Midnight Scandals is a self-published anthology of three novellas from Carolyn Jewel, Courtney Milan, and Sherry Thomas. I don’t know if they meet the precise definition of a novella, but they have chapters and are fairly short but are longer than a short story, so that’s what I’m going with.
I basically bought this because I love Courtney Milan’s novels and, at this point, would be more than happy to read her grocery list (I would also read Loretta Chase and Tessa Dare’s grocery lists).
I have also read one of Sherry Thomas’s novels and enjoyed it well enough, but was completely unfamiliar with Carolyn Jewel’s work. I admit, I was a bit concerned about that, because the last time I bought an anthology with a novella from an author whose work I wasn’t familiar with I was not very impressed and it was definitely the weakest story of the bunch.
So the deal with this anthology is that they’re all set at the same house in the north of England–and there is some interconnection between the first two, but not so much that they don’t stand alone. The third novella is a standalone story.
I do reveal key plot points below, so keep that in mind if you don’t want to be spoiled. Non-spoilery: wonderful and worth every penny.
First up is Carolyn Jewel’s “One Starlit Night”. Portia and Crispin grew up together–he as the scion of Northword Hill and she at a neighboring estate, Doyle’s Grange. Lovers in their teens, Crispin left for London a decade ago and only now, two years after his wife’s death (who has no name and that is really kind of annoying because she is referred to by several characters–always in the context of being Crispin’s wife which is…argh), has he returned to his childhood home. Portia, on the other hand, has never been more than 20 miles from home and is engaged to another man.
See, Portia’s brother Magnus is a newlywed and his wife, Eleanor, is Awful. I mean, she’s perfectly nice. If you like passive aggressive women who have to get their way all the time or else there might be disappointed sighs or crying. One can hardly blame Portia for wanting to get away. So Crispin and Portia have this history together and Eleanor is Awful and she gets Portia so upset that one of my least favorite romance cliches occurs: trapped by weather in a secluded location with no chaperone.
To Jewel’s credit, though, the aftermath of that scene is not what I–or Crispin or Portia!–expected to happen and for that I am grateful. The sex scenes in this novella are well-done and not too gynecological, if you know what I mean. And Crispin isn’t circumcised! Which would have been totally accurate for the time period! It’s the little details that make me happy. Also making me happy: the way the conflict that tore Portia and Crispin apart is slowly revealed and how they each blame themselves, the way that it’s made pretty clear that Portia was pregnant and then she wasn’t pregnant anymore and that it was on purpose and that it was a very dangerous thing for her to do, the way Crispin totally understands how Awful Eleanor is and finally, the way that Crispin finally realizes that if he doesn’t do something that Portia’s going to make her own future–and that future may not include him.
Courtney Milan’s novella is called “What Happened at Midnight” and, well, my initial reaction to it is an all caps flaily sort of OMG-ness which, well, is unbecoming in a reviewer. It really is that good, though
Mary Chartley is the daughter of an embezzler. She has fled to a position as a paid companion at Doyle’s Grange where she hopes she will be safe from John Mason, her former betrothed and who, as one of her father’s victims, has sworn he will find out what her father did with the money one way or another. Unfortunately for Mary, the man she is working for is an emotionally abusive man who is aces at gaslighting his wife and her paid companion, so it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for her.
This book revolves around Mary figuring out how to rescue herself and LadyPatsworth from Sir Walter while simultaneously coming clean with John about her father’s embezzlement and where the money he took went. Once John realizes that she doesn’t have the money and that she didn’t know until after her father’s suicide that it had been spent on her, he backs off on his whole revenge thing because he is–gasp!–a decent human being and can see that there’s a heck of a lot more going on.
Milan really seems to get what it would have meant to be a woman in the time and place she writes about (Victorian England) and her characters feel, to me, so firmly rooted in that time and place. I’m going to indulge myself in a handful of quotations now because I feel like sharing the awesome.
From Chapter 3, when the reader first encounters Sir Walter:
Etiquette. Safety. Responsibility. They sounded like such admirable virtues, until Sir Walter got his hands on them.
He didn’t look like a monster. He didn’t act like one. Mary hadn’t even realized he was one for months. He’d taken away her money, her freedom, her friends, and it wasn’t until she was well and truly leashed, without a penny in her possession, that she’d realized what he’d done.
When she’d left Southampton eighteen months ago, she’d known her life had changed. Sir Walter had taught her what that meant. She’d lost all control over her future. She was dependent on the goodwill of the men around her.
From Chapter 6, when Mary starts sneaking out at night to have long conversations with John:
“Please,” she said, “please, don’t tell me that this is friendship if all you want is to hear my answers. I can bear a great many things, but not that. Don’t treat me like a real person if you don’t really believe it.”
And, I think, one more from Chapter 12, after Sir Walter has been publicly routed, Lady Patsworth safely escaped, and Mary complete in her self-knowledge:
She placed her fingers against his palm. “Not a lady,” she said. “A lady wouldn’t have gone to London and discovered the circumstances of the money. A lady doesn’t plot to help women get divorces. A lady doesn’t force her employer to pay wages by enlisting the help of a viscountess. I’ll never be a lady.” She smiled, and squeezed his hand. “I think…I rather think I’m something better.”
Milan’s stories are nothing if not intense–which is one of the things I love about them. Her characters aren’t always nobility or even gentry and the situations they’re in seem, to my rather inexpert eye, rather plausible. In this story, Mary’s the daughter of a businessman and John is a gentleman farmer who has a knack for drainage and you get the sense that hey, they’re more or less regular people. In some ways, the way Milan writes reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold, especially in A Civil Campaign and Memory. There’s always a great story happening in her books, but there are also discussions of women’s roles in society and the way that entire society was (and is still, in so many ways) structured to make sure that women stayed in the roles that were deemed best for them–from legal strictures to social constraints.
I do have one quibble. At the end, when Mary is making her escape and they get trapped by weather (SERIOUSLY?) and John has to get her out of her wet clothes, it becomes clear that one of her two dresses is one that buttons up the back and her corset laces up the back as well. Only a woman with access to a servant would have such a dress and I can’t imagine that a paid companion would have that kind of access–wouldn’t Mary have wanted to acquire clothing she could put on and take off without assistance? But really, if that’s the only quibble I have with a story, I’m doing pretty well.
The final novella in this anthology is Sherry Thomas’s “A Dance By Moonlight”. I’ve only read one of her novels, His at Night, but she has long been on my “read more books by this writer” list.
This novella gets the “trapped by weather” thing our of the way on the first page. In this case, it’s the mechanism by which our hero, Ralston Fitzwilliam, first sees our heroine, Isabelle Englewood and is somehow intrigued by her, to the point where he feels he must call upon her in subsequent days.
What Ralston doesn’t know is that he bears a marked resemblance to Isabelle’s childhood sweetheart, Fitz. After the initial mistaken identity hijinks, Isabelle and Ralston develop a really sweet friendship–they’re both widowed and they both loved their deceased spouses very much. That was one of the things I really loved about this–that after the contrived meeting, they both stepped away and decided to get to know each other better and that they both had happy first marriages. So often in romances the first marriage is really and truly Awful, so I was really glad to see the opposite here. I also liked that Isabelle’s first husband, Lawrence, had a splendid mustache and that Ralston was really interested in him and that she was really interested in his first wife, Charlotte. The fact that they both had pasts with sorrow and happiness in them and that neither of those things would be erased by their new relationship was really just lovely.
I loved the way they were familiar with each other in their letters but still very respectful and I loved that Isabelle had children who weren’t plot devices but their own people. I also loved her relationship with her sister Louise and how supporting Louise was of her–even when what she wanted was deeply unconventional. I also really liked how invested in Isabelle’s happiness Fitz and his wife, Millie, were.
Overall, I really, really enjoyed this collection–each of the stories is substantial and well-told and I think any of them would serve as a great introduction to each author’s style and type of story, if you’re not familiar with any of them. For those of you worried about this being a self-published title, have no fears: the e-text is beautifully laid out and formatted and I didn’t spot any typos or other glaring mistakes. It’s also DRM-free.
Note: I bought this book with my own money.