The Duchess War (Courtney Milan, The Brothers Sinister #1)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
It pains me to put a 3 star rating on a Courtney Milan novel, as I am really, really a fan of her writing — normally she creates clear, clever, multilayered characters in a richly constructed drama. The characters makes me swoon and cry… sometimes all at once. But… this particular effort, while still very, very readable, doesn’t shine quite as brightly for me as Milan’s other works. While all of the side characters are richly drawn… they’re SO convincing and interesting that you almost lose interest in the main characters (especially our hero, who feels curiously muted). I still enjoyed the novel (hence 3 stars), but compared to other Milan novels, it just doesn’t feel up to snuff.

Greater Detail:
Our heroine is a woman with a past (and not a past where she had a lover, or was caught kissing someone, or even was born on the wrong side of the sheets). Though I won’t give it away completely, I’ll tell you what’s hinted at fairly early on:  Minne (who now goes by the name Wilheminia Pursling instead of Miss Minerva Lane) spent the first 12 years of her life pretending to be a boy.

These days, she’s afraid of crowds, afraid of being noticed, and afraid of anyone finding out about her past. Though she pictures herself as a tea kettle, almost ready to boil but never allowed to let off any steam, she folds into herself, and pretends to be lesser, smaller, and more boring than all those around her, so that she can escape attention.

Through a handbill (unions, strikes, political contretemps), she is inextricably tied to Robert Blaisdell, the current Duke of Clermont. He’s rich, handsome, and seems completely beyond her touch… except he is, of course, completely intrigued by Minnie, believing that she is the one person who looks beyond his pedigree.

Argh. It’s going to be hard for me to articulate my frustration with this novel — on the one hand, there are some really amazing scenes and wonderfully worked dialogue/puns/etc (there are some wickedly entertaining paste puns as well as a discussion about cats and what cats pretend to do that makes reading the rest of the book seem entirely worthwhile). There are some GREAT side characters (the friend Lydia, the cousin Sebastian, the friend Violet, even the awful/not awful soon-to-be-dowager duchess). And… maybe that’s the real problem here. There are so many interesting characters and side plots (because this is VERY clearly the book that starts the trilogy… or however many books there will be in this series…) that we lose sight of the main characters. They seem duller than those around them. Robert, our duke, is so insecure and wrapped up in his tragic childhood that he seems… weak. (And yes, his childhood is a sad one, but he spends so much time thinking about it that I started wondering if he’d benefit more from a therapist than a wife… ) His embarrassment at his friends’ banter seems contrived, and he just… well, he’s just not that interesting at the end of the day.

And Minnie… because she’s got this past and this disguise and she struggles with whether or not to be more like how she was, or more like the wallflower she’s supposed to be, the character ends up not coming together as a coherent whole.

Which is frustrating, because there are some WONDERFUL scenes in this… but they’re really, really burdened by uneven pacing, side characters who overwhelm the main characters, and plot climaxes that are a little more meh than usual.

It’s still, overall, a good book, but far from her best, and barely gets the recommend.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
The fully fleshed out characters make me think of the better of Lisa Kleypas’s, Julia Quinn’s or Sherry Thomas’s works. Milan has a heck of a vocabulary on her, and everything is just very smoothly written (like Lisa Kleypas in terms of well drawn characters, but a little less hit-me-with-a-thesaurus than Sherry Thomas). Sensuality-wise, she’s definitely below Stephanie Laurens and probably more similar to Julia Quinn. Humor-wise, I’d say she’s somewhere along the lines of a Tessa Dare (but a little more serious). And drama-wise, she has setups that remind me of Kat Martin or Amanda Quick, but these resolve in a less-dramatic-and-more-believably layered way. My favorite is still Unclaimed, followed by Unveiled and Unraveled. The only Milan I would avoid is probably Unlocked (another novella, and not as good of one).

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