Book Review

Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan

Redheadedgirl and I adore Courtney Milan with an unprofessional amount of squee. We are so excited about her new series, which kicked off with Once Upon a Marquess.

Once Upon a Marquess is a romance between Judith and Christian. Judith was once a Lady, but when her father and brother were convicted of treason, she was reduced to supporting her remaining siblings in genteel poverty (‘genteel’ in the sense that Judith swears by bird species (“For the love of mallards!”) not genteel as in ‘they say they are poor, but the have a maid and a cook.’) Judith managed to set some money aside as dowries for her sisters, and when she realizes that her sister Camilla, who lives with another family, isn’t getting the money, she seeks help from Christian, a Marquess. Judith is beyond annoyed at needed help from Christian since he’s the one who exposed her father and brother as traitors. He ruined her life, but there it is. She needs help and he’s it.

Christian is still as madly in love with Judith as he was before he ruined her life, and he’s wracked with guilt at the fate of her brother Anthony, who is presumed dead. However, he believes he did the right thing in exposing the treason (and he firmly believes that Judith’s father and brother are guilty).

In addition to this baggage-laden pairing, the book also introduces the following characters:

Theresa, Judith’s sister, who is neuroatypical. Judith is hell-bent on making Theresa fit into society well enough to make a good marriage, but Theresa has zero interest in this. ZERO.

Benedict, Judith’s brother, who was so severely bullied at Eton that he refuses to go back.

Camilla, Judith’s other sister, who left the family so she could live a more prosperous life, but who seems to be missing.

Daisy, Judith’s friend, who is impoverished and who plays a game with Judith on market day in which they pretend to be purchasing an improbable store of luxury goods. “Not out of gold leaf! However will you gild your beef?”

In brief, RHG and I both loved this book for the high quality of the writing, the craftsmanship, the characters, and the emotional whammies. I thought it was a little overstuffed but RHG saw the book as less of a stand-alone and more of an introduction to a larger series, which I agree is a fair assessment. The remainder of this review is mildly spoilery and slightly incoherent as Redheadedgirl and I attempted to out-squee each other while our computers took turns crashing.

Milan gives us all the feels:

RHG:  What Milan does at her best is have the emotional climax be a FEELINGS BOMB. And when she scores a direct hit with a FEELINGS BOMB it’s like, shit Dude, let me get this character a blankie and a cookie and maybe a scotch and let her sob it out because holy fuck.

CarrieS: I totally agree. She really hits the angst, but it doesn’t feel melodramatic because it’s so rooted in these deeply sympathetic characters. I feel all the feels with her books because her characters seem so real, I feel like I actually know them, and I feel like the things that are happening to them are happening to my best friends. At the same time, I feel incredibly triumphant when they get their HEA. Her books are full of pain, but they feel uplifting, not sadistic.

RHG: Oh, yeah, she’s not being mean to the characters because, “Ha ha, wouldn’t it be fun” but because “this is what happens.” It feels organic and natural.  Judith is doing her best with the shit sandwich she was handed (contrary to popular belief, a shit sandwich is not better with salt), but a shit sandwich that keeps getting layers added to it is going to wear on you.

When she finally completely lost her shit at Theresa (who deserved it, by the way), that was YEARS of anger, resentment and a TOTAL LACK OF SELF-CARE (we’re very big on responsible self-care here at The Bitchery) coming out in one purge…. dude. Just. I can’t.
And Christian’s issues were slowly and daintily trotted out without a giant exposition bomb. Really, it’s the craftsmanship that impresses me the most about Milan.

CarrieS: I was slightly thrown by the ending. It just seemed like the book…stopped.

One thing I’ve noticed about Milan is that she writes great conflict: you want these people to be together and yet you understand why they aren’t. They have plausible, grown-up conflict, not whiny baby conflict. The flip side is that sometimes I totally buy her HEAs and sometimes I don’t because the conflict was so compelling. I thought this book wrapped up really suddenly and I was wondering if I missed a couple of steps in some sort of holiday shopping daze.

RHG: Yeah, that’s a BIG obstacle to overcome. I get it: these are the only two people who really get each other, and they work together. They make sense together. I totally believe that Christian was like, “Okay, I can make this hot mess of document make sense” and things sort of snowballed from there, but still. (There is a bit of pragmatism in Judith forgiving him- he can make life

Show Spoiler
I totally believe that Christian was like, “Okay, I can make this hot mess of document make sense” and things sort of snowballed from there, but still. (There is a bit of pragmatism in Judith forgiving him- he can make life a LOT more comfortable for the piles of kittens.)

But Judith has always accepted Christian’s oddities, and literally no one else ever had, so of course she’s the one for him.

CarrieS: The other thing I noticed is that while I was reading the book, I was completely immersed in it, but once it was over, I forgot a lot of it, especially the plot. I actually can’t recall how it ended expect that it ended abruptly, and I read it last week. There are a lot of emotional beats that definitely stuck in my mind, but as a whole, it didn’t have the same impact as some of her other work (and that might be partly a catnip issue since a couple of her books have been basically pandering to me directly).

RHG: This book is kind of like the pilot (plus a few episodes) of a TV show: it set up the main world, and introduced the over-arching concept, introduced a bunch of characters who will get a whole book for their full story later, and that took away from the attention on Judith and Christian a little bit. Like, I was waaaaaaay more worried about Camilla and where the fuck she was (and was getting super pissed off at everyone involved with her- what the actual fuck, Uncle Jackwad) than I was about whether Judith and Christian would figure their shit out. I know that’s why novellas are often used as an intro to a series, but if this had been a novella, that would have been even more frustrating.

I was talking about this book with a friend of mine, and we devolved into trying to diagnose Christian. He is clearly not neurotypical, and the conclusion we came to was probably anxiety with OCD tendencies (which I think he developed as a way to cope with the anxiety- listing and counting the beads as something to focus on).

CarrieS: It hadn’t occurred to me to think of it as a pilot but I’m so glad you said that because now the book makes so much more sense. I loved everyone’s individual issues but at the same time, it just seemed over-stuffed with trauma. It works so much better if I think of it as a pilot as opposed to a self-contained book. I did fine with Judith and Christian’s story, but it also drove me a little bit wacky with all the other drama, both because it felt like too much was going on and because I want to have everyone’s problems resolved NOW. They are STRESSING ME OUT.

RHG: Yeah. I’m not at “I need people’s problems to be resolved” because I know it’ll happen in its time (and I try really hard to not get demanding at authors- it’ll happen when it happens and I often forget when a book is supposed to be coming out, so when it does, it’s a happy surprise for me).

There are lots of books! I won’t be without reading materials while waiting! YELLING AT AUTHORS IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE GUYS PLEASE DON’T DO THAT.

CarrieS: I think that’s a different issue, though. One is: are so many problems unresolved that I feel stressed out? Which, I do feel stressed and you don’t, but I think we both know that eventually Courtney will have our backs and everything will work out.

The other issue is, “Is this book, as an individual book, overstuffed? Is there so much happening that it distracts from the main characters or damages the flow of the story?” I think yes, a little. Did you have that issue, or did it work for you because you saw the book as less of a stand-alone and more of a pilot?

RHG: It worked for me because I saw what she was doing and I’m in for the ride.

CarrieS: What shall we grade it? I’d go with A-

RHG: I guess I’d go with an A- with the caveat that I reserve the right to round it up after we how the book works with the rest of the season, I mean series.

Also there were a lot of bird puns which she is super proud of.

CarrieS: We better round it to an A for the bird puns. You have to respect those.


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Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan

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  1. Kay says:

    This was already at the top of my TBR and now I’m even more excited. Because bird puns.

  2. Rachel says:

    So excited for this. What I love most about Milan is how compassionate her novels are: her stories are populated by people with real, honest-to-God difficulties, who make serious errors, and who have traits or vices that can be genuinely harmful/aggravating to themselves and others. These aren’t perfect people with cutesy foibles that cause no real damage. And yet the overriding message of Milan’s work is that they are all deserving of love– big, show-stopping HEA love. I just adore that; this one sounds like it won’t disappoint.

    Thanks as always for the entertaining review!

  3. bookworm1990 says:

    This sounds SO good! I’ll have to wait for more books in the series to release, though, because so many unresolved issues will stress me out. I can’t even watch most TV shows unless I can marathon them.

  4. JennyOH says:

    I’m really excited for this! I just finished re-reading The Brothers Sinister series so I’m totally primed for another book by my faaaavorite romance author. I was a little nervous at first when you mentioned neuroatypical characters, but remembering past books – particularly Ash in Unveiled, Ned in Trial by Desire, and perhaps Smite in Unraveled as well – I feel like she writes them well.

    I agree with the above commenter though, I may have to wait until at least a second book comes out so I’m not on tenterhooks with unresolved issues. I remember that for some reason there was a big gap between when I read Unclaimed and when I was able to get my hands on Unraveled and…I think it made me kind of build up the trauma from Smite’s childhood in my head beyond what was actually revealed.

    Anyway, thank you for reminding me to look for this!

  5. Todd says:

    This reminds me of the sister in “The Feather Heiress” (do I have that right? one of the Brothers Sinister books) – she had seizures and the guardian kept trotting in various “doctors” to try to cure her, regardless of how much they damaged her in the process.

  6. ruby says:

    YES, this was a great review of the book. I loved, loved how Milan unfolded Judith and Christian’s complicated and genuine feelings. My main issue was with how quickly Christian’s mother accepted the fact she’d *SPOILERY SPOILER* in, like, a minute flat.

    But otherwise, YES, Judith’s breakdown was just so right and justified, and the mix of betrayal and anger about her brother were completely understandable. And the great love between Christian and Judith was palpable.

  7. ruby says:

    (Also, I’m really happy that this series will look at the Opium Wars and British colonialism.)

  8. Alina says:

    @JennyOH, I don’t think the series will work quite in the way where you can just wait for the second one to resolve threads left open by the first one. The Kindle ebook version includes preview chapters for two upcoming stories: Daisy’s (Judith’s best friend mentioned in the review above) and Camilla’s, but Milan’s website indicates that Daisy’s will be published first. I personally am really looking forward to Camilla’s, the plot set-up looks like exactly my kind of catnip.

    And the series as a whole is a lot longer than that. Milan was not kidding when she decided to call it the Worth *Saga*. Between this and the expanding Cyclone series I’m in awe of her creative output levels. I mean, yay for more Courtney Milan, but, my god, Courtney, when do you sleep?!

  9. Carolyn says:

    Great review – I agree with everything you all said. I almost fell off the cliff at the abrupt ending, so I’m waiting anxiously for whichever book comes next.

    Courtney Milan and Ilona Andrews – they can’t write fast enough to suit me. 😉

  10. LML says:

    That’s it. I’m not going to finish this review (I stopped at “Milan gives us all the feels”) and I’m not going to read this book until there are MORE. Go Ms Milan! Who needs sleep, anyway?

  11. Tresgrumpy says:

    Yes the ending was sooooo abrupt. Also I agree about how sometimes it feels that her books are pandering to me specifically (how do you do that???) My big issue with the ending I think is like, there were no real mechanics. She is transitioning back (I assume, from the epilogue) to a Normal Genteel Life, and that goes completely unlooked at, which definitely bothered me. I know (I know) that if you’re going to write a saga you need to set up a saga, but this book felt so crammed with characters and conflicts that the main story seemed to get pushed to the side, making it a less fulfilling story to read.
    Honestly though, I’m relieved! I usually am like, unequivocal A+ for all of Courtney Milan’s books, but this one was probably a solid B for me, which is like, good. I need to have reasonable expectations for authors, they can’t crush it every time.

  12. Serethiel says:

    Courtney Milan is my hero. But it really bugged me that feelings of blame (some very justified,) were shifted so quickly from one person to another. It was like oxi-clean on the main conflict and way too easy.

  13. Lora says:

    I liked the swan thing and also the game Judith played with Daisy because it showed the relief to be found in silliness. I liked the complexities of Christian’s character because they were believable and not, as you said, a big info dump declaration of capital-s Secrets.
    However, I’m going to give it a B.
    The reason is this.
    WHen the twist came with the solicitor, I went, aw crap. As in, the reasons immediately given were flimsy and not sufficient for my purposes. I don’t want to spoil anything but i think someone was a total misogynistic asshat and I’m not talking about the solicitor here.

    Still, Milan is my catnip and I binge-read this while I had stomach flu today and honestly, I enjoyed the heck out of it and thought the characters were overall well-drawn.

  14. Saturngirl says:

    I have more to say but can’t type much now, so can I just say that I have subjected several people to that first poultry pun? Love this book.

  15. ReneeG says:

    I had to stop reading on the bus today – eyes were leaking – so this will definitely take me a while to finish since I can’t read it in public. But I’m so happy with this holiday present from Ms. Milan!

    And I so excited to read Daisy’s story! (I love to gild my beef)

  16. Cordy (not stuck in spam filter sub-type) says:

    Wow, this must be such a divisive book! I consider myself a Milan fan, and was pretty excited to read this, I jumped in as soon as it arrived on my Kindle. Unfortunately I was very underwhelmed, pretty disappointed, and didn’t finish it. For sure some of this is about if you like the writing style, which too me was way too heavy on mannered wordplay and dad jokes, too precious, too anachronistic. I found the characters inconsistent and unreal, the whole setup was way, way too complicated… I was really disappointed. I see from GR and Amazon reviews that there’s a real split between people who think it’s great and people who are disappointed by a dud from a favorite author.

  17. Cordy (not stuck in spam filter sub-type) says:

    (I think the swan conversation is really the thing. If you think it’d be cute to watch your leads, who are supposed to be unusual weirdos with a tragic backstory standing between them, converse with each other in the guise of gay Cockney swans for a bunch of pages… this is your book. If this idea perplexes you, move it along, this is not for you.)

  18. Lindsay says:

    I hate to be the wet blanket to this party but in the interest of realistic expectations I feel the need to say this was not my favorite Milan book. Of course, my favorite is the Suffragette Scandal, the final of a series so perhaps this series will grow on me. But I was won over immediately in the Brothers Sinister and loved them all and I don’t have that immediate sense with this book.

    Maybe it was because I felt it *was* overstuffed. I get that she’s setting up a complex series but the Cyclone series is going to be complex and it didn’t feel nearly as chaotic with all the characters introduced. It also might be that I didn’t find the quirks of the characters working for me. I thought Judith’s game with Daisy was unappealing (but I am assuredly NOT someone who deals with problems through joking), I wasn’t charmed by the swearing-by-fowl (although some of the puns were worth it). The psychological/neurological problems of some of the characters were a mixed bag. At her best Milan can be so subtle about her characters’ flaws, foibles, traumas, and general fucked-uppery that some of it seemed too on-the-nose or pointed.

    On the other hand I can’t WAIT to find out the answer to some of the questions raised and partially answered in this book- I agree with whoever said they are excited for something dealing with colonialism and the opium wars, I am excited for that too! And the love-interrupted plot is somewhere between catnip and kryptonite for me. I love it but it also hits so close to home that it’s hard to read, which is to say she does a wonderful job of capturing the particular kind of bittersweetness and hope/dread of love lost and potentially reclaimed.

    TLDR: not my fave Milan standalone but, duh, I will be reading these as soon as they drop.

  19. Betsysalt says:

    Couldn’t read your review until I’d read it as Milan such a favourite!
    So having finished this morning it was a relief to read what you feel about the ending as I was-hey did I miss pages? That’s the end?
    BUT still loved it, so I’d go A-

  20. Qqemkitty says:

    I had really mixed feelings about this book, and that’s the first time I’ve ever said as much about a Courtney Milan. I’ve read all her historical including the novellas (and I don’t even like novellas!) and never been so… Non-plussed.

    I loved the kittens, the birds, the humor. I love the way Milan writes, even (or especially) in her authors notes. I feel we could be friends. That held up in this book. I laughed. I am a person who deals with all things by joking so that was so me. I was 100% there for that.

    But. Where was the romance?! This book was so light on romance that I felt I wasn’t reading one. The sex scenes were scant and somewhat tepid. The love story, what little there was of it, was fraught with mixed feelings and regret and just… Huh?!

    Ultimately this didn’t read like or feel like a romance novel. I’m not sure what I would categorize it as but, yeah. It didn’t make me cry even once. Milan’s books always make me cry, and have fluttery nethers, pearl clutching and so forth. There was very little emotional oomph here for me.

    Theresa was incredibly irritating.

    All that being said I can’t wait to read Camilla’s story because THAT teaser was right up my alley. I also can’t wait to read Anthony’s inevitable return.

  21. Bona says:

    I’m one of those who really enjoyed this book, although it’s not an A for me but a B. I’m not sure why you put it on the Regency category, b/c it’s set in 1866, Victorian times, really far from the Regency, although I have to recognize that the setting is not very clear & strong. The story could have happened in any other time, just with a different colonial war in the background.

  22. greennily says:

    I’ve heard so much about Courtney Milan in the podcast and on the blog here, that eventually I just had to sit down and find out what all the fuss was about. So now I’m having an epic Bad Decisions book club morning after, but, dear bitches, now I know! She is soooooo worth it! It was my first book by this author and I loved it! It gave me all the feels since the moment Christian showed up in the heroine’s neighborhood till the end. And I loved those feels! They were pretty mature and serious. And both characters were just what I like characters to be. I especially liked Christian because he wasn’t all alpha-male and abs. But the heroine wasn’t constantly described looking like a movie star with the life she was leading. I appreciated that a lot.
    And the happy couple not having a bunch of babies and another one on the way after 14 months of marriage seemed so refreshingly like a reality for a lot of couples.
    And the humour! The bird jokes were hilarious. And relationships between main characters and other people seemed pretty normal too.
    I’m definitely reading more books by that author!

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