Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan (Brothers Sinister 01)

Book info:
Form: pdf
Genre: historical romance 
Target audience: adults

Once upon a time there was a girl who resembled a mouse. She was small and quiet, her hair was dark blond or light brown – in short mousy – she had no wealth or great education, she had no family, she had to scrape a living. Still she had brains and it was one of her most important secrets. When she fell in love, it all became a game for her, a game she wanted to win at all cost because it was one of those opportunities which shouldn’t have happened. Not to her anyway.
If you ever watched a mouse you would know that little rodent can be surprisingly fast, resourceful and clever. Calling somebody a mouse is, in fact, a compliment. Some mice outsmart cats. Our heroine – Wilhelmina Pursling or Minevra Lane, depending on who was asking – certainly was determined to outsmart somebody far stronger and more formidable than herself. Her opponent was Robert Blaisdell Duke of Clermont a handsome, rich and  influential young man every lady of the ton would desire to catch, if not for herself then for her daughter. A man who knew nothing about tactics or chess. A man who was supposed to think that women are just empty, spoiled dolls to be dressed up or down and displayed in a ballroom or in a bedroom.
“I’m winning,” he announced. “You can’t bore me into a surrender.”
“You probably think battles are won with cannons and brave speeches
and fearless charges.” She smoothed her skirts as she spoke. “They’re not.
Wars are won by dint of having adequate shoe leather. They’re won by
boys who make shells in munitions factories, by supply trains shielded
from enemy eyes. Wars are won by careful attendance to boring detail. If
you wait to see the cavalry charge, Your Grace, you’ll have already lost.”
He blinked. “You’re trying to make me back down. It won’t work.”

So he defies Minnie’s careful, bland plans. He brings his friends and tries to defend himself better. If you can’t win you should call a truce – always a better option than losing, right?

What I liked:

An aristocrat and a nobody…there are so many romance novels with such a pair of characters. He is usually a duke or a count, she is your ordinary miss from the country with shadows in her past. The male lead is made into a kind of a rake, a drunk or a gambler – until he falls in love with the right girl of course. She in turn is more often than not somebody in dire need of a strong male arm and quid, a biddable, quiet person; perhaps not exactly stupid, with a sense of humour even, but also not especially intrepid or clever. How very cliché. However the novel by Milan is always different.

Robert Alan Graydon Blaisdell the Duke of Clermont is a man with a mission – he wants to prove that he is better than his late father. He doesn’t gamble, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t whore, he wants to make amends to those who have been hurt by his unscrupulous parent. He befriends his half brother born of rape and a cousin with a scientific mind and a great sense of humour. He visits spinning mills and wants to improve the living conditions of the working class. Not your ordinary romance hero, right?

Minnie is poor and has very few choices available but she makes use of her brain and strives to find the right path, thinking about the future of those she loves and cares for. She takes a lot of risky decision hoping one of them might be the right one. She is a chess player and a strategist even when she doesn’t play chess anymore.

Robert and Minnie both had horrible fathers who tried to exploit them mercilessly. Will they be able to trust each other? It is, I suppose, the main issue between them – lack of trust, weak attempts at breaking the protecting barriers which were supposed to shelter them from the outside world and in fact, imprisoned them. Robert doesn’t believe somebody might actually love him without strings attached. Minnie cannot believe she might be worth something at all, because after her childhood drama she became ‘nothing’. Even after their marriage (and it is not difficult to guess they will marry) they must overcome their demons together which was kind of sweet.

Also some secondary characters, like Robert’s mom, Sebastian Malheur and Violet were a joy to meet. I am looking forward to reading about them more in the next installments!

What I didn’t like:

It was a story written by Courtney Milan and yet, and yet… it wasn’t completely faultless. I think my expectations were set too high mainly due to the previous novels, some of them really excellent. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a great historical romance book but I really missed that clever strategy promised on the cover, a more convoluted plot, like a good game of chess. I expected Minnie to think more before she acted, to plan before she took a decision. She was at war but she behaved more like a befuddled conscript soldier than a general. I missed chess terms as well – after all our heroine was supposed to be somebody like an international chess master and a child prodigy too so it would be natural for her to think using a chess board and terms involved with that game. Instead too often she thought like your ordinary country miss, without entering those boring details she talked about at the beginning (see my quote above). Those close to her also have difficulties with realizing that Minnie deserves something better, really unnerving. Her great-aunt says:

 “Men look for many kinds of wives,” Eliza finally said. “Pretty,
vivacious wives. Wealthy, indulgent ones. Highborn, prideful ladies.” She
bit her lip. “I don’t want you hurt, Minnie. But it is my duty to make you
face the truth. Nobody is looking for a shy, clever girl whose father died
halfway through his sentence of hard labor.”

Minnie’s friend, Lydia, annoyed me a bit, being just a bland sidekick with (nothing new, really) trust issues and just one good scene, involving several glasses of punch. Overall there was not enough funny, cynical moments which made the previous novels so enjoyable (still shortening Wilhelmina to Hell did crack me up!).

Final verdict:

The Duchess War was a good novel, highly readable and fun but, in my humble opinion, not the best Milan book I’ve ever read. I am still a fan and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series (this one is the first and there is a prequel available as well) hoping that the next ones will be better – I know they can be so. Like Unraveled and Unclaimed which I adored to no end. Of course as far as a romance novel can be adored by me. ;p

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