3.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
Oh, the highs and lows of reading ambitious works from highly skilled authors. On the one hand, you have an amazing beginning and setup, subplots and side characters that are funny, moving, and multilayered — so much so that you’ll forget (in both a good and bad way) that you’re reading a historical romance. You’ve got the super-strong and independent female protagonist who feels completely believable: she’s an heiress, but not super pretty, and socially, she’s a disaster (on purpose)! There’s also a male protagonist who’s ambitious, thoughtful and almost overly cautious about his five-, ten- and twenty-year life plans. But… there are several times when the subplots and side characters overwhelm the main storyline, and I would say that the main thrust of the romance was perhaps the weakest part of the book. Still, it’s a must because it’s an integral part of the series (which is strong), and further, the good parts are great, though the novel as a whole… is merely pretty good.
Miss Jane Fairfield is an heiress who MUST not marry. Though she has funds aplenty, she also has a younger sister she is determined to protect. In order to remain in her uncle’s household (she’s of age, her sister Emily (who has fits that are seizure-like) is not), she must remain unmarried. Yet, to appease her uncle, she must appear to be trying to obtain a good match.
So: she buys awful dresses, she speaks too loudly and inappropriately, and she makes certain that everyone knows she’d be an awful choice for a wife.
Meanwhile, we have Oliver Marshall (his parents got their own prequel novel in The Governess Affair, and he shows up briefly in The Duchess War as well). He’s a bastard son of a duke, who was sent to Eton and then Cambridge, and had to fight for everything he’s ever achieved. He has dreams and ambitions (to one day be the Prime Minister!) and a carefully charted path he plans on taking: the Reform Act, the right connections, a docile wren of a wife. The last person he’d want to marry would be the borderline obnoxious, rather tasteless Jane Fairfield.
The setup is seriously interesting and very, very well done. The beginning few chapters have you completely hooked.
And… unlike other Milan novels, there is a strong supporting cast: you’ve got Free, Oliver’s (appropriately named) frighteningly independent and free-spirited youngest sister, his Aunt Freddy (recluse and agoraphobe), his cousin Sebastian (the naturalist who has been inspiring death-threats with his essays on snapdragons), Violet (family friend of Sebastian’s), Jane’s sister Emily, her suitor Anjan (an Indian featured in a regency-era historical romance is a rare feat!), and of course a pair of villains: a not quite a caricature and not always evenly portrayed Uncle Titus (the forbidding guardian) and Lord Bradenton (the nobleman trying to hang onto the exclusivity of the peerage).
There’s just too much going on. It’s clear that we’re being set up for two spin-offs: Sebastian’s story (the next in the series) and Free’s. The parallel love story between Emily and Anjan is sooooo interesting, yet presented in an almost muted fashion. Milan was a lawyer, and you know she cares about historical accuracy, and you definitely feel like she’s done her research on everything from naturalist essays of the time to what medical understanding of epilepsy was and how the Reform Act happened… but there are times when the details (and the subplots) overwhelm the story and ultimately, the romance between Oliver and Jane just doesn’t have the realness that some of her other couples do. They’re cerebral (which is awesome, love that), but there’s so much going on, and we part from their main storyline so much, that each time we come back to it, we need to almost be reminded: they’re our main characters, they want to be together, but can’t. Further, Oliver, as a hero, is one of the least satisfying male leads that Milan’s ever created: though he feels real and flawed (which is nice), he also comes across as too willing to bend and be broken. I get that that’s his main struggle, but it was harder to root for him because of this, perhaps especially because he’s surrounded by so many extraordinary and larger-than-life personalities.
If you’ve watched Friends, then this is like being told to focus on Ross and Rachel when Monica and Chandler are proving interesting, and Phoebe and Joey are getting into crazy hijinks. If you’ve watched LOTR, this is The Two Towers: very entertaining, but kind of meaningless if you haven’t watched the first, or don’t plan on watching the next. Unlike some of her other part-of-a-series novels where I thought they could be read standalone, I think this is a novel you read, and enjoy, because it is clearly a part of a series, and a stuck-in-the-middle let’s reference almost everyone part of the series at that.
If I were comparing it against other Milan works, it would be a middle-of-the-road 3-star review; compared to the general landscape of historical romance, it’s probably closer to 4-star. I split the difference and gave it a 3.5. I don’t think I’ll be rereading it (except for one part, with a side character which was AMAZING… like real tears and laughter AMAZING awesomeballs), but I’m happy to have read it, if for nothing else than because I had to know what happened to Hugo and Serena’s child, and because I’m now totally looking forward to Sebastian’s story (though for me, jury’s still out on the overly spunky Free and her spinoff).
*I’ve listed this as the second novel in The Brothers Sinister Books (there are three “brothers”), but really, it’s a whole series now, in chronological order, and relative to this book:
The Governess Affair – Oliver’s parents (novella)
The Duchess War – Oliver’s half-brother Robert (full-length, so I consider this book #1)
A Kiss for Midwinter — nothing to do with Oliver, but excellent (novella)
The Heiress Effect — this one, Oliver’s story
The Countess Conspiracy — Oliver’s cousin Sebastian’s story
The Mistress Rebellion — Oliver’s youngest sister, Free
Comparisons to Other Authors/Books:
I’ve written a whole separate, like, essay on Courtney Milan and What to Read, What Not to Read. She’s one of my all-time favorites, a total must-buy when I see her name, but she’s not infallible!