Kathleen's Reviews > The Duchess War

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
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's review
Dec 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: romance-historic

An absorbing story, keeping me on my toes. Lots of surprises are contained herein, some delightful, some appalling. I can't write a short review for this story line, so it's looooong, but all spoilers are hidden away.

In The Duchess War, Robert, the duke who would be a commoner, falls in love with Minnie, the star who would rather not shine.

The first half of the story was fairly light and flirty, yet peppered with historical bits about sedition, the abuse of mill workers, and the bias in the English courts. The second half had its light and sexy times, but I nearly threw the book against the wall at one point. No, twice! The characters put me through the wringer!

The tragedy would be too much, if not for the comedy -- the flirty, witty scenes, like when he's wiping the gobs of paste off her. Being so close, things get a little hot and "his brains turn to paste."

In addition to the intensely emotional explosions (!) and the lighthearted flirting, there are numerous poignant and ♥-warming scenes. I loved these scenes, especially involving his "friend" Oliver and his cousins, Sebastian and Violet (a sequel for Oliver and Sebastian, no doubt). Also, this book contains several love scenes. It's sexier than most of Milan's books, I think.

This is Minnie and Robert's love story, set mainly in Leicester in the autumn of 1863, but it's much more than a romance and the secondary characters play key roles, especially Lydia and Oliver.

We see a little of Serena and Hugo from The Governess Affair, but about 29 years have passed. Serena and Hugo have a grown son, Oliver. Oliver has a best friend, Robert Alan Graydon Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont. Oddly enough, both Robert and Oliver are left handed. They both have the same ice-blue eyes, too. Sinister indeed!

But where Oliver Marshall grew up in a loving family, courtesy of Hugo and Serena, Robert grew up virtually an orphan, without any real concept of family. His dad -- worse than a zero. His mother -- not worthy of the title, IMO. Criticism and very mild spoiler here: (view spoiler)

Throughout the book (a little too often), Milan takes pains to ensure that readers sympathize with Robert for his horrible upbringing and admire him for his determination to be NOTHING like his slimy sire. Robert's longing for family had me gulping a few times. Milan superbly conveys his deep yearning for someone to see him -- not the duke, but the man. There is one poignant part, where Robert remembers all his empty years at Eton and Cambridge, without any Christmas cards, without any birthday greetings -- nothing from home at all -- while his middle class best friend Oliver, a scholarship student, gets and gives all sorts of letters and goodies. These poignant scenes kept me glued to the page. ♥

Oliver is integral to this book, especially towards the end. The long friendship between Robert and Oliver is tested. Robert is caught on a dilemma, and feels he must make a terrible choice. But was this a plot device? Did Robert, a powerful, wealthy nobleman, really have no other recourse? Maybe not. (And anyway, storytellers must steer the plot. I suppose Milan wanted that outcome, so everything would be out in the open, in order for the epilogue to take place.)

Then there is Minnie. Clever Minnie. ツ When Robert wonders why she goes by that nickname she replies, "Hello. My name is Wilhelmina, but you can call me Hell."

Minnie pretends to be a nothing, but she is a brilliant strategist, and she sees Robert immediately, sees behind the ducal display. So of course he is drawn to her.

Kudos to Milan for creating a Plain Jane. Minnie is no beauty: "Her lips were thin and her nose was sharp and a bit on the long side" but in Robert's view she's got "magnificent tits" to match her sultry, sensual voice. Plus, he loves her bespectacled shining gray eyes.

"You see, there's this woman."

She wasn't going to look at him. She wasn't.

"Normally, one might say that there was a beautiful woman -- but I don't think she qualifies as a classical beauty. Still, I find that when she's around, I'd rather look at her than anyone else...She ties me in knots." ♥ ♥ ♥

But Minnie is afraid of crowds. Can't stand to have lots of people looking at her. So she hides, looks down, looks away. Her fear of looking up, of believing in a better tomorrow, is a central theme in this book and metaphorical for her fear of flying -- and falling. (Milan repeats "look up" ~20x. Overkill.) Minnie has soared once before, soared until she crashed against the rocks. Almost literally. The spidery scar on her face is nothing compared to the deep emotional scar on her psyche, both injuries incurred when she was 12 years old. (Again, Milan brought me close to tears. I read Minnie's tragic childhood with my jaw on the floor. Couldn't believe what happened to her.)

Anyhoo, Robert encourages Minnie repeatedly to "Look up!" and promises his protection, but even when everything wonderful falls into her lap, she reverts to fear. She does something that had me aghast. Her actions were such a horrible betrayal.

Major spoiler coming up !! (view spoiler)

Milan lost points here, not because I didn't like what Minnie did, but because it was not sufficiently supported by the emerging story line or the character traits already thoroughly attributed to Minnie. Minnie hurt Robert terribly. And suddenly the tone of the book shifted drastically. (I may have dumped the book at this point, but Milan had paved the way by creating compassion in me for Minnie.

From that point on, the second half of the book (starting at about 60%) was an emotional roller-coaster ride. So many ups and downs. The plot takes several surprising turns -- some are heartbreaking, but others are deeply satisfying, even delightful.

♥ For example, there was a glorious honeymoon interlude in Paris. ♥ Kudos to Milan for surprising me again. Just when I thought everything was perfect, she throws a wrench into the first love scene, the wedding night. Nicely handled and it felt authentic. Plus, Milan made up for it the morning after, and on the train, and on the dining room table, and ... (Milan's sex scenes are improving, becoming more emotional, but I would not want her stories to become overwhelmed by sex.)

Then, towards the end, Milan AGAIN pulled out the pity trope. I did not want to hear any more about mommy dearest and Robert's awful childhood. The whole scene about learning to read felt like a plot contrivance for the gift Minnie would consequently give to Robert. The gift was (mild spoiler) (view spoiler). That scene was not worthy of Milan. It felt contrived, to make me LIKE his pathetic excuse for a mother, just because she helped young Robert learn, that ONE single time.

At the very end, Minnie came through in a MAJOR way, and more than once, making up for her earlier betrayal. Robert seemed a little diminished, but I see a HEA for these lovers. I have no doubt Robert will learn how to fight and make up and talk things out. Minnie will teach him. She knows he's gonna make a wonderful husband. ♥

(But I'm STILL kinda miffed at Robert, for making Minnie endure what she had to endure. And I'm STILL kinda miffed at Minnie, for her treachery towards Robert. As I said, an emotional roller coaster.)

Minor Flaws:

The characterization of Minnie's father did not make sense to me.

Minnie has lived in a village with old ladies since she was 12 years old, but this virgin is wondering how Robert masturbates?? "What would he look like when he stroked himself? Would he like long, hard strokes, or soft, gentle ones?"

Minnie says, "If you're any good in bed, I'll..." First, I doubt that phrase was in use back then, and second, even if it was in use, how would Minnie have heard it? It would not be in her vocabulary. Out of character and anachronistic.

It seemed that Minnie was quick to forgive her father, but slow to love her two great aunts. She seemed to blame them for her situation, and for the fact that she has shrunk into nothing. She should blame her dad.

For several pages, Milan gets Great Aunt Caro mixed up with Great Aunt Eliza (around p. 152, location 2777).
Also, I spotted a few typos, but only two, I think.


The Next Book and the Prior Book:

As mentioned before, Minnie is afraid to hope, but her best friend Lydia continually hopes FOR her. Lydia adds a LOT to the story. She's textured, layered -- not the airhead I first thought -- and fiercely loyal to Minnie. For example, the punch scene, where Lydia slams Captain Stevens for speaking trash about Minnie.

Lydia: "One day, everyone will know you as I do....and the Duke of Clermont...I have such a feeling about this, Minnie."
Minnie: "Don't. Don't feel. I can't let myself [hope]."
Lydia: "Of course you can't. That's why I have to feel for you."

Lydia only let Minnie down once, and for good reasons (but I felt Lydia overreacted). Lydia is the heroine in the next installment, a novella recently published in time for the holidays. See A Kiss For Midwinter. I plan to read that one, too. ツ

Preceding book: The Duchess War is the first full-length novel in The Brother's Sinister trilogy, but a prequel came out last spring -- and a wonderful little story it was. See the novella, The Governess Affair. If interested, see my review -- it's short! ツ

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Reading Progress

8.0% "Milan jumps straight into secrets, sedition, and the VERY charming Robert Alan Graydon Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont (w/ his "friend" Mr. Oliver Marshall). Minnie is no mouse! Neither is she a beauty (sensual voice notwithstanding). How did she get the scars? Afraid of crowds. Mobs.

What is the duke doing? What "glorious mess" is he making?

ORGANIZE!!! ???"
12.0% "I'm loving this duke! LOVE him.
He comes up with THE PLAN (see the book synopsis). She argues that it could never work, nobody would believe HE could fall for her. "It's your tits." he murmurs. "They're magnificent."
( just neutral, like he's discussing the weather) :D Laughed out loud!"
40.0% "Minnie's friend Lydia adds a LOT to the story. She's textured, layered -- not the airhead I first thought -- and soooo fiercely loyal to Minnie. The punch scene!! :-)
Lydia: "One day, everyone will know you as I do....and the Duke of Clermont. I have such a feeling about this, Minnie."
Minnie: "Don't. Don't feel. I can't let myself [hope]."
Lydia: "Of course you can't. That's why I have to feel for you.""
46.0% "Robert and Minnie. The scene by the water pump. The flirting and witty wordplay about paste. The kiss. The dreams.
The part where Robert remembers how badly he had wanted to be part of Oliver's family. Gulp. Poignant, sad. And how Oliver and his family exchanged letters, gifts, hugs at Eton while Robert got none. And then when ... spoiler. But so sad."
54.0% "Goats in the Lecture Hall -- and what they did, so what she did, and then what he did, and he did, and ...
Milan got the aunts mixed up on p 151. Should be Eliza helping Minnie dress. Should be, "If anything happened to Caro ..." ( not Eliza)."
60.0% "What the hell???"
66.0% "Many surprising twists. Not sure how I feel. Shell shocked. it feels forced. Inconsistent with her character. She was smart enough to see her other options. But after hearing her whole backstory, I sympathize and kinda get it.

Anachronistic, out of character statement: "If you're any good in bed, I'll..." No way!! She's lived in a small town with two old ladies since she was 12, and never had a romance!"
100.0% "Holy heart break! The last third jerked my poor heart all over the place. I could NOT believe that SHE.... And then HE..... And then THEY... And just when life is good, HE...(I need time to digest all this.)

Sex: Hot table top scene! And extra marks for a unique, surprising wedding night. Sweet morning after, too.

Nice epilogue, but not quite what I wanted. And why were the aunts left out?"

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Aму (new)

Aму Amazing review Kathleen! :) It's nice to finally hear about a protagonist that isn't - "She gets out of the shower and her hair dries immaculately curled." (My way of saying she's not perfect LOL!)

Kathleen So true, Little Lamb! A real live woman, not a mannequin or a model. This is definitely a Plain Jane romance -- but she has character and is clever. Thanks for the note!

Jill I'm glad I put aside the time to read your review, Kathleen - a)it's a biggun and b)it's worth reading.

And I agree that though there were possibly plot contrivances I think CM still managed to convince me they weren't! :)
She's an enormously talented writer.

I loved the realistic first love scene. Yes, it was a bit of a let-down after all that time, yet I don't want the expected or contrived.

Robert and Oliver are both lefties. But so is Sebastian! Hence, the name of the series Brothers Sinister. Sinister comes from the Latin meaning 'left'.

Kathleen I know, Jill, it's sooo long! Kudos to you for even skimming it tonight. I got carried away, couldn't figure out what to cut, and was on timeline.

Yes, Milan's plot contrivances are partly credible, I agree. She is fairly convincing. And yes, a superb writer!

Like you, I rather appreciated the realistic wedding night. It was only mildly disappointing, and Milan made up for that with realism, and a yummy morning after. Plus, I like to be surprised. :-)

I wondered if Sebastian was left-handed, too. I assumed he would be, but couldn't recall reading that anywhere. Love the Latin, Jill!

Anyhow, thanks for the recommendation. What a lovely lovely story!

Ps. I hope you're relaxing with a glass of port and a dark chocolate truffle. Or whatever you fancy to merry things up!

message 5: by Jill (last edited Dec 23, 2012 08:01PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Kathleen wrote: "I know, Jill, it's sooo long! Kudos to you for even skimming it tonight. I got carried away, couldn't figure out what to cut, and was on timeline.

Yes, Milan's plot contrivances are partly credibl..."

I know, Jill, it's sooo long! Kudos to you for even skimming it tonight.
No skimming friend, I read each word! :)

Anyhow, thanks for the recommendation. What a lovely lovely story!
You're welcome, Kathleen! I thought you'd appreciate this story.

I hope you're relaxing with a glass of port and a dark chocolate truffle. Or whatever you fancy to merry things up!
Well, it's only 3.00pm Monday here. So a little early to start with the port. The dark choc is another matter... ;)
I'm just about to get in and do my dishes and clean up the kitchen. Ugh! The cooking and eating are the easy parts... the dishes though are a pain!

Hope you enjoy what's left of your night, Kathleen!

message 6: by Kathleen (last edited Dec 23, 2012 10:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kathleen Jill, you're a wonder. Cooking, baking, cleaning up (ugh) and reading my epistle. It may be only 3:00, but wine might be in order! Especially since you read the whole review! I'm esteemed and delighted, my friend.

message 7: by Dd (new) - added it

Dd Great review Kathleen!!In my TBR!!:))

Kathleen I hope you like it, Dd! It's really a beautiful and sexy story, if a little bittersweet.

Blacky *Romance Addict* Fantastic review Kathleen!

Kathleen Thank you, Blacky! :-)

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