RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

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

Book The Countess Conspiracy This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Layla A. 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 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.


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | All Romance eBooks

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Amy says:

    I read this one when it came out and loved it-now I need to go back and re-read it.  Loved your review!

  2. 2
    Terrie says:

    Yes, I love Courtney Milan as well. Your review hit on so many of the things I really appreciate as well. A very big yes to the way Milan doesn’t set up an intelligent and capable heroine to contrast other women who are, by default, shallow idiots. I LOVE that about Milan. Yes to the sexual agency and clear-headedness.  I love her heroes, too, who also manage to avoid stereotypes. 

    It would be hard for me to pick a favorite but Unravelled is perhaps my favorite of her novels and A Kiss for Midwinter my favorite novella. But, really, they are all really excellent.

  3. 3

    I have so many books to read…and yet i just added this on Goodreads. And dang it’s only $3.99 on Nook.

  4. 4
    Darbi Bradley says:

    I love this review, and especially your use of the word “phylogeny.” Smart bitches indeed!

    This was my first Courtney Milan book, and I thought it was really very good if not particularly to my taste. Super angsty, even if that angst is 100% legitimate. I prefer my romance feather-light, and threats external.

    That said: Three cheers to Sebastian and Violet, and them learning to appreciate themselves and each other fully!

  5. 5
    Ginger says:

    SB Sarah once said that she would read anything CM wrote and there is a good reason for it. Once you read one Courtney Milan book, you will want to read them all. My favorite was the Heiress Effect. It is the one that made me cry. While I love all of her female characters, Jane really got under my skin. My heart ached for her. Just talking about it makes me want to read the whole series again… and maybe I will (after I finish Game of Thrones).

  6. 6
    Sarita says:

    Here here for emphasis on consent. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who finds that sexy. Honestly, every time a heroine tells a hero ‘no, I will not date/bang/marry you because reasons’ and he’s like ‘Yes you will baby, you just don’t know it yet, and now I’m all up in your Personal Space ™ because you know you like it’ I cringe a little.

  7. 7
    DonnaMarie says:

    I find it fascinating how reviewers focus on different aspects of the book in these reviews. Both reviews have me jonesing, and I’m sitting here in waaaay too sunny Arizona (and you’d think I’d have more appreciation for sunny and 101 after this last Chicago winter) with most of this series unread on my Kindle for about six months. I have a really pathologic ability to delay gratification. Wait… that sounds…. Procrastinate, I procrastinate pathologically. So once the Dad’s new fridge is delivered and I weed the front lawn and get an estimate to fix his garage door, nothing but time until Monday when my flight leaves. Maybe it’s time for some Courtney Milan happy.

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