Oh, the feels.
One of the hallmarks of Courtney Milan’s books is the use of very real, often very serious psychological problems that the characters have. And not just the hero and heroine either. Her alphas are damaged, possibly even broken men, who have plenty of character to develop and flaws to iron out that may not have anything to do with the heroine beyond her ability to understand his difficulties and accept them as a reality. Often, one or both of them will have a history of abuse, but not always.
That said, this is a book that demands emotional investment. It is essential to enjoying the book. It isn’t mawkish. Both of the main characters have very traumatic pasts, and you have to care. If you don’t, or you’re more interested in a light read, then the resolution may leave you behind. Or the emotional content could seem over the top.
Obviously, I didn’t have that problem. But I can see where someone else might have. In the same vein, I can see why someone might see Minnie as yet another scarred or shy girl who gets a great catch husband-wise–a bit of a stand-by trope–but I didn’t feel that way. I focused more on Minnie as a woman with a secret (a heroine trope that I like) than a mousy or scarred woman. In fact, mentions of her being mousy tended to confuse me.
Minnie is hounded by a scandal in her past, and just wants to stay out of crowds and avoid attention. To this end, she is aiming for a marriage with a man who wants a mousy wife. Robert, the Duke of Clermont, also wants to avoid attention to a degree, but his reason is due to a possible future scandal. Like many good Milan books (particularly in this series), there is a spoiler-ish thing right a the beginning, so be aware that I’ll have to bring that one out or fail to discuss most of the book.
After meeting the duke, Minnie is accosted by her friend’s fiancé, a jumped-up little trout, who accuses her of being responsible for handbills encouraging workers to unionise. This is untrue and ridiculous, since she’s trying to keep her head down and hide her past. Unfortunately, he threatens to dig into her life in order to prove his idiot theory, and she fears him finding out her real secret.
Minnie is one of those wonderful heroines who has not a mere informed talent, but actual talent and intelligence that you actually get to see her use. (For someone used to YA, this could be MIND-BLOWING.) She discovers that the duke is behind the unionising handbills very quickly, and her logic makes sense. She’s like Batman (the great detective version, not the overdone my-parents-are-still-dead version). Her genius for strategy is based on her skill in chess, which is part of her backstory.
Anyway, she takes her friend as chaperon and goes to the Duke of Clermont in order to accuse him (correctly) of being the one writing the handbills, and to ask him to cut it out because her life is on the line. He makes a counterproposal, which she doesn’t really go for, and they depart having declared a small internal war. He wants to be seen to be pursuing her, so that people won’t question his reason for being in the area, and she wants him to bugger off so she can marry a bland protector and get on with things.
The handbills and unionisation is very important to Robert. His father the previous duke was a repulsive man who abused his power in every way imaginable, and to the detriment of literally everyone around him. Thanks to this example, Robert wants to overthrow the class system and put people on a more equal standing.
Very often, I either dislike or simply tolerate heroes. Robert is one that I really, really liked. Maybe it’s a broken bird thing (I loved the hero in To Beguile a Beast, too) but I don’t think so. I loved his lack of tiresome aggression. He wasn’t exactly submissive, he just wasn’t a grunting, snorting bull all the time. He even made a point of staying away from prostitutes (again, citing his father’s disgusting example). He can’t rape or impregnate his hand.
My absolute favourite thing about this book is, of course, a spoiler. They both betray the other in the one way that for each seemed unforgivable. Forgiveness happens, and it’s completely believable. When she betrays him, he apologises for his own part in it. Which he absolutely should have done.
The story is a little marred by the fridge horror that Robert’s desire to be loved and fear of being denied it are so deeply entrenched that I’m not sure he can have a truly healthy, adult relationship with Minnie without some kind of therapy. It follows him very close to the end, and throughout the book, I could see how his severe emotional trauma affects his ability to make decisions and what those are. I guess you could say that he is a little too shaped by his past. And yet, I can’t say that I would believe it if he weren’t.
Overall, I loved this book. The conflict was surprisingly complex, the characters were strong and had a wonderful dynamic. I believed their romantic love, although I thought their physical chemistry was a little bit weak.
After having read most of the rest of the series (At present, I have yet to read the last book and Talk Sweetly to Me), I have to say that I’m less impressed with Robert. He seems more timid in retrospect, and lacking in strength in a couple of ways. His goals are important to him and he does exert himself to attain them, but when it comes to people whose love he craves–and “craves” is most definitely the word–he is weak and missish. He and Minnie were at times evenly matched in passion and drive, but her emotional health outdoes him even more than her genius over his average intellect.
I also really do not believe in his friendship with Sebastian, but I’ve already talked about that.