RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: Unveiled by Courtney Milan

B-

Title: Unveiled
Author: Courtney Milan
Publication Info: Harlequin 2011
ISBN: 978-0373775439
Genre: Historical: European

Unveiled This review was written by Saira Ali. This story was nominated in the Best Historical Romance category.

The summary:     

Ash Turner has waited a lifetime to seek revenge on the man who ruined his family—and now the time for justice has arrived. At Parford Manor, he intends to take his place as the rightful heir to the dukedom and settle an old score with the current duke once and for all.

But instead he finds himself drawn to a tempting beauty who has the power to undo all his dreams of vengeance….

Lady Margaret knows she should despise the man who's stolen her fortune and her father's legacy—the man she's been ordered to spy on in the guise of a nurse. Yet the more she learns about the new duke, the less she can resist his smoldering appeal. Soon Margaret and Ash find themselves torn between old loyalties—and the tantalizing promise of passion….

And here is Saira Ali's review:

I don't read many Victorian romances. The combination of the overt sexism of the era with my very socialist disdain for dukes and nobles and their blithe attitudes, both in reality and in historical fiction, toward the suffering of others makes the genre unappealing to me.  So I can't remember what prompted me to pick up Unravelled, the sequel to Unveiled, but I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed the whole series.

Unveiled, the first in the series, tells the story of Ash, the oldest of the Turner brothers.  Weighed down by guilt over his sister's death and driven to provide for his surviving brothers, Ash has cultivated his instincts about people for the purposes of amassing an ungodly fortune in trade. Wealth isn't enough for Ash to feel secure — upon first meeting him, one gets the impression nothing on this earth could possibly make Ash feel secure — so when he discovers a secret about his distant relation the Duke of Parford that could win him the title, he seizes it.  The Duke, you see, was a bigamist. His marriage isn't legal because he had married before, and therefore his children are illegitimate and cannot inherit the estate. With no legitimate sons, the Duke's heir is his fifth cousin, a man who he once threw off his estate rather than answer the child's pleas for charity for his dying baby sister. Ash doesn't just want security for his family; he wants revenge: on the Duke who could have save his sister but didn't and on the Duke's sons, who bullied and abused Ash's brothers in school. He pursues these goals with a “cheerful ruthlessness,” in the words of the heroine, Miss Margaret Lowell, formerly Lady Anna Margaret Dalrymple, one of the Duke's newly disinherited offspring.

Margaret has the most to lose from Ash's ruthlessness. Thanks to a quirk of English law, she not only loses any inheritance from her father, but the Chancery has also ruled that she cannot inherit anything from her mother either. While her brothers frantically try to appeal to Parliament to pass a special bill declaring them legitimate, Margaret stays at the family home to tend her dying father, masquerading as a hired nurse in order to spy on Ash while he spends the summer living in her family home. Margaret was a fairly unremarkable English noblewoman, “a pale, insipid nothing, a collection of rites of etiquette and rules of precedent squashed into womanly form and given a dowry,” who suddenly has to gin up some strength and courage. Over the course of the novel we see Margaret's growth, as she moves beyond her initial coping strategies of wounded pride to indignant anger and finally to something approaching healthy self-respect. Her character arc is interesting to watch unfold, but the core emotional impact of the story lies with Ash and his brothers.

Here I've finally come to the reason I adored this series: the relationships between Ash and his brothers Spite and Mark. Yes, his middle brother is named Spite, a legacy of their mother's mentally unstable religious zealotry. In a refreshing turnaround of the romance trope of the poor abused girl, the men in this series are deeply damaged creatures, survivors of childhood physical and emotional abuse.  The way they each handle their survivor's guilt, in Ash's case, and PTSD, in his brothers' cases, is very deftly and realistically handled.  It was utterly heartwrenching watching Ash desperately trying to fix his brothers, to use his wealth to make up for their rotten childhoods.

The profound love and respect Ash has for his brothers stands in sharp contrast to the Dalrymple siblings' relationships. Margaret's brothers are both greedy and fearful, and don't care one whit about her, and she knows it:

Margaret felt the bottom fall out of her stomach. This was what he wanted — not her father's estate, nor his title, nor even the revenge he'd spoken about. This was where all that ruthless intensity concentrated: on his brother.

And Mark, for all his teasing, accepted this as his due. He simply took, as a matter of course, that his brother loved him, that he  might tease him in Latin and receive this. . .  this powerful endorsement. Mr. Turner would never call his brother useless. Of all the things that the Turners had and Margaret lacked, this camaraderie seemed the most unfair.

'Yes,' he said, catching her look. 'More of my cheerful ruthlessness, I'm afraid. And now you know my greatest weakness: my brothers. I want to give them everything. I want everyone in the world to realize how perfect they are. They are smarter than me, better than me. And I'll do anything — cross anyone, steal anything, destroy whatever I must — to give them what they deserve.'

Margaret dropped her eyes from that fervor. She felt strangely small and intensely jealous.

Apart from the emotional impact of Ash's story, there's quite a lot to love in this book. The writing is snappy and smart, and as other reviewers have pointed out at DA and on GR, there are layers upon layers of really interesting structural things going on.  There's the wry humor Milan works into the dialogue. There's also the fact that her villians are so very believable. Even though the duke and his sons do really dreadful things to poor Margaret, they never become caricatures.   Of course Ash has his own secret that gets unveiled, and it genuinely took me by surprise.  And while the way the HEA comes about probably won't surprise any regular reader of Victorian romances, the resolution to the inheritance plot never felt plodding or telegraphed to early.

With so much to love about this book, why am I giving it a B-? The romance between Ash and Margaret ends up taking a back seat to their respective relationships with their brothers. For Margaret her feelings for Ash almost seem to serve as nothing more than a plot vehicle to force her to stand up for herself against her selfish and pathetic brothers.  On Ash's side of the equation, I just couldn't believe that he fell in love as hard and as fast as he did, not when he had spent his entire life single-mindedly focused on his brothers. Nor could I quite believe, not when the narrative voice repeatedly emphasized Ash's instincts and almost psychic ability to read people, that it took him as long as it did to realize that his Miss Margaret Lowell was actually the duke's daughter. I found that I didn't really care if Ash and Margaret got their HEA or not.

I still recommend the book as both a really enjoyable read and as a great setup for Unravelled and Unclaimed, Smite and Mark's books.  I also highly recommend checking out the sequels as the romances in both were really quite convincing.


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