I’ve heard vague murmurs from various corners that Courtney Milan’s Carhart series, being Courtney Milan, is very good; however, being early Courtney Milan, they aren’t as good as the classics she later produced. That’s possibly true, but the two novels and novella that comprise the series do have a rough charm to them that actually really worked for me, and furthermore, I daresay that they’re a bit more brazen than her later works as well. Let’s get into it!
This Wicked Gift (3 stars) is a prequel novella that played delicately with — and in my mind, successfully subverted — coercion. But it walked a fine line, so there’s my fair warning that this will not work for everyone. The hero and heroine are both lower middle class: he works as a clerk for a tyrannical aristocrat, and she manages the family lending library. Both are poor but not completely destitute, but the difference is that the heroine, Lavinia Spencer, grew up in such circumstances and has never known anything different, so she’s always known how to make the best of her family’s financial situation. On the other hand, the hero, William White, grew up with his father under the patronage of a wealthy employer/benefactor who then left nothing to William upon his death, despite a promise that he would do so. Between that betrayal and his current position where he fears for the security of his employment, William is very resentful of his circumstances and has a very bitter and cynical outlook on his future. He does, however, find himself in the position to lend financial assistance to Lavinia, which she desperately needs… but! He’ll only do it if she sleeps with him. (Can you believe this guy is our romantic hero?) Milan, being clever and endowing her female characters with that trait, finds a neat way to deal with this slimy opener, so the coercion aspect isn’t what leads me to take off marks from the score. Rather, it’s the seemingly rushed ending and an about-face from the hero that seems to come out of nowhere, save for some Deep Introspection, that nearly gave me whiplash and kind of took me out of the story. Overall, though, this was a solid novella with Milan’s trademark Real Talk and fearlessness when it comes to unusual or controversial storylines.
Proof by Seduction (4 stars) tickled me so. It’s a book that, for me, lives and dies by its hero. Jenny Keeble, the heroine, is serviceable — kind, observant, patient, and intelligent, she comes from a decidedly inauspicious background but has managed to support herself using her alter ego as a fortune-teller. She puts up with a lot of crap from the hero, Gareth Carhart — the Marquess of Blakely — who is as cold of a fish as I’ve seen in a romance. So let me tell you why I loved him: it wasn’t really him, exactly, that I loved, but rather Milan’s flawless caricature of one of those guys — you know the ones — who are always like “I’m just trying to be rational here” and “Logic dictates” and “LET ME TELL YOU, RATIONALLY, WHY YOU’RE WRONG.” I was laughing nearly the entire time, because it was such an impeccable portrayal. Honestly, I have to admit to cognitive dissonance in my overall opinion of this book, because it’s very skeptically that I can take such a guy seriously as a romantic hero (and in a romance, that’s rather a deal-breaker,) and yet as I’ve said, on a meta-level of appreciating Blakely as a hilarious character, this totally works. So while I recognize that this romance didn’t really work for me and that should indicate a failing of a romance novel, I still unquestionably liked this book very much. Milan did manage to inject some credibility into Blakely’s thawing process, but my inability to completely let go of my image of him in a fedora-and-monocle, as well as my disbelief that Jenny was so accepting of his crap personality, kept this from being any more than 4 stars.
Interestingly, it was Trial by Desire (4 stars) that I had heard the most criticism about, but I personally rank it about on par with — if not above — Proof by Seduction and certainly above This Wicked Gift. It’s not perfect, but if there was ever an example of a courageous romance centered on some really difficult issues, this is it. The hero, Ned Carhart, is a tough nut to crack, but in a very different way from his cousin and predecessor in the series. He has a good heart and always the best of intentions, but he seems to regularly fall short of good sense about what people actually need from him. His reason for this is that he has major depressive episodes, and when he is not in the midst of one, he’s constantly “training” himself to be in control of every moment. The idea is to practice getting through and tampering the hardest of his emotions and situations whenever he can, because the more he trusts himself to control those moments, the more he can overcome his next descent into his “winter”, as he calls it. The more that I continue to understand about depression and other mental illnesses, by hearing from people who live with them, the more that I appreciate Ned’s burden and his triumphs over his bleakest days. The thing I always hear is that if picking oneself up and getting over it were just a choice, everyone would make it, because no one enjoys being depressed. But it’s not easy, and some days you just can’t. Ned feels this keenly, and so while it’s incomprehensible to his wife and probably to most readers as well, he always does have part of his attention subconsciously diverted to maintaining his, I’ll say, “better spirits”, because mental health takes work. Meanwhile, his wife Kathleen (Kate) is basically a white, Victorian Harriet Tubman for battered wives, and has assisted women with their escapes from abusive marriages starting from when she was sixteen years old. Her current “project” is her hardest yet: the woman is her best friend Louisa, and Louisa is also the first aristocrat’s wife who needs assistance, so her husband will be the first to have considerable influence in ensuring his wife’s return. That husband, the Earl of Harcroft, naturally suspects Kate as Louisa’s friend, even without knowing Kate’s history, and Harcroft threatens Kate in a handful of menacing scenes where Milan is brutally frank in her depiction of when misogyny turns violent. Somehow, in the midst of all of this, Ned and Kate are able to find their ways back to each other after a three year separation that all but guaranteed that as near complete strangers. Given each other’s respective secrets, that chasm between them required more than a dutiful husband-wife routine to repair. They both had to earn each other’s trust, and both had different requirements of the other that would demonstrate trustworthiness. It was unavoidably frustrating to read at times, because they were both so fiercely guarded about some things but also both so clearly craving the other (and not just physically), but they both had to be sure that the other person could even be what they needed them to be before they laid their hopes and dreams on someone who couldn’t support them.
So with this, I think I’ve finally caught up on Courtney Milan, and it’s a damned shame, because it’s been a nice security blanket to have the idea in the back of my head that I still had something of hers that I haven’t read before. I was holding off on this the longest because of my slightly lower expectations, but my enjoyment of this series surely demonstrated that nobody puts Courtney Milan in a corner. Even if this is “lesser” Courtney Milan, it’s still worth reading.