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 Patricia M.'s review:
The Countess Conspiracy is a beautifully constructed love story with vivid language and memorable characters which explores themes of family, women’s roles in society and the importance and validity of science.
Sebastian Malheur and Violet Waterfield have appeared in prior books of Courtney Milan but it is not necessary to have read the prior books. Superficially they have very different personalities: Sebastian is the center of attention in a crowd while Violet feels comfortable in a crowd because she feels that she disappears; Sebastian is outgoing and puts people at ease while Violet is prickly and closed. But at their core, they are very similar and each is the only person who truly sees the other. Both hide behind a mask to hide their true emotions and their emotional damage. Both are brilliant scientists, but Violet is a genius doing landmark work that no one will read because she is a woman. Sebastian has loved Violet since he was 15, and has been her closest (and platonic) friend through her marriage and subsequent widowhood.
For each of Violet and Sebastian, family has been the source of emotional damage. Sebastian’s brother/father figure has nothing but criticism and disapproval for Sebastian and refuses to see Sebastian as a hardworking, intelligent and accomplished man. Violet was emotionally abused by her husband, and that damage has been reinforced by her sister whom Violet sees as the more beautiful and loveable of them while Sebastian sees her as a viper. Each helps the other overcome that damage or come to terms with its effects.
Violet, thankfully, has a smart and ferocious mother who loves fiercely but is also prickly and apparently distant. When Violet’s father rejected her when she was a child, her mother taught her to knit, with her mother “teaching her stoicism alongside every loop of yarn”. When faced with a scandal, their father’s probable suicide, which could have damaged her girls’ standing in society, she set about writing the definitive book on female decorum, the “rules” for women in society so that, when they emerged from mourning, that book would be the topic of conversation in society, not their father’s death. Those rules, and the secret rules that she taught only her girls, run through the book and provide a witty commentary on women’s roles and standards of decorum, what is hidden behind that decorum and how to subvert the outward rules. Her number one secret rule is “always protect your own”. How various characters “protect their own” also illuminates much about each character: Violet protects her work; her mother protects Violet and what Violet most values; Violet’s sister protects her standing in society; and Sebastian protects Violet.
I very much appreciated that Violet inherited traits from her mother (particularly important since the inheritance of traits is what Violet studies). Frequently brilliant scientists are portrayed as quirky or difficult in books, with no relationship to those around them. Violet does have her quirks and difficulties in relating to others but, in some ways, she is just like her mother.
Violet is a scientist during a time when an upper class woman’s only role is to bear children (which Violet has not done). She hides the scientific articles that she is reading in fashion magazines so no one will know what she is really reading. Sebastian discovers that he is not unique in taking the credit for a woman’s discoveries. Since Sebastian is presenting as his own Violet’s work on the “inheritance of traits”, he is vilified by people who see his work as an assault on religion (yes I see this as a commentary on evolution and creationism) and those who claim that propriety is offended since he lectures about propagation even though of plants primarily.
Their relationship hits a crisis when Sebastian can no longer abide the vilification and refuses to continue to present Violet’s work. Since Violet sees herself as having no value beyond her work, her life loses meaning. Their relationship evolves through the crisis and challenges that occur.
Violet grows, overcomes the damage, and takes back her work, at least partially because Sebastian believes in her. Sebastian seduces her with science, truly shows her his love through his own scientific work on violets. My one main criticism of the book is that Sebastian is too good, and the incident in his youth that was supposed to have affected his whole manner of being was forced, to my mind. He is unswerving in his love of Violet since he fell for her at age 15. He is so forbearing in supporting her without any hope of Violet reciprocating his love and then holding back from sex when she offers until she is truly ready to take that step. No one is as self-sacrificing as Sebastian is portrayed.
I do have a couple of quibbles. Some of the language is anachronistic and uses expressions that are very modern, “In what world would I …” My other quibble is that real people in history did the work that Ms. Milan ascribes to her characters. In a work where science is so important, that seems to diminish the accomplishments of real scientists.