RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

B+

Title: The Countess Conspiracy
Author: Courtney Milan
Publication Info: Femtopress December 2013
ISBN: 978-1937248307
Genre: Historical: European

Book The Countess Conspiracy This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Fallen Professor. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Historical Romance category.

The summary:

Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.

So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership…even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.

And here is Fallen Professor's review:

I was excited about reviewing this book, because I'd heard many good things about Courtney Milan's novels, and I’d recently added the Brothers Sinister series to my TBR folder. I was also looking forward to a historical novel where the heroine didn’t spend most of her time flitting from one ball to another, or ensconced in drawing rooms and rakes’ bedrooms. There’s a rake, and there’s a bedroom in The Countess Conspiracy, but I found myself drawn more towards the non-romance elements of the story than to the central relationship. This wasn’t a completely bad thing, but I have to admit that I just wasn’t all that interested in the romance.

One caveat I’d like to add before going any further is that I read The Countess Conspiracy without having read the previous books in the series. Generally, unless a series is very story-driven from one book to the next (like the Harry Potter novels), I like being able to jump in at any point and know what's happening. This is especially true when a romance series is centered around a group of characters, each with their own story. I know that future characters will appear in earlier books, but the degree to which they're developed throughout a series varies. So I don't know to what degree Violet and Sebastian's story here is a continuation from prior books, and this affected my opinion of them.

So as I mentioned, there were many elements of the story that I really enjoyed, which I can broadly define as the roles of science and women in society. The way these two themes were handled and interwoven was my favourite aspect. There’s one very important scene near the beginning, where Sebastian has a frank (or as frank as possible within the social codes) conversation with his mentor. He’s there to reveal that he’s been presenting Violet’s work all along, and Bollinger does not act surprised. In fact, he says something to the effect of “Well, that happens.” And then he goes on to say that, even if the woman has done the work, it’s still the man’s because if they’re married, they’re one entity. Oh, Sebastian and Violet aren’t married? Well, he knows what must be done then. It’s a very telling scene, and one that will come back to haunt Violet later on as she finds female accomplices to her groundbreaking research.

Another couple of scenes that highlight the theme of women’s place in the society of the time takes place with Violet’s family. In one, her sister, Lily, berates her for having given “subversive” literature on women’s rights to Lily’s daughter, Amanda, who’s being courted by an earl. Amanda is young and frightened, and she’s wondering if there’s more to life than marriage to someone she might not like. Aunt Violet, herself widowed after a disastrous marriage, takes Amanda under her wing. Lily is distraught because she’s more socially involved and aware than the reclusive Violet, and her reasons for wanting to protect her children from scandal make a twisted kind of sense within the confines of the world in which she moves. The fact that Violet feels the need to hide pages of scientific journals inside the pages of fashion magazines shows that even she is not oblivious to her society’s norms. The way this relationship is (and, in a sense, isn’t) resolved seemed true to everyone’s character.

A final scene I want to mention was a real revelation, and takes place between Violet and her mother. Violet’s mother is an enigma for much of the novel: widowed due to a probable suicide, she has raised her daughters to handle any whiff of scandal with grace and an iron will; she’s even written a book to that effect. But in addition to the seemingly innocuous rules of etiquette listed in her handbook, there’s a collection of family-only “Shadow rules” that prove that the women of the family may forgive, but do not forget. Actually, they don’t forgive either. Mama’s number one rule is that they “protect their own,” and this edict takes both a chilling and an uplifting turn in the second half of the novel.

So the novel I liked was the one in which a woman scientist decides to throw caution to the wind and really own her work, while at the same time carefully deconstructing and navigating the ways in which society is going to deal with her from there on. The one I didn’t like as much was the love story between Violet and Sebastian. And, as much as I hate to say it, it’s mostly Violet’s fault.

Now I'm admittedly not a fan of the Big Reveal Moment, wherein the hero or heroine (or both, if the book is especially angsty) breaks down and confesses a Deep Dark Secret that suddenly explains all past behavior. This often takes place on a stormy night, and almost always comes more than halfway into the novel. The problem I have with this technique is that it robs me of sympathy for said character for much of the book, but suddenly tries to thrust it upon me well after I've come to dislike him/her. There's much to be said, I think, for an early explanation offered to the reader (I’m all for other characters making an earthshaking discovery later on, though).

The example I like to use for this is Lord of Scoundrels, whose Prologue is both a moving narrative and a credible explanation for Dain's behavior. This helps readers empathize with him as a hero, while still allowing Jessica to gradually discover the truth for herself. The problem I had with The Countess Conspiracy is that I disliked Violet's self-loathing character for much of the book, and the hints dropped before the Big Reveal only managed to irritate me further. By the time the truth was out, it was too late for me to forge a satisfying connection with her.

For his part, Sebastian came across as fun and mostly harmless, which is the way he sees himself. He has his own interesting family story, which sometimes threatened to become overly melodramatic. However, I think he handles his relationship with Violet with wit and affection, and his seduction of her (through a scientific lecture) blends eroticism with intellect in a way that shows he truly understands how to reach Violet.

Overall, I enjoyed The Countess Conspiracy. It feels very modern, with its scientific discussions and trains and focus on women’s issues. For readers used to more old-fashioned historicals, where horse-drawn carriages are the only means of transport (there are still carriages here, but trains are equally important) and with most of the action taking place in ballrooms, this novel might feel either awkward or refreshing. I’m in the latter group, in that I found it a welcome change even if the romantic elements weren’t completely to my liking.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sarita says:

    Sounds intriguing for the social analysis at least. You make interesting points about character reveals, particularly as that’s a dynamic I’m working on fine tuning in my own in-progress writing.

  2. 2

    @Sarita

    Yes, reveals are something that I harp on and on about when discussing novels (and not just romance), because it really affects the degree of sympathy I can develop for a character. And my reading experience with romance novels is that I need to be able to root for both parties, and not spend much of the novel wondering why one of them is behaving like a total asshat/angstpudding. I don’t need to know every single detail of a backstory from the very beginning, but a little foundation is nice if I’m going to go along with the relationship. And, in the end, for me the relationship I develop with the characters is as important as the one they develop with one another.

    But I did like this book, and have more of Milan’s novels in my TBR folder.

  3. 3
    DonnaMarie says:

    Mama’s number one rule is that they “protect their own,” and this edict takes both a chilling and an uplifting turn in the second half of the novel.

    Now I’m totally intrigued. Thank you for your very cogent review. I know we all squee endlessly about Courtney Milan, but that doesn’t mean she writes the perfect book for everyone. I absolutely agree with your point about Big Reveals>empathy. That, wait, now all’s forgiven? moment can really deflate a reader.

  4. 4

    @DonnaMarie

    From what I’ve read, Milan writes very unique heroines, which is what drew me to this book. As I mentioned in the review, it was nice to trade the usual ballrooms for greenhouses and lecture halls. I also loved the way Violet’s family issues did and didn’t get solved at the end, and wonder about Amanda’s future. Is there a novel with Amanda as heroine?

  5. 5
    donnaMarie says:

    One can only hope.

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