3.5 stars, rounded up out of loyalty
Something felt a bit *off* about Once Upon a Marquess: possibly, it is bogged down by setting the stage for the entire Worth Saga. Also possibly, and related, it was just kind of ambitious and didn’t quite pull everything together in a convincing way by the end. To wit:
- Treason! Judith Worth’s father and brother are guilty of it! And the evidence thereof was compiled by none other than our hero, Christian Trent, the Marquess of Ashford!
- Kittens! Scores of them! Gathered thusly because Judith’s younger siblings never met a rule they couldn’t bend or break!
- Poverty, basically! The Worth family is disgraced thanks to the treasonous men, and Judith has taken up a secret trade making clockwork designs to feed and support her remaining siblings. She’s proud of her accomplishments while also recognizing that the very thing that has kept them all alive (working for money) disqualifies her from “polite” society.
- Neuroatypical folk! Ashford is possibly one, and Theresa Worth (aforementioned younger sibling of Judith) definitely is one, and they’re written respectfully by Milan but also with just enough ambiguity that contextually, they’re both just kind of unassailably quirky. It works a lot better on Ashford than it does on Theresa, who has a lot of growing up to do and here mostly works as a precocious pain in Judith’s butt.
- Bullying! It happened to Benedict Worth at Eton, and now he’ll never go back, no matter how much Judith thinks there’s a better future for him at the end of that road.
- Missing sister! Another Worth sibling, Camilla, is nowhere to be found. What has happened to her, and to the money that Judith put aside for her?
And that’s not even covering the actual love story, which is, allegedly, the A-plot of a romance. This is part of the problem — some of the above fleshed out the book and added furnishing detail, but a lot of it muddied and detracted from a cleaner version of the story.
The interactions and companionship between Judith and Christian were the high points of the book, without a doubt. They’ve been in love with each other forever, and it’s evident in their easy conversations and intuitive understanding of each others’ values. It’s also obvious why these two aren’t already together: for starters, there’s the betrayal (from Judith’s view) of her father and brother, and so even though Judith can never bring herself to HATE Christian, she certainly doesn’t trust him. For Christian’s part, he’d marry her in a heartbeat if he knew she’d have him, but he’s also filled with guilt about what he did. He still believes he did the right thing, as he knows the evidence against both Worths pointed to guilt, but he is aware of the consequences that Judith and the rest of the Worths had to endure and he is remorseful that his actions so necessarily affected the woman he loves.
All of this sounds very heavy, and it rather is. In a smart move, Milan chooses to base much of the compatibility between Judith and Christian on their shared senses of humor. Indeed, as the two rekindle their relationship and test the waters of their comfort around each other, they both resort to complete and utter goofiness. Aviary puns and role-play are par for the course, and if you aren’t — like me — a lover of bad puns, these interactions can come off as twee. Myself, I laughed out loud. Milan is always clever, and here she’s both clever and unabashedly silly.
Once Upon a Marquess isn’t a bad book, but it doesn’t seem as finished as many of her best books. As I mentioned earlier, this is partly because it’s deliberately a set-up story for a longer arc that plays out over the course of the Worth Saga. But even with the threads that wrapped up between Judith and Christian, there was a little less confidence than I’ve come to expect from Milan, and a little more hastiness in just pulling out a *PLOT TWIST* to answer questions, rather than reaching a conclusion from groundwork that has been laid from the start of the book.
This review is altogether too long, but Milan always invites my overanalyzing tendencies to come out. Even when not at her peak, she’s a thoughtful writer who deserves more effort and consideration on my part.