The Duchess War is the first book in Milan's new Victorian Era romance trilogy, The Brothers Sinister. There's a prequel, The Governess Affair, (A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB) (SB grade: B+) which is delightful reading but not at all necessary in terms of understanding The Duchess War.
Anyway, in Duchess War, we have Robert Blaisdell, the Ninth Duke of Claremont, a man who is desperate to repair the wrongs committed by his father. He meets the dauntingly named Wilhelmina (Minnie) Pursling, who has dark secrets. Robert and Minnie are both involved in promoting the rights of workers, and they form what is simultaneously an enmity and an alliance.
This book is all about recognition. Robert is plagued by the fact that not only does he bear his abusive father's name and title, but he looks very much like his father. The resemblance is so strong that people often comment on his being “just like his father”, when in fact he has spent his entire life trying to be as different from his father as possible. Meanwhile Minnie is so desperate to conceal her past that she has almost erased herself from existence, hoping no one will notice her. The theme of recognition and acceptance is laid out again and again throughout the book. It's not subtle, but it is beautiful.
The book is quiet and thoughtful and yet packed with twists and turns and reveals that are both surprising and poignant. There is ample room for character development, and such lovely, lovely prose:
It wasn't that he didn't believe in love. The thought of love was like water in the desert. Now there was a stupid cliché, one that made him think of a man in ragged clothing staggering through the Sahara, searching for an oasis among the sand dunes.
But the Antarctic was a desert too, a cold desert, one made dry because water there turned to ice the instant it hit the air.
So he believed in love. He'd always believed in love. He'd been surrounded by water all his life; it had simply been frozen solid. He'd loved as hard as he dared and watched it freeze before his face. It was no surprise now when he checked his feelings and discovered that he loved her. The surprise was that this time, when he dared to take a sip, he found water instead of ice.
Why yes, since you ask, there is a lot of angst. Really, I'm unclear on how either protagonist is able to summon the mental health to get out of bed in the morning given their childhood traumas and current dilemmas. But there's humor too – and when the book goes for the funny, it's hilarious. The scene on the train where Robert begs friends not to embarrass him, which leads directly to a conversation about why, exactly, dragons prefer to eat maidens (key line, “But dragons cannot milk princesses. They do not have opposable thumbs”)! The bachelor party! The Duchess, despite being the source of much angst, is nevertheless gifted with lines such as “Do not pollute my perfectly acceptable figurative speech with irrelevant facts!”
There's also fantastically bad sex between two virgins – followed by great sex as one of them manages to turn the whole thing around. For a special bonus, there are really great outfits. I'm serious; the description of clothing alone is worth the price of the book. Plus, I must honor my geeky side by pointing out the motifs of chess and of science that are prominent throughout the story.
The closest thing I have to a criticism is that the book reaches a climax (in many senses of the word) and then keeps going. I'm not sorry it kept going, because it actually took the time and trouble to resolve all the conflicts and threads instead of resorting to the “true love solves all” fallback. But at the same time I felt like the story had already reached its natural conclusion despite having many chapters left before the ending. I'm not sure how the author could have resolved this – the pacing felt truly off, as though the book had gotten away from the author a bit. At the same time, all that resolution was pretty necessary if the book was to stick to its own messages of honesty and responsibility. I'll be curious to hear thoughts from others on this.
And then there's the epilogue, when to my utter amazement I actually burst into tears. They were brief, muted tears, because I was supposed to be helping my daughter with her math instead of weeping into my eReader, but I feel I can use the phrase “burst into tears” honestly. Truly, you guys, this is just a lovely, lovely book. Why are you still here? Go read it right away!