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 Layla A.'s review:
A disclaimer before I begin: I am far from unbiased when it comes to Courtney Milan. I love, love, love her books, and The Countess Conspiracy is among my favorites so far. Fact: I am not a person who cries over much at all (I’m unaffected by sad songs and Applebee’s commercials), but The Countess Conspiracy made me cry the first time I read it (and then again when I re-read it, even though I knew what was going to happen, dangnabbit).
And this might be because I feel so much sympathy for Violet, the heroine of The Countess Conspiracy. I’m sure some readers found her cold and distant but Jesus Christ, Violet makes me have all the feels.
Here’s why. As the plot summary states, Sebastian Malheur, Violet’s childhood friend, has long been the public persona for Violet’s brilliant scientific work on genetics. At the novel’s opening, Sebastian decides he can’t lie for Violet anymore; in his eyes, presenting Violet’s work as his own has become a threat to their friendship as well as a way for them to hide from each other. Sebastian says:
“Violet, you and I – we lie to each other as much as we lie to the rest of the world.”
Violet, on the other hand, does not see this as a real problem for some pretty solid reasons. She knows she wants Sebastian, but can’t let herself want him because she believes she’s fundamentally unlovable and because her previous husband (since deceased) was an awful abusive asshat. It’s easier for her to believe, as she says, that “my work is all there is to me,” because anything more than that is a threat to her continued existence. Anyway.
So, the problem that this book sets up is as follows: Sebastian and Violet have to figure out what they mean to each other beyond the shared secret of protecting Violet’s work, but the stakes are pretty different for each of them. While Sebastian has to learn that he has value beyond functioning as comic relief – that he’s seen and known by Violet as a good brother, a good uncle, a generous friend, and an integral part of their intellectual partnership – the stakes for Violet are higher. Violet has all of these desires that she’s firmly kept a lid on because acknowledging them threatens to totally undo her. First, claiming her scientific work as her own might bring social ruin. Secondly, it also means acknowledging the importance of her own needs and desires – and Violet’s been taught to put others first and is (rightly) worried that putting her needs first for a change might alienate the people she cares most about (her horrible sister, her mother, her niece, and her circle of friends).
So that’s the plot summary.
Here is what I loved about The Countess Conspiracy:
(1) Violet. Holy cow, do I love Violet. In general, I think Courtney Milan’s heroines are the shit. (What I like: she never does that thing where the heroine is the exception to all other women – where the hero falls in love with the heroine because she’s strong and independent and just like one of the guys, i.e., not like all those other girls, who are mostly frivolous and boring and suck. I think, based on Violet’s membership in The Brothers Sinister, that this would have been an easy trap to fall into in this novel, and I love that Milan deftly avoids this here, there, and everywhere, IMO.) Additionally, I am always happy to read books about lady scientists, and loved Violet’s single-minded focus on her work (the scenes where Sebastian jokes about building her a robot who will remind her when to eat? Augh, so good).
(2) Consent. And again, this is why Courtney Milan is pretty much one of my favorite writers of all time. The amount of time that characters in The Countess Conspiracy spend actively thinking and talking about consent is, um, just wonderful. Because Violet’s sexual history includes some serious trauma, Sebastian and Violet are in constant communication over what Violet is comfortable with or not. I love the scene where Violet – after admitting to Sebastian that she desires him and articulating why she has feels about that desire – confronts Sebastian about why he’s failed to even attempt to kiss her. Sebastian responds:
“I don’t want to make you feel worthless. I don’t want you to think that the only thing that matters is my lust. When I told you that I loved you, Violet, what on earth did you think that I meant?”
In addition to great conversations about consent – which is sexy – I also really like that, given Violet’s particular reservations about penetrative sex, Sebastian is like, “Great! Well, here’s a list of other stuff we can do, you know, if you wanna, because there are lots of ways to get it on.” Except it's sexier and couched as a discussion of rake phylogeny, which is in and of itself pretty excellent! As a queer reader, I am always very pleased when penetrative sex isn’t portrayed as the be-all and end-all of any given sexual encounter.
(3) Women and science. Violet’s story opens up into discussion of what it’s like to be a brilliant scientist who just happens to be a lady in the 19th century. Refer to point one, but what I liked about The Countess Conspiracy is that Violet is brilliant, but also not exceptional – for example, Violet forms an intellectual partnership with another female scientist whose work has gone formally unrecognized. Rather than reading Violet’s novel as the story of an anomaly, The Countess Conspiracy asks us to rethink the stories we’ve been told about the history of science and to consider how we might tell new stories.
Anyway. I have other thoughts and feels about this book – there are so many moments that are funny and wonderful! Milan writes dialogue so well! – but these are the major points, I think. This book is excellent and everyone ever should read it. (It was maybe my go-to holiday gift this year.) The end.
Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC of this book.