My biggest problem with this book is that it felt forced, and Courtney Milan’s stuff has never felt forced to me before. I can tell she really struggled with this one. I feel like I would have been able to tell even if I hadn’t read her newsletter where she confessed that Once Upon a Marquess had given her tons of trouble, to the point where she basically had to scrap it and start the book over.
There was just too much she was trying to do and fit into this one book for any of it to work as well as she wanted it to.
Once Upon a Marquess is the first of an eventual seven book series (plus novellas) about the Worth family, so it had a lot of set-up to get out of the way. Judith Worth is the heroine of this one; her father and brother were convicted of treason eight years before. Her father committed suicide before he could be executed, and her brother Anthony was transported, and then lost at sea. Amidst the fallout of the scandal, Judith has had to take care of her two younger siblings. Her life now could not be more different to the life of ease she knew as an Earl’s daughter. On top of all that, it was the evidence of the man she loved, her brother’s best friend and the Marquess of Ashford, that ultimately convicted them.
This book opens with Judith reaching out to Christian (very reluctantly) in matters only he can help her with. Of course, their tense relationship warms from there and a lot of past issues are worked through. Unfortunately, their relationship suffers because Milan has to juggle so many balls that her focus is split.
Here is a list of all the stuff in this book she had to fit in to the plot:
1. The treason and its fallout. This takes up a lot of space not only because it will be a shadow that falls over the remaining six books (and assorted novellas), but because the circumstances surrounding it are complicated and need to be explained by the characters not only so they understand it, but so we do as well. She also wove the treason throughout a central arc of this book that involves a couple of mysteries, so she can’t just brush it under the rug.
2. One of those mysteries is what happened to the trusts she’d reserved for her siblings. This is the reason why she needs Christian’s help, because her shady lawyer is giving her the runaround.
3. Judith’s relationship with her siblings. They get almost as much page-time as Christian does. I can see why she wanted them to be fully fleshed out characters, especially since presumably one day they will each get their own books, but taking the time to build their characters from the beginning necessarily took away from time she could have been spending with Judith and Christian.
4. Judith’s friendship with Daisy. Sadly, this whole thing felt shoehorned in, and I was keenly aware the whole time that Daisy would also be getting her own book. Her scenes always felt like set-up for that future book rather than being good of their own accord (excepting one near the end of the book that really worked).
5. Christian and Theresa are both atypical characters. Christian is an addict and has what we would diagnose as moderate OCD. Theresa is . . . difficult. But because the book was so stuffed, their neuroatypicality kind of got lost in the shuffle and so their mannerisms were constantly teetering on the border between being affecting and cutesy character tics.
6. Anthony. He is the absent center of this book, and took up a lot of mental space, even though he is presumed dead. I get that he was important to Christian and Judith, and that dealing with what he’d done was part of their emotional arcs, but still. A lot of space taken up by a character, and who knows when we’ll get to meet him. (Also, (view spoiler) Of course she’s not going to waste that opportunity.)
I feel like maybe if the book had been longer, she could have given more room to all of that, or maybe even just putting off a couple of those items until later books may have given the others breathing room. As a result of all the cramming, it took me way longer than usual to get into the book. At points, the tone actually felt off; it was harder to get to know the characters so it was harder to accept the things they said and the way they were acting (a key example being the way Judith and Christian joke with each other, despite supposedly hating one another, or at least Judith hating Christian).
Anyway, it does end up all working, but it doesn’t work as well as it could have, and it takes way too long to get there. I’m hoping now all the set up is done, the next books will be back up to Courtney Milan standard.