The Duchess War, Courtney Milan

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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December 12, 2012

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.

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  1. Brie

    *sigh* I really wanted to like it. All the right elements were there, but my emotions were not engaged and I found it boring. I’m sad because The Governess Affair was one of my favorite books of the year. Maybe the next one will be better. But I agree with you, she writes real people, or at least complex characters that feel authentic.

    On a random, unrelated note: have you read Susanna Kearsley’s books?

    • Natalie

      I’m sorry you found it boring! I really liked “The Governess Affair”, too. One of the other things I like is how Milan is so cognizant of how the legal system and social mores work to limit the choices that her characters have–I think that was really evident in “The Governess Affair”. I keep hoping that she’ll write a novella or short story about Richard from her Turner trilogy. If anyone could pull of a historically accurate m/m romance, I think she could.

      I haven’t read Susanna Kearsley–should I? (Book-pusher.)

    • Barb in Maryland

      Ack!! You haven’t read Kearsley? Oh noes! She is so fantastic–especially if you loved Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels. My two favorites are “The Shadowy Horses” (very Mary Stewart about an archaeology dig and Roman artifacts-set in northern England) and “The Rose Garden” (a time-travel in Cornwall–one of the best time-travel stories I’ve read).
      I am sure other fans have other favorites–but those two are on my keeper shelf.

    • Natalie

      I love Barbara Michaels–I’ve read everything she’s written, in fact. I will definitely need to get my hands on some Susanna Kearsley if her work is in that vein. I am persistently sad that those kinds of books aren’t very popular anymore.

  2. Barb in Maryland

    Well, I loved this book. I laughed, I cried. I did roll my eyes over the ‘news conference’ scene near the end, but I could put up with it because the rest of the book was awesome. Milan’s command of the language is superb.
    Your review says it so much better that I can–great book from a very talented writer.
    Brie–sorry it didn’t work for you right now. But,as we all know, no author can please all of the readers all of the time!

    • Natalie

      The news conference was a bit odd–I see what she was trying to do with it but it did feel a bit forced. I would rather an author take a risk and not completely succeed than play it safe all the time.

  3. Selki

    I don’t get the whole Best of Year X in December of Year X lists thing, instead of January of Year X+1. What exactly is the rush? I even saw some out in November. November! Blech.


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