5 out of 5 stars
Huzzah! This was, surprisingly, one of my favorite books by Courtney Milan! Surprising because I’ve read everything she’s published (and thought, how much better can it get) and because I initially didn’t like our main character, Free, when she was first introduced (as a side character in her brother’s book). BUT — I think this is probably one of her best. Free and Edward are both totally believable characters who are layered and conflicted in meaningful and easy-to-relate-to ways. It’s got a wonderful historical backdrop in terms what it meant to be a suffragette at the time (the sexism from not only men, but also other women). The side characters get legitimate side plots (though they’re almost too perfect sometimes), the main characters help one another grow as they fall in love… and overall, really, I feel like this is one of her best.
THAT SAID — I don’t think it’s for everyone. (Spoiler Alert!!!) I don’t know what the traditional romance reader looks for, but there’s homosexual characters/side plots, a lot of detail on unfair treatment towards women of the time, and it’s definitely not the traditional alpha-male-meets-helpless-virgin historical romance in terms of sexual norms and stereotypes. I loved it, but I can see why some people would struggle with this.
Frederica “Free” Marshall runs a women’s newspaper (for women, by women with one notable exception) that’s all about supporting (an din this case, sometimes creating) the idea of women’s rights and opportunities. Over time, she’s made quite a few enemies, and one man in particular wants to destroy her and her career.
Enter Edward Clark (not his real last name), a scoundrel of a man who’s adept at forgery, blackmail, and things himself a broken wastrel of a man, unworthy of happiness. He’s a pessimist’s pessimist, and he’s back in town to try and protect the Stephen, the younger brother of his best friend Patrick (who’s more like a brother and to whom he more or less owes his life). Saving Stephen more or less means saving Free, and that’s how they paths cross.
She doesn’t trust him. And he doesn’t trust love or anything that has any good in it. But, they’re similar in a many ways: they’re survivors who are willing to do anything for the things they care about (in her case, her newspaper, family and friends, in his case, just his friends). They’re drawn together because they challenge and surprise one another (and the reader: there’s plenty of excellent, laugh-out-loud-sly dialog and wordplay, perhaps the best I’ve seen from her).
It’s at least ONE of my favorites. There are a few things I felt came/happened too easily (the side characters and how perfect they are, as well as how some of that resolves), and some parts I thought a bit too dark (all of Edward’s past, some of which doesn’t get revealed until the very, very end and some of the scandals Free has gotten into). I also wondered a little about how totally believable the final climactic sequence was.
But… is that nitpicking? Yeah, kind of. Overall, I loved this book. I read a chapter or two, put it down, and when I came back to it, I had to read the rest of it straight through. A must for all Milan fans who will appreciate her wordplay, her complex characters, and her way of challenging norms and expectations (even within the confines of historical romance).
Comparisons to Other Authors/Books:
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).