When an author of Courtney Milan’s caliber takes as much time as she (admittedly) does between books in her series, you often cope — as I did — by re-reading a bunch of her back catalog in between. Every re-read reminds you how she is working on another level from most other romance authors right now, between the articulation of the themes she explores and the maturity of the relationships she crafts. When her new book finally drops two years later, you hope, and expect, that she manages to up the ante in some way.
The Worth Saga promises that she will, certainly in concept, ambition, and scope, and, hopefully, in execution. Time will tell. The first book was a bit difficult: overstuffed with plot and a few challenging characters who didn’t get enough focus to be understood, the romance suffered from a lack of cohesion. However, in setting up an arc and environment that makes explicit the diversity of Victorian England and the various other countries within that Imperial reach, the series is refreshingly inclusive and unflinching in its condemnation of the social structures that result in institutional inequality.
This, the second book, isn’t perfect either. Camilla is such a tragic heroine, and your heart really breaks for her, as she believes herself completely alone in the world, unloved and abandoned by her entire family, and continually beaten down by people who could care for her and bring her up but instead choose to reinforce how unloveable she is and how she brings it on herself. It’s horrible and every insecurity she has is completely justified. However, I do think her perspective wallows a bit too excessively in this. It gets rather repetitive to read over and over again how she just wishes she could be loved, but she knows she doesn’t deserve it because she can’t be good.
I mean, I get what Milan was trying to do, showing how emotional abuse warps your sense of self and what you deserve, but these are romances, and they are not really very long books either. If your heroine is so deeply hurting, that every time you are inside her head is crawling out of that torment toward recovery, then the other sections of the book might strive to provide a bit of levity. But again, like in Once Upon a Marquess, there is so much else going on: Adrian’s struggle to get his branch of the family officially recognized by his uncle, an influential Bishop who could, if he wanted to, be helpful in smoothing some of the tension Adrian and his brother experience as biracial men (probably not a spoiler to insinuate that Adrian’s uncle is not as helpful as Adrian would like him to be.) On top of all that, some convoluted ruse forces the two together into — literally — a marriage at gunpoint, so they must spend their time together sorting out their feelings for each other while they seek an annulment AND figure out whatever was going on behind the scenes that caused their employers (well, in Adrian’s case, his fake employer, long story) to put them in this situation.
Also, the younger Worth siblings, Theresa and Benedict, get POV sections.
The thing is, while Milan can write swoonworthy Romance (with a capital R), what makes her unique as an author is the way that her social progressivism informs the entire structure and focus of her books without, notably in the case of the historicals, losing the detail that grounds them in a particular time and place. She is careful to anchor her themes to the particular situations experienced by her characters and not just establish them broadly and never mention them again. Adrian doesn’t bemoan being a black man just once in a grand soliloquy; his presumed status pervades every interaction he has with white people, particularly those who don’t know that his family is actually wealthy. Camilla doesn’t just learn to love the first time Adrian expresses feelings for her; a lifetime of being discarded for being a “bad” woman means she needs proof upon proof not just from him, but from everyone, that she can trust them not to betray her. The messages are heavy, but they are inherent to the story, not tacked on.
So it seems that The Worth Saga is not shaping up to be the kind of escapism that I’m conditioned to expect from my romance, but you know what? I’m okay with it. I like that Courtney Milan makes me think, and that she explores the sophisticated milieu of how relationships between men and women (as she has, thus far, written heterosexual relationships, though two of her MCs have been bisexual) are impacted by the various forces of their cultures and how they grow and survive together by identifying and fighting those harmful agents. She’s not always an easy author, and as she gets more, dare I say, angry with the world around her, her books might get messier just like the world did. But I’d rather she be doing this, and doing it imperfectly, then churning out sweet nonsense just because it’s *hotter* and less challenging.