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:
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.
She dabbles in writing speculative fiction and poetry, but non-fiction is her bread and butter. She’s known for her coverage of various issues within genre around sexism and harassment, and can be found on Twitter as @eilatan.
With Annalee Flower Horne, she is a co-founder of the intersectional geek blog, The Bias.