The Brothers Sinister series has come to an end for me, and it’s unfortunate that it goes out with a bit of a whimper. I have loved reading this series – it has contained some of my absolute favorite romances and delightful characters while also being a beacon for what quality historical fiction (romantic or not) can and should be. I have spread these seven works out over the course of nearly a year – I read The Governess Affair in late July of 2014 – in order to savor them. I will likely revisit the previous six works, but I’m not sure I’ll ever read Talk Sweetly to Me again.
Talk Sweetly to Me is the story of Stephen Shaughnessy, writer at the Women’s Free Press whom we met in The Suffragette Scandal, and his neighbor Rose Sweetly. Rose is not the typical romance heroine, which we have all come to expect from Courtney Milan. Rose is a computer, someone who literally computes the math for an astronomer. Rose is also black. Both Rose’s intellect and race become the crux of the plot in this novel. Can Stephen convince Rose that he is genuinely attracted to her, supports her career aspirations, and wants to fight the social injustices which haunt her life?
This should all go very well, but there are components missing. It starts for me back in The Suffragette Scandal. Stephen was not the most well drawn secondary character in that novel. Sure, he’s interesting, but a lot of that interest is left off the page in Talk Sweetly to Me. We as the reader are assumed to know/remember Stephen’s own history of discrimination, etc. and his abilities and experiences at Cambridge and with Free Marshall and her paper. Additionally, Rose’s internal life isn’t given time on page as perhaps it should have been. Milan falls victim to telling rather than showing. We know that Rose is concerned that Stephen doesn’t understand what it’s like to be black in 1880s England, but the reader isn’t always clearly shown what that experience looks like. That problem is probably exacerbated by the relative shortness of this work. The novella clocks in at less than a hundred pages, and sometimes brevity does an author no favors.
My other problem is that when I heard that there would be a companion novella for The Suffragette Scandal I was hoping that it might focus on one of the two (!) homosexual couples in that work. I know that those plots were pretty well wrapped up in novel, but that would be a fascinating story to revisit 5-10 years later. Not that this one wasn’t, it just wasn’t what I hoped for, and Stephen wouldn’t have been the Shaughnessy brother I would have chosen to revisit. But I do understand why Milan did choose him and why she chose to pair him with a character like Rose. Milan does write fantastic Historical Notes to go along with her works explaining the real history that inspires her work.
To sum up, read this series, but maybe stop at The Suffragette Scandal.