distilled ambition and while he comes to appreciate and care for Jane, he’s still willing to betray her to get what he wants until Jane comes up with a way to turn the tables on Bradenton–I was glad to see the betrayal plot over and done with fairly early on in the book, as that sort of thing hits my personal embarrassment squick pretty hard.

I enjoyed Oliver’s scenes with his father–they felt, to me, very much like Miles Vorkosigan’s scenes with his father in A Civil Campaign and with Simon Illyan in Memory. There’s something about the way Hugo Marshall lets Oliver make his way to the answers to his questions that feels Bujoldian, for lack of a better description.

And then there’s the bit where Oliver and Jane escape on horseback after a false elopement doesn’t go quite as expected–and the horseback ride is about as uncomfortable as one would imagine it and both Jane and Oliver are pretty open about how awful it is due to Oliver not having “pillowy thighs”. This is another case of Milan poking fun at a commonly deployed trope–how many books out there feature the main characters having hot sex on horseback? Way too many. And this horseback scene also features a torrential downpour and a pit stop in an inn where Oliver wants to preserve Jane’s virtue and she is having none of that–she straight up arranges to share a room with him and then she asserts her worth in this utterly marvelous line: “‘I’m not a gift,’ she said. ‘Or a prize that you’ve won. I’m a woman, and I want you because it will give me joy.'” Jane utterly and completely owns herself in this moment and it’s fantastic.

There is just so much great intersectionality in this book–there’s extending the franchise to men juxtaposed with women demanding the right to vote. There’s Anjan suffering through being called “John Batty” by his classmates and co-workers because Anjan Bhattacharya is too “hard” to pronounce. There’s Emily’s mistreatment at the hands of any number of so-called medical professionals and Titus’s privileged complacency and inability to deal with a woman standing up to him. There’s Aunt Freddy and Free and the bequest that made me cry openly because oh, Aunt Freddy.

And finally there’s Jane and Oliver, two people who are so much alike in some very fundamental ways but who have chosen two different paths to the same destination:

Sometimes, Oliver thought that society was like an infant trying to shove a square, colored block through a round hole. When it didn’t go, the child pounded harder. Oliver had been shoved through round holes so often that he’d scarcely even noticed that his edges had become rounded. But Jane…Jane persisted in being angular and square. The harder she was pushed, the more square—and the more colorful—she became.

Milan is writing books that are full of real people and all their complexity–I never get the sense that anyone is there merely as a plot device, they all have their stories even if we don’t know the details. By the time Oliver and Jane realize that even if they are impossible for each other, they are also impossible without each other. And they are also impossible without the wider world they move within, too–every single person in this book, from Emily and Anjan to Bradenton and Titus, is absolutely integral to making Jane and Oliver who they are. They don’t live in a pink bubble, they live in a world of complexity and intersectionality–just like you and I do.

My only complaint about the book is this: Why isn’t the girl on the cover in a fuchsine dress?

Women to Read: Romance & Speculative Fiction

One of the best things I discovered last month amongst all the various conversations is #womentoread on Twitter –I added lots of new writers to my completely unruly list of books to read (someday). Then I got to thinking: some people might be interested in reading outside their usual genres. So I thought I’d put together a couple of lists of romance that I think speculative fiction readers will enjoy along with explanations as to why and vice versa. The only limit I put on my recommendations was that the author needed to be someone who identified as a woman since what got me thinking about this was #womentoread.

Romance for Speculative Fiction Readers

Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta ChaseA Lady Awakened, Cecilia GrantThe Duchess War, Courtney Milan

I’m sticking with historical authors for this batch of recommendations because I think historical romance has a certain affinity for speculative fiction. Historical romances are, in my opinion, very much like fantasy novels and much like fantasy novels, the setting can and does inform the plot and characterization.

As in speculative fiction, historical romance relies upon an interlocking sequence of research and extrapolation that the story must rest upon–a strong foundation can hold up just about any kind of story. There are so many fantastic books in the subgenre that I had a difficult time picking just three writers to recommend!.

Loretta Chase: Chase is probably my absolute favorite romance author and I’m always recommending her–her books are smart, well-constructed, and thoroughly researched. I’d recommend either Lord of Scoundrels or Mr. Impossible–or both, if you want an idea of Chase’s range as a writer.

Lord of Scoundrels is one of her earlier novels–it was published in 1995–and yet it still feels fresh and revolutionary in so many ways. I can’t even imagine reading it when it was first published.  It must have been mind-blowing.

Jessica Trent is an intelligent and thoroughly self-possessed young woman and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain is a dissolute blackguard who has never been loved or loved anyone in his life. They have boatloads of chemistry together and it’s just fun to read their interactions. One of the key things about this book is that Dain is, on the surface, a stereotypical “alpha-hole” hero–but because the reader is given his backstory right at the beginning on the book, his alpha-hole-ness is subverted and the reader’s sympathy is gained. It’s a clever bit of storytelling and while it is a bit leaden, it’s also essential because otherwise Dain is essentially irredeemable. I’ve often been tempted to buy a copy of this book, remove the prologue, and hand it to someone who has never read it and see what they think. So much of the book’s success rests on the beginning.

Mr. Impossible is nearly the opposite: it’s funny and features a male protagonist who is basically a lovable and happy-go-lucky guy. Rupert Carsington is not book-smart, but he is emotionally intelligent and he basically falls in love with Daphne from the first moment he meets her. He is absolutely besotted with her intellect and he lets her take the lead on that front as they attempt to locate her kidnapped brother–the entire book is basically an extended rumination on how smart Daphne is and how very, very excellent that quality in her is. The villain of this book is, more or less, a standard issue British imperialist, but rest assured he does get his comeuppance in the end. There is also a completely ridiculous and over the top sex scene in a pyramid during a sand storm. It’s awesome. It’s also my very favorite romance novel of all time.

Cecilia Grant: A Lady Awakened was one of the best romances I read last year. There are many reasons for this but my favorite one is the truly epic bad sex and how it was absolutely right for the story and how, as the two protagonists came to care for each other their physical relationship transformed as well.

Martha is newly widowed and unless she is able to produce a boy child within the next 8 to 9 months, she will lose her home and become a poor relation. Theo is her new neighbor–the son of a minor nobleman, he’s been sent to the country to learn responsibility. Martha sees him as a possible solution to her problem and proposes that she pay him to try to get her pregnant in the next month–she knows this is unethical and it’s not what she wants to do but it is, literally, the only choice available to her. Watching Martha make this choice and still try to remain true to herself and her ideals is really something.

And Grant’s writing is simply gorgeous:

Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.

That’s a sex scene. With dead fish. It’s wonderful. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of Martha at that point in the book–she is trying to be active but not being particularly successful at it–she hasn’t been taught how to be active in her own life: she’s all repressed and brittle and curled in upon herself. And the way she slowly, so slowly opens up is so very powerful. The ending is a bit rushed and didn’t quite work for me–there were too many coincidences–but for a debut novel, this was one hell of a book.

I also just love Grant’s take on romance as a whole, too.

Courtney Milan: I’m going to recommend the first two volumes in her current series, the Brothers Sinister. The first volume, “The Governess Affair” is a prequel novella that sets up the rest of the series–it’s not essential reading but it is useful background knowledge. The Duchess War is the first full-length book in the series and it’s fantastic. Milan is well aware of all the tropes in romance and she is explicitly playing with and exploding them while telling a compelling and moving story about people who feel so, so real.

Min is acutely conscious of her place in society–which is quite marginal, for reasons which are thoroughly explored within the text and which I don’t want to spoil here–and Clermont has bucketloads of unearned privilege that he’s very uncomfortable with. Milan is one of the few writers of historical fiction who is actively working within the restrictions on both women and those not of the upper classes–so often, characters in historical romances are able to move between social classes through the power of love (and buckets of money)–Milan’s body of work makes it evident that this oh-so-common genre convention is a fantasy and that while love is a powerful force, it cannot conquer all.

As for the trope-exploding, there are two very common things that occur in romance that drive a lot of readers up the wall. That would be the evil mother and the baby epilogue–Milan explodes both of them in The Duchess War, right down to the hushed dark room with a terrific amount of tension. And then when it becomes apparent what’s actually going on, it’s just a great ending to the book. And as for the evil mother–she has real motivations and isn’t just a cardboard character there for the purpose of causing trauma to her son.

There’s also a second novella in this series, “A Kiss for Midwinter” and it’s also wonderful–it’s about a couple of secondary characters and the theme of that one is knowledge and anger and horrifying Victorian medical practices. Good stuff. Can’t wait for the next one!

Speculative Fiction for Romance Readers

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette KowalThe Sharking Knife: Beguilement, Lois McMaster BujoldIn the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

My recommendations here have a certain something in common with my romance recommendations–these all have a strong thread of romance and they also have fully realized settings that the characters move within.

All three of these writers are firmly grounded in speculative fiction and it is mostly from these tropes these series spring–the romantic elements are essential but the stories wouldn’t be what they are without the speculative elements.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Her fantasy novels are Regency novels but with magic–they’re set during the Napoleonic Wars, a setting that should be very familiar to romance readers In the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane Ellsworth has a rare talent with glamour–the manipulation of which is considered essential for any well-bred young lady. Along with her sister, Melody, Jane’s life revolves around eligible young men and hopes of marriage. Naturally, Jane’s skill with glamour plays an important role in this book–one thing I found very interesting was the way Kowal subverts the use of magic in her book. Typically, in fantasy novels, magic is a prestigious or desirable activity and yet, in this book it’s an activity fit only for women and men on the fringes of society.

These books are an explicit exploration of women’s roles in society both in and out of marriage and how, even when entering into a marriage that both partners have agreed will be egalitarian, there is still a lot of internalized expectations that need to be overcome.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold is a favorite around these parts, but I’m going to be recommending a series we haven’t covered here and that’s the Sharing Knife quartet. These were written explicitly as an exploration of romance and, as such, the romantic element is explicitly foregrounded while the fantastical elements are much more subtle. There’s a lot going on in these books and I enjoyed them for what they were but many of Bujold’s core audience did not (warning: link contains a lot of “ew, girl cooties”) and wrote the series off after the first volume, Beguilement.

The heart of this book is the relationship between Fawn and Dag and how it develops while they are dealing with magical creatures called “malices”. These books take place in a society that’s trying to rebuild after some sort of magical apocalypse–the malices are a remnant of the catastrophe and the Lakewalkers, Dag’s people, are charged with dispatching them. Fawn comes from people who are more settled and there is a tremendous amount of tension and misinformation between the two groups–most of the tension and conflict in these books comes from the clash of these two (very essential) cultures, not from the fantastic elements.. These books are definitely an experiment on Bujold’s part and while I’m not sure they’re a completely successful experiment even a bad book from Bujold is head and shoulders above a good book from other authors.

Kage Baker: Baker’s Company series is about immortal time travelling cyborgs. Specifically, one named Mendoza who is bitter, prickly, and hates humanity (and for very good reason, i.e., the Spanish Inquisition). And yet they’re also gloriously romantic although it takes many books before Mendoza gets a happy ending. I will note here that the last few books do not work for everyone and even though they worked for me I can absolutely see how the ending is deeply unsatisfying and problematic for other readers. I’ll also note that Baker passed away in 2010 after a short and brutal battle with uterine cancer. She is, still, missed.

In the Garden of Iden is the first book and it’s wonderful–it’s a science fiction historical romance which ends badly (possible understatement of the year) but it’s such a compelling story and the way Baker writes a thoroughly unpleasant character like Mendoza in such a sympathetic way is incredible. Mendoza is made into a cyborg at the beginning of this book and she trains as a botanist–her hope is to be sent someplace far away from people for her first assignment but instead she’s sent to Elizabethan England where she meets Nicholas Harpole and falls in love. Note: things end badly here. There isn’t even a happy-for-now ending.

There is wonk and angst galore in these books and I can’t recommend them highly enough. There’s also a deep and evident authorial love for all the characters and the setting–these are books about California and secret histories and pop culture and nightmare dystopian futures. With immortal time traveling cyborgs.

So to summarize: there are awesome books in lots of different genres. It can’t hurt to try something new–at worst, it’s a DNF and at best you have a new favorite. I’m hoping to make this a regular feature here, so any and all suggestions will be considered for the future.

Holiday Reading, Part 1

While I was out of town spending time with family for Christmas (and am, at this moment, spending time with chosen family for New Year’s), I got a lot of reading done–not much to do except read while driving the 627 miles from our home in Delaware to Metro Detroit and back again–especially when the trip back involved a lot of snow, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and some seriously clueless drivers. It is at this point I must hold my husband up as a saint for not only doing all the driving but for also (more or less) dealing calmly with an increasingly anxious and panic-stricken passenger. I also feel like I should apologize to everyone who follows me on Twitter as well because there was a lot of all-caps tweeting going on. I’m better now, I swear.

I’d saved a few books and novellas for travel because, well, that’s how I roll. Some of them were even holiday-themed, imagine that!

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, Grace Burrowes

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, Grace Burrowes

First up is the latest Grace Burrowes, The Bridegroom Wore Plaid. Burrowes is one of those authors I discovered this year and I’m still too enamored of her writing to really be critical about her–I’m sure that will come, but that time is not yet come. The set-up of this one is fairly conventional: hard up Scottish noble must marry rich English heiress in order to provide for his family.

Said English heiress, Genie Daniels, comes with a younger sister, a spinster cousin, a companion, and a revolting father. Opposed to an arranged marriage, Genie does her best to avoid Ian MacGregor while being increasingly pressured by her abusive father to accept his suit. In the meantime, Ian finds himself increasingly attracted to Augusta Merrick, Genie’s spinster cousin (and poor relation).

The plot of this book is a bit convoluted–Ian and his two brothers all have romances in this story and when intertwined with the mystery at the heart of Augusta’s poverty it can sometimes be a bit hard to follow what’s going on.

Burrowes, however, has a way of cutting right to the heart of matters in her prose–her lyrical voice is one of the reasons I keep coming back to her books. For instance, this bit near the beginning, when Ian has just started to become friends with Augusta:

And now he knew he was not alone in his sense of isolation. Even proper little spinsters from the backwaters of Oxfordshire could suffer the same gnawing fear that if nobody ever called them by name, a part of them would eventually cease to be.

There’s an easy intimacy in Burrowes’s writing that I find very compelling as a reader and which makes me forgive the bits that aren’t exactly period–like how all her heroines menstruate. I don’t know why I love that about her heroines, but I do–I think it makes them more real, especially since the only time menstruation appears in romances is to signal disappointment at there not being a pregnancy, as opposed to a biological function that most women (and some men!) need to deal with.

Burrowes also tackles a pretty serious subject in this book and that’s the way in which women have very few rights and can very easily be railroaded without their knowledge. Augusta’s uncle is physically and emotionally abusive to his wife, children, and niece, and during the course of this book it’s determined that he’s a thief as well. If this book could be said to have a flaw, it would be in the way that his villainy was so clearly telegraphed to the reader that the only mystery really involved how he was going to be found out and put in his place.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the heck out of this book and am looking forward to the other books in the trilogy.

Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, Jennifer Ashley

Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, Jennifer Ashley

The next book I read whilst away was Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, which is a novella about–what else–the Mackenzie family Christmas. Focusing mainly on Ian and Beth, this novella was a nice way to revisit the Mackenzie clan and see how they were doing.

There’s not much of a plot to this one–there’s a broken Ming dynasty bowl that throws everyone into a tizzy and Hart is worried about his wife Eleanor, heavily pregnant and confined to bed.  Honestly, it had been so long since I’d read this series that some of the characters were hard for me to distinguish, but I tend to blame myself and my sieve of a memory for that over any deficiency in Ashley as a writer.

I’m really not sure what else to say about this–the novella cost a dollar and I feel that it was well worth that price and it was reasonably entertaining but didn’t move me that much. The plot I found most interesting was that between Louisa (Isabella’s younger sister) and Lloyd Fellows, the illegitimate Mackenzie brother–I’m hoping that their developing attraction was more than just a tease, that there’s a planned story for them.

One thing that drives me a bit batty about this series is how unrelentingly Scottish the brothers are–it seems, at times, cartoonish, which really doesn’t do the story any favors. I almost expected to see Mike Myers jump out of a shrubbery and yell that if it wasn’t Scottish it was crrrrrap, that’s how stereotypical the Scottishness felt to me at times.

A Kiss for Midwinter, Courtney Milan

A Kiss for Midwinter, Courtney Milan

The last book I’m going to talk about in this post is another novella, also with a winter theme: Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter.

This is just a gem of a story and I’m so glad that I took my time reading it. Focusing on two secondary characters from The Duchess War, Milan manages to tell an utterly devastating story in an extremely small space. This book is an angst-o-rama and once you know Lydia’s backstory, there’s hardly a reason for it to be anything else.

Lydia Charingford is relentlessly optimistic to the point where some people think she doesn’t have a brain in her head. Jonas Grantham, the town’s doctor has decided that Lydia is the eleventh prettiest girl in town and every time he talks to her, he ends up putting his foot in his mouth.

Lydia, see, doesn’t trust Jonas. And she has good reason for that–a few years before this book starts, she was raped and left pregnant by a lying bounder and the doctor at the time basically told her father that she was a worthless slut who deserved to die–and then proceeded to give a prescription for poison that did almost kill her. And Jonas was there, shadowing the doctor, and unable–unwilling–to say anything that may have jeopardized his future practice of medicine.

So there’s this dark history between them and Lydia is determined to put it all behind her and always look on the bright side of life (insert Monty Python song here). But Jonas is there, constantly reminding her of it and saying things to her that sound like he’s making fun of her and she finally agrees to a wager: she’ll accompany him on several house calls and try to see the bright side of his patients’s lives and if she wins, he’ll never speak to her again and if he wins, he gets to kiss her. It’s a totally hackneyed plot device, but it works. It gets both Lydia and Jonas out of their comfort zones and it makes each of them really see each other plainly.

Jonas sees the truth as a gift and he is so angry with himself that he withheld the truth from Lydia and caused her harm–and he gives that to her and gives her her anger and basically lets her know that it’s okay to feel anger. That’s a tremendous gift, especially in this setting where women’s roles are so circumscribed and limited. And Jonas tells Lydia, “I’m the only person you can scream at in all the world.” He’s the only one who was there with her in that room as she was told to take poison, as she was told that she was worthless who can stand up to her fierce anger at both herself and at the world:

So if you’d like to know, Miss Charingford, why I speak of penises and cervixes, I lay the blame at your door. There is no way I can apologize for what I could have prevented with a little plain speaking. All I can hope is that I will never make the same mistake again. I would rather open my mouth and say what is true than shut it for the sake of propriety. You claim you’re not angry with me, Miss Charingford, but you should be. You should be.

This is an incredibly powerful story with characters who aren’t particularly likeable but who completely wormed their way into my heart. This book also made me incredibly glad that I live now and not 150 years ago because modern medicine is a miraculous thing and it’s amazing that even more people didn’t die back in those days.

The Duchess War, Courtney Milan

The Duchess War, Courtney Milan

The Duchess War, Courtney Milan

Just like practically everyone else in Romancelandia in possession of an e-reader, I bought Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War as soon as it became available at my retailer of choice. And then I proceeded to not-read it for two days, I’m not sure why. I get like that sometimes–possibly because I was so excited by the prospect of this book that I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations for it.

I was wrong. If I hadn’t already published my list of the top books of the year this one would be on it (I might go back and add it, actually).

Minnie is a quiet and genteelly poor wallflower whose best hope is to make the best marriage she can–which isn’t going to be a very good one considering that her intended thinks of her as a rodent.

Then she meets Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont. He finds Minnie fascinating and he challenges her to stop effacing herself and to look up. On Minnie’s part, she sees Robert for who he is and not as a duke–which is something rare and precious in Robert’s world not least because his father was a rapist jackhole who used him as a pawn in his battle with Robert’s mother.

This is a deeply subversive book–Milan is playing with tropes in such an interesting way. Robert is painfully aware of how much unearned privilege he has in his life and he is determined to use that privilege on behalf of those who have, through no fault of their own, no voices. Minnie is a brilliant strategist and he quickly realizes that she’s much, much better at devising plans than he is–and he tells her so.

This book was especially moving to me because it was, in part, about the right of workers to organize. As someone who calls Michigan home (even though I no longer live there), I am deeply distressed by the right-to-work initiative being rammed through a lame duck legislature. I’ve worked jobs where I’ve been locked in, where breaks were falsely recorded, where we were kept hours after our shifts were to end, where employees were made to clean public restrooms without any safety precautions whatsoever–and I was able to skirt a lot of the mistreatment because I was a white college student (emphasis on the white part). If we’d had a union, we would have had a voice. Also, I now work in the manufacturing sector and I see first-hand how vital and important organized labor has been for the safety and health of not only workers but also for surrounding communities.

“If you don’t look carefully,” Robert said, “the men and women on the floor fade into indistinguishable browns and grays. You don’t have to see them as anything except the working arms of the machines, flesh and blood instead of steel and iron. Drawing wages, instead of being purchased upfront. But machines don’t sing. Machines don’t hope. And Charingford, I don’t think we could stop them, not with a thousand copies of Captain Stevens. I don’t intend to try.”

Anyhow–back to the book.

I found myself completely pulled into Minnie and Robert’s story–were they ever going to be able to get past the very real barriers to their happy ending? What was going to happen around the threats involving Minnie’s Deep Dark Secret? Were Robert’s Mommy Issues going to be a problem? As an aside, I really liked how Milan dealt with the Mommy Issues and made his mother really complicated and willing, in a halting sort of way, to try to move past what she lived through with Robert’s father into a better relationship with her son.

Milan is such a good writer–her prose is beautifully constructed and I found myself moved to tears several times during the course of this book as the carefully composed layers were peeled away to the raw truth between Minnie and Robert. As I’ve said before, Milan has an almost Bujoldian way with words–she has a knack of writing things in such a way that the reader is convinced of the rightness of those words down to their very bones.

This book is about facing your fears and reconciliation and forgiveness and doing your damndest to rise above your limitations.

But he had so little expectation of forgiveness for himself that he couldn’t even ask for it.

It’s hard to talk about some of the other ways this book is subversive without spoiling it–I’ll just say that the wedding night is spectacularly subversive in about three different ways as is the baby epilogue (I know some people–including myself–dislike baby epilogues but this one is truly wonderful).

I think I’ll end this with one of my favorite passages from the book. This takes place a few days before Robert and Minnie’s wedding. Robert is spending time with his brother and cousin.

“On the eve of your wedding, Robert, we shall offer you the sorts of female delights that you have always lusted after. Philosophical tracts upon philosophical tracts, all of them advocating political change that would result in an upheaval of the current social order. We shall set forth their essays, and then…” He paused, as if for dramatic emphasis. “Then, my friends, we shall argue about them!”

More than anything else, I think Milan is writing something much more important than “just” romance–she’s pushing the boundaries of the genre in interesting and surprising directions and she’s delving into all the other things that matter in our relationships with each other. She writes fully formed people who are complicated and weird and broken in unexpected ways–just like those of us who exist outside of books.