Okay, guys, so this is a big step for me. I have never reviewed a straight up “bodice-ripper” romance novel* on CBR before, and I’ve only done a couple small reviews of them over on Goodreads. In fact, I usually don’t even mark them as ‘read’ over there because it has been a life-long habit for me to conceal my romance-reading from everyone. But this lovely review from Mrs. Julien finally gave me the excuse I needed.
*Better known as historical romance.
A large part of why I hide my romance reading is probably due in part to how I got my start reading these books. When I was around twelve years old, I found an illicit collection of 80s romance novels shoved into the back of the guest bedroom closet where they were obviously not meant to be found. I went from just being completely flabbergasted reading the little excerpts on the front page (where they used to feature some of the best dirty bits, a publishing habit I’m sad to say, which has mostly stopped), to reading every single one of them in secret. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I may very well have learned a great deal of my adolescent knowledge about sex from these secret dirty books, which I just knew in my heart my mother would not want me to be reading (despite them being hers, and the fact that she’d clearly read them). So not only do I have the cultural shame we romance readers put upon ourselves (and that others put upon us) to deal with, I also have a whole bag of crazy from associating these books with furtive, rebellious adolescent behavior. And that’s like, triple-shame or something.
Sadly, I’m pretty sure my mother got rid of all those books, which is a shame, because there have been approximately one-holy-shit-billion romance novels published since the 80s, and it is virtually impossible to track down books based on flimsy descriptions like “Ireland,” “Revolutionary War,” and “San Francisco during the Gold Rush” (there is one particular book I’ve been looking for for ages and these are the only details I can remember about it, besides that it featured a character named Mac and took place over two generations of women). The internet has been of absolutely NO help in this matter.
(A couple of the ones I have been able to track down, from memory: Shanna, Love Only Once, The Tiger Lily, Souls Aflame. That last one took me years.)
Okay so here’s where I take the time to lament something. Look at these covers. Look at them in all their trashy glory. LOOK AT THEM:
What happened to that good old tradition of putting half-naked lusciously attired people on the covers of books? What happened to the passion? WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MADNESS!!!
And then let’s look at the cover of the book I am currently supposed to be reviewing. Not only is it not luscious and ridiculous, and entirely absent of half-naked people embracing in the full throes of what is surely forbidden passion, I’m pretty sure the lady on the cover is computer generated. And that color of her dress? Come on. Not historically accurate. And it looks cheesy and stupid, and in my opinion, entirely a bad idea. The covers of these books are just as embarassing as they were before, only now they’re boring and ugly as well.
Which is especially ironic, considering Courtney Milan could probably write circles around those other three authors. It’s perhaps a bit unfair for me to compare them, as romance is one of the genres that dates pretty quickly, but it doesn’t change the fact that Milan is a smart writer, and I’m almost 99% positive if I re-read Souls Aflame and The Tiger Lily, they would not hold up to my memory, and the standards for the written word I’ve built up since I was twelve. I re-read the Lindsey book a couple of years ago and it definitely did NOT hold up, and further reading of her stuff has actually shown that she’s degenerated as an author. (The Woodiwiss would probably hold up, which is why I said three authors instead of four. I remember thinking she was the classy one at the time, which of course meant she was my least favorite because class wasn’t what I was after.)
Anyway, tangent over. Back to the actual review.
It was Malin, actually, who turned me on to Courtney Milan back in CBR4. She made the Turner series (of which this book is #3) sound verrrry appealing, and well-written. So I gave it a go, and I was kind of shocked by what I found. If you’ll scroll up, you’ll see what kind of fare I was used to getting from my romance reading. It mostly revolved around women being put into sexy situations or dangerous ones or extremely melodramatic ones and then letting themselves fall in love with a man, which usually involved surrendering of some kind. It’s all very 80s and very trashy and I LOVED IT. The nice thing about Milan as an author, though, is that she manages to scratch that romance itch without falling into idiotic plot traps, or compromising the intelligence or integrity of her heroes and heroines.
All three books in the Turner series focus on a Turner brother, and whereas a great majority of historical romance novels center around characters being forced into situations and sexing their way out, Unraveled and its two predecessors are quite character focused and character driven. It’s inner conflicts that are the issue here, not manufactured plot twists, misunderstandings, and character decisions driven only by plot necessity.
This particular book centers around middle brother Smite (long story, don’t ask), who, er, has issues. Like, real psychological ones. He was abused as a child (a more mental type of abuse inflicted on him by his mentally ill mother), was forced to care for his younger brother, Mark, while they were both homeless on the streets, and whose devotion to the law as an adult has earned him the nickname of Lord Justice. He upholds justice in such strict measures because nobody bothered to listen to him as a child and his sister died as a result. Smite leads a lonely life by choice. He doesn’t believe there is any woman who could put up with his quirks (night terrors, for one), or who he would even want to try.
Enter Miranda Darling, child of actors, currently trying to make it as a seamstress and wigmaker. Miranda and Lord Justice meet when she’s sent to court to testify on behalf of a thief who is under the protection of the local crimelord, someone Miranda is also under the thumb of. Miranda and Smite had met before under similar circumstances, and quickly seeing through her act, he warns her that if he ever sees her in his courtroom again, he’ll have her arrested. So of course he becomes obsessed with her and asks her become his mistress. To which she agrees (hey, she’s got a foster kid to take care of). From there, it’s just a matter of the both of them breaking through each other’s walls (which is basically the plot of every romance novel ever written).
I actually liked the other two Turner books better than this one (damaged dudes aren’t really my thing), but this was still really good. Miranda was pretty standard, but Smite’s inner life was very convincing, and really thoroughly thought out and executed. Plus also it was fun, even if the ending was a little cheesy (the resolution to the crimelord story is what I’m thinking of here).
Romance novels aren’t my go-to pleasure reads normally. For that, I have fantasy. But usually about once a year, I get a craving that nothing but binging on romance novels can satisfy. It’s good to know I have Courtney Milan not only to satisfy these cravings, because she actively tries to make her stories stand out in such an oversaturated genre, but to give me well-constructed story with three-dimensional, flawed characters. And it feels good to say all this somewhere that isn’t my own head. Shame is really the worst, you know?