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REVIEW: Trial by Desire by Courtney Milan

Dear Ms. Milan,

When Jane asked me to review your book Trial by Desire, I was really happy to do so. I had just finished your debut novel, Proof by Seduction, on a plane of all places, and had been intrigued by the secondary relationship in that book. As everyone who reads romance knows, secondary relationships that do not get resolved in the first book invariably find a way of having their own book.

Trial by Desire by Courtney MilanIn Proof by Seduction, Ned Carhart attempts to prove something to his cousin, Lord Blakely, and as a result gets both himself and Lady Kathleen into some very hot water. The kind of hot water that leads to a nice, bubbling pot of scandal broth. As per usual, scandal broth’s temperature can only be taken down by the steady application of marriage. Thus, they are forced to do so. Trial by Desire opens three months after that forced marriage has taken place and is told from the point of view of Lady Kathleen, now Mrs. Edward Carhart. She is not, as one would expect, too upset about her untimely marriage. In fact, she rather likes her husband. In fact, she rather wishes he was more into her. She has a plan to seduce him. She's very excited about it. Only Ned disappoints her, breaks her heart really because he's off to China, practically this moment, to do work on behalf of Blakely.

The real meat of the plot begins three years later when Lady Kathleen is walking home from somewhere dressed as a servant. The country road is empty but she's afraid of encountering someone who will recognize her, especially a gentleman. Fate, however, has other plans and sure enough a gentleman rides up. Unlike in life, fiction offers us the delightful assurance that no encounter on the road is meaningless but rather is entirely destined. The gentleman, as one would guess, turns out to be none other than Lady Kathleen’s missing husband, Ned.

If I were to describe this plot, I would say that it is a plot of estranged spouses. Ned has gone from boy to man, as is most often the result of journeys. And Lady Kathleen has suffered the rumor of her husband’s swift removal for the past three years. But this book is so much more than the reconciliation of estranged spouses. It is more than the two protagonist’s getting to know each other as they fall in love, despite the forced marriage. No, this is a book about what makes a hero.

Lady Kathleen has been up to something. In point of fact, she’s been up to something since before her marriage. That something she has been up to is this: she’s been rescuing women from abusive marriages. Now in the past I have read books where heroines are engaged in some similar activity and it is always accompanied by a side of righteousness on the part of the heroine. Lady Kathleen is not righteous, nor sanctimonious, nor silly. She is not engaged in this activity because she is suffering what I like to term adolescent independence. You know about adolescent independence, don’t you? It is something teenagers, college freshmen, and romance heroines suffer from. Namely, in order to prove that they are "mature" and "adult" and "intelligent" they come up with some ass-witted scheme, behave ass-wittedly, and can generally be described as ass-wits. They don’t suffer criticism or critique or the slightest suggestion that perhaps their scheme, as noble as it is, is really a selfish self-indulgence that is about proving something to the world rather than true independence or charity. Lady Kathleen is absolutely, supremely, undoubtedly the opposite of that.

Lady Kathleen is clever. She does it because it is the right thing to do. She does it even though people practically insult her to her face. She is, in many ways, a female Scarlet Pimpernel, shrouded in an armor, a masquerade of silliness and femininity in order that she might get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The fact that people underestimate her is what allows her to do what she does.

The trouble comes from the fact that she’s just gone and helped her first noble woman. Unlike the commoners she has helped before, Lady Harcroft’s husband cannot be intimidated by Lady Kathleen’s connections. This is a much more dangerous situation than she has ever been in before. On top of this, Lord and Lady Harcroft are friends of both her husband, absent though he is, and her husband’s cousins, Lord and Lady Blakely.

When Ned returns he knows she has a secret. But Ned is clever, too. He’s clever enough not to assume anything about his wife or the situation he’s come home to. He’s also kind and doesn’t make irrational conclusions. Ned is what I would call a peach, although he is not a typical hero. I would neither describe him as alpha, beta or omega. Ned is just a man. In fact, this is the very thing that Ned struggles with. I don’t think I am revealing anything when I say that Ned’s great monster is his battle with manic-depression or something very much akin to it. This is something that was revealed in your previous novel. However, we get a much more in-depth look at what that depression is like.

I loved many things about your depiction of Ned. One, was that Ned’s depression was not a result of external events-‘there was no uber-Freudian explanation for his depression. Usually and bewilderingly in romance, the depression is always a result of one of the following a) childhood trauma   or b) war. As a person who has suffered from depression for most of her life, I have to say this is just not how it works. Ned’s depression is just who he is. It just happened to him. It wasn’t caused by any event. It was a result of temperament and disposition. This does not make it any less severe or real. He battles it constantly. It undermines his self-worth and in order to combat it he has created rituals for himself. I love the fact that you do not rely on a simple explanation for his depression nor give it a simple solution. You made it a part of him, something that both he and Lady Kathleen must come to accept.

Second, I love the fact that Ned is worried about his own masculinity. He constantly questions whether or not he’s man enough. His depression has made him feel weak and useless. He wants to be strong and useful. That is why he went to China. Not to repudiate his wife, but because he felt he wasn’t the kind of man she deserved. He questioned whether he was a man at all. When they married he was a skinny young kid, now he’s tall and strong but he still doesn’t feel like that, he still doesn’t know that. Ned tries so hard to be good. He wants to be a hero for Kathleen, but he feels unworthy to the task. He feels unworthy even when he does things just as heroic as St. George, for instance.

The complexity of both Ned’s character and Kathleen’s is what made this book work for me. The richness of your characterizations was refreshing. You never relied on easy answers or cliches. Even the villain was not painted with a one-dimensional hue. You dug deep into your characters and made them real people with real voices. For example, the third thing I loved about Ned is that you did not name his struggles with 20th century language. You allowed him to think about it as if he were from that period. To explain it to Kathleen in the terms of the time. That is to say, he questioned is own sanity. Hell, even today when we know what depression is and what it can do, depressed people often question their sanity. The fact that both the way in which Ned has to deal with his problem and the limitations of how he can do that, made the plot more vivid than had you given him a simple problem with a simple solution.

Similarly, as I said above, Lady Kathleen never descends into adolescent behavior as some kind of short-hand for her independence, intelligence or sassiness. Instead, she behaves like a mature woman. She has her own insecurities and issues, but you never allow her to descend into petulance. The misunderstandings between Ned and Kathleen are clearly a result of who they are, how they think about the world, and their own images of themselves. They are not contrived to extend the plot. Neither are the sex scenes gratuitous and ill-placed. Rather, they are paced to make sense within the measure of the plot. I think both the pacing and the characters are a testament to the strength of your prose. For example, in this scene when Ned discovers Lady Harcroft:

He would have flinched himself. He understood all too well how her thinking went.

How many times had he wondered that about himself? What if he had been different? If he had been better? If he hadn't been betrayed by his own weaknesses? Those doubts would debilitate him, if he ever gave them full sway. It had taken him years to learn to discard them, to keep going in the face of his own fears. He could imagine all too well how Lady Harcroft must have felt.

Or this passage when Kathleen is trying to talk to Ned about his problem:

He stepped down; she stared out the doorway of the carriage in disbelief. He hadn't-‘he really couldn't have packed away the conversation as if it hadn't happened. Kate stood so rapidly, she nearly struck her head against the roof of the carriage. "Ned, you-‘you-‘"

Her words sputtered out into cold silence. Exhaling, she gathered her skirts and stumbled to the door of the carriage. But he hadn't left her; he'd taken the footman's place, and as she stood at the edge of the steps, he held out his hand to help her alight. His fingers were warm, even through both their gloves.

"I'm good at jokes," he said to her, his voice so quiet she strained to hear it even above the velvet silence of the night. "When we married, I was excellent at playing the buffoon. After all, it's better to have your sins chalked up to tomfoolery than it is to have everyone realize that you occasionally succumb to this cloying thing that is not quite madness." He grinned again, and that expression was so at odds with the seriousness of his tone, that Kate shook her head.

I think both these passages illustrate what I’m talking about. You do what all good writing should do, that is you reveal the characters not just through description but through dialogue. You allow the prose to carry the story and you trust the prose to create complex characters.

This book is a thoughtful, character driven romance with rich language. Like I said, this book is about what it means to be a hero and the answer is not brawn but brains. A conclusion that is mirrored in the intelligence of your storytelling. A


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Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.


  1. Tweets that mention REVIEW: Trial by Desire by Courtney Milan | Dear Author --
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 04:43:35

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Maggie Robinson, dearauthor. dearauthor said: NewPost: REVIEW: Trial by Desire by Courtney Milan […]

  2. Angela
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 06:22:52

    I just found Proof by Seduction at the bookstore (finally!) last night, and look forward to starting it…and then jumping into this one!

  3. Grace
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 06:35:31

    I read a sample of this on the author’s website last week and really enjoyed it. Your review just sealed it for me. This one is now on my to buy list.

  4. Tee
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 07:21:06

    I read Milan’s debut story in the Christmas anthology a year ago or so and absolutely loved her way with writing. I picked up Proof by Seduction shortly after; and, although it had a somewhat questionable beginning, the second half more than redeemed itself, proving to me once again her special way with stories and writing. I am equally enthusiastic about Trial by Desire, because I feel she has that special something and hope she never loses it.

  5. HelenB
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 07:27:17

    One of the things I find really upsetting is that ,if you have a comfortable life, all eyes limbs etc and look better than Quasimodo, people can be REALLY judgemental about why one should suffer from depression. Sometimes it just is and they cannot accept that. There is the expectation that there is clear cut reason for the depression and quite often there isn’t. I am glad to see that the author does not takes the easy route with a complex condition.

  6. Danielle D
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 07:27:29

    I can’t wait to read this book especially after reading this review.

  7. JoanneF
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 07:30:08

    I have Proof By Seduction in my TBR pile. I’ll have to move it to the top so I can move on to this one. Sounds great!

    BTW, LOVE the cover!

  8. Barb
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 08:10:02

    I bought this book with a good deal of trepidation. Not because I feared for the plot or the characters or the writing–but, Dear Heavens Above!! the Cover!!! WTF is with the cover??!!?! That jackel staring you away from his successful prey kill is so NOT the way I ever pictured Ned.
    (Okay–if the above image is a bit too animal for you, then how about we photoshop a set of bloody fangs on the guy and a set of matching puncture marks on the headlesss gal??)
    Ms Milan deserved sooo much better for such a good book.

  9. Polly
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 08:44:11

    The cover is freaking me out–why is he staring at me like that?

  10. Ridley
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 09:04:34

    I really like the cover. It’s provocative and sexy.

    I’ll have to pick this one up. I *loved* her Christmas novella, but was kinda so-so on Proof by Seduction. I thought it was a good story buried under a bit too much plot. This looks a lot more character-focused.

  11. cead
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 09:24:51

    Thanks for this review. My pre-ordered copy should be arriving today, if all goes well (fingers crossed), and I’m even more excited now, having read this review. Like you, I’ve been depressed for most of my life, and the portrayal of depression in romance novels typically leaves me unsatisfied at best. It’s good to hear from someone else who has been there that Milan has done it well. She did such a good job with Ned in her debut (the Ned/Kathleen storyline was my favourite part of Proof by Seduction) that I’m not surprised, but it’s good to hear confirmation.

    @HelenB: This. Yes.

    I don’t really get the cover either.

  12. Lynn S.
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 09:58:41

    @Barb: @Polly: This is another of those cover art mysteries – the hero staring intently outward. It makes me as a reader feel like a voyeur and makes the hero look like a serial cheater who will drop his beloved for any warm body that happens to wander by the bookshelf. I’ll wait for the ebook to be available Friday and then no pesky cover to deal with. Great review though.

  13. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 10:13:09

    to have everyone realize that you occasionally succumb to this cloying thing that is not quite madness

    What part of “manic-depression or something very much akin to it” would be “cloying”? It seems an odd word choice to me.

  14. Jackie Barbosa
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 10:28:38

    @Laura Vivanco: FWIW, I never got the impression that Ned suffered manic-depression, as I saw no evidence of periods of “mania.” I think he simply fell into periods of clinical depression on occasion.

    And I absolutely loved this book, especially the last two-thirds, although it did take a while for the story and characters to really grab me.

  15. hapax
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 10:49:56


    I’ve been intrigued to read this author by her thoughtful, well-written comments here and on other blogs (take note, aspiring authors!) but this review immediately bumps her up to a MUST READ>

  16. Karenmc
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 11:36:35

    I can’t imagine the strength it would take back in the day to deal with the bleakness that is untreated chronic depression (I had ancestors who didn’t handle it well at all). I’ll be picking this book up today and putting it at the top of my TBR pile.

    The cover: kinda creepy.

  17. SonomaLass
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 11:51:05

    Thanks for this great review; I’ve been saying “OMG I love this book” but not bothering to articulate why, and now I can just point people over here.

    This is one of those romances where I really had to trust the author, because there were times when I wasn’t sure if the HEA was possible — for the main couple or for poor Lady Harcroft. I love that tension in romance, where even though I KNOW it’s going to end well, I can’t see how, and then the author pulls it off. Especially when, as with this book (no spoilers), she does it without a deus ex machina or a reckless disregard for the actual legal statutes of the time. Just the opposite, in fact; Courtney Milan is terrific about getting the law research right, and it shows.

    I have the “alternate cover,” Trial by Barbed Wire, explained here by Courtney herself.
    There’s a link in Courtney’s blog post to print your own alternate cover, if Ned’s staring bothers you.

  18. Mandi
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:37:50

    I loved this book! I wasn’t sure about Ned after I read Proof, but I really enjoyed him in this one. Just a great book.

  19. Kim in Hawaii
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 13:17:05

    Ditto to SonomaLass’ comment that this review is very articulate. This review would win over skeptics of romance.

    I have been looking forward to this book after meeting Ms. Milan at RomCon, where she gave away The Girl Who Loved Historical Romance. Plus her husband was on hand to help with the treasure hunt. Ms. Milan is a smart woman!

  20. Janine
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 13:23:50

    @Jackie Barbosa:

    FWIW, I never got the impression that Ned suffered manic-depression, as I saw no evidence of periods of “mania.” I think he simply fell into periods of clinical depression on occasion.

    I’m really glad to hear this. I was planning to purchase the book regardless, as I enjoyed “This Wicked Gift” and Proof by Seduction, and love Ms. Milan’s prose style, but I think I’ll enjoy the book more if I think of the hero as suffering from clinical depression rather than manic depression, since the book is set before lithium was first used to treat bipolar disorder.

    Manic depression (bipolar disorder) is a chronic illness that tends to worsen over time without the use of medication. Clinical depression, horrible as it is, can sometimes go away on its own.

  21. SonomaLass
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 15:15:46

    @Kim *waves* You should to to Courtney’s blog and read Mr Milan’s review of this book.

    @Janine I would say clinical depression is a better “diagnosis,” because like others in this thread, I didn’t see mania, just periods of severe depression. And without spoiling TOO much, I was pleased that the HEA did not depend on Ned’s depression being mysteriously cured or just going away.

  22. MaryK
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 16:17:37

    My copy arrived today! I had it shipped to my work address [not the best idea, but it’s a question of smuggling :D ] and I may have spent a bit too much time poring over it before putting it in my bag.

    I was also going to suggest the alternate cover on CM’s website. :) It’s worth a look even for those who don’t have an issue with the cover.

  23. Anonymous M-D
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 17:48:45

    As a manic-depressive myself, I identified with Ned. We don’t see any strong peaks of mania in this novel, but the peaks can vary in height and in Proof he had moments of mania. I suppose he could also fit normal depression, but I would call him a fellow manic-depressive.

    And as my mother and her father are also manic-depressives, I can say with surety that no, manic-depression does not always worsen with time, nor must it always be controlled with medication. My mother’s been fine for two years now; a little soon to say it’s gone completely but it’s certainly gone long-term. All three of us are getting along fine without mind-altering drugs. So don’t dismiss us manic-depressives as hopeless just yet.

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do appreciate that Ned’s condition was just something that happened naturally. If I had read that it came from his childhood trauma I would have felt betrayed.

  24. Anonymous M-D
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 17:51:23

    To clarify, my mother shows no symptoms and has not for two years. My grandfather and I are able to manage our symptoms on our own.

  25. Kim
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 18:08:23

    I’m looking forward to reading this book. Proof was so good that I want to see what happens with Ned in the sequel. Thanks for the review.

  26. Niveau
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 18:41:11

    Re: depression vs. bipolar: based on my personal experiences with the two, (I’ve been dealing with depression since I was eight, and my father is rapid-cycling) I would say that Ned’s bipolar, no doubt about it. If there’s one thing I learned from growing up with a bipolar parent, it’s that the highs and lows are only a part of it. I don’t think he hit any high highs or low lows in this book, but there were several times when I saw him going both ways, not because of anything overt, but just because of things you get used to noticing when you live with someone bipolar. And I certainly saw some mania in Proof.

    Side note: how awesome was it that we got to see Jenny and Gareth without them turning into one of those “we’re so happy happy happy now that we’re married, remember how it happened in the last book?” couples!

  27. Janine
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 18:55:06

    @SonomaLass: Thanks.

    @Anonymous M-D: It is possible that my information is wrong or out of date. However, I found this article which cites medical studies that support the idea that bipolar disorder is a progressive illness when left untreated.

    Since I am not a psychiatrist, I am certainly not qualified to evaluate your family members even if it were possible to do so over the internet. I therefore cannot speak to the condition of their mental health, and wouldn’t presume to, but I also don’t think anyone except a psychiatric professional who had a chance to evaluate them can speak about it with authority.

    You may disagree with that, but I’ll concede that by the same token, I probably should not have made my original comment, either. Let’s just agree to disagree.

  28. Anonymous M-D
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 19:02:45

    @Janine: Everything I’ve said about the three of us is backed up by our different psychiatric professionals, who we check in with on a regular basis. And I’ll leave it at that.

  29. lazaraspaste
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 20:38:47

    I’m glad you all enjoyed the review.

    Just to clarify: one of the things that Milan does brilliantly is that she casts Ned’s depression in his own language, which is confined by his understanding. My use of the word manic-depression was not an attempt to be diagnostic, but rather to indicate the severity of the swing between his black moments and his light moments. But ultimately, it would be impossible to apply modern psychological terms to Ned’s depression because ultimately we are only really access any information about it through Ned.

    Again, this is one of the reasons why this book is so good. It doesn’t provide easy answers. And yet, the HEA is totally believable.

  30. Miki S
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 21:15:18

    Thanks so much for this review – it really has gotten my interest!

    I’m afraid I might have passed this one by, because I think the guy on the cover looks like a total twit (actually, sort of like a posturing boy who’s quite too full of himself).

    But I’ll have to check Kobo when I get home…

  31. TKF
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 22:20:10

    I like the cover. *shrug* I’m a fan of the whole spate of recent covers that have one of the characters looking right out at you, inviting you pick the book up, daring you read it.

    Doubt I’ll buy this one, as her debut was sort of meh for me, but I’m not skipping it because of the cover.

  32. ET
    Sep 30, 2010 @ 20:56:28

    Thanks for the review. This book sounds great but I’m wondering if I will get the same enjoyment/understanding reading it without having read Proof By Seduction first?

  33. Kaetrin
    Oct 01, 2010 @ 00:47:14

    This one sounds interesting – I like the idea of a couple working through their issues in a responsible way and not the “big mis” which could have been fixed by a simple conversation.

    I take it I should read Proof by Seduction first though?

  34. flora
    Oct 01, 2010 @ 07:00:41

    As someone whose partner just swung into mania after 20 years of marriage and who has in a week destroyed pretty much everything, (he’s cycled before of course, but nothing like this), I’d venture to say that manic depression isn’t just about moving from high to low. The highs are destructive and corrosive.

  35. JenJen
    Oct 01, 2010 @ 09:25:42

    Am looking forward to reading the book — but am I the only person who has noticed that Mr Starey-Stare Man on the cover looks EXACTLY like the guy on the cover of another recent Harlequin release: The Master and His Muses ( by Amanda McIntyre? Clearly someone in their art department is veeery fond of the (admittedly hot-looking) model.

  36. Jane
    Oct 01, 2010 @ 10:18:21

    @JenJen Great eye!

  37. phemie
    Oct 03, 2010 @ 10:32:17

    Dear Lazaraspaste,
    thank you so much for this intriguing review.
    I immediately bought Proof by Seduction as well as This Wicked Gift and Pre-ordered Trial by Desire. I have now read all three stories. I’m so glad you introduced me to Courtney Milan! Hours of Reading Pleasure.
    BTW I think the cover is very True-Bloodish.
    My first thought was: Oh, Vampire Bill and Sookie in a Historical Romance. If you look closely, you see the man on the cover is not Stephen Moyer, but I still think there is a resemblance.

  38. Ariel/Sycorax Pine
    Oct 03, 2010 @ 21:10:58

    Eurgh. There is nothing I hate more in a heroine than “adolescent independence” – thank you so much for giving me a term for this phenomenon. It usually strikes me as distinctly (insidiously) anti-feminist: boldness and autonomy cast as foolishness of the highest order, making us think something along the lines of “oh for goodness sake, stay at home and leave this to the experts,” and thus tricking us into believing that although we “like” spunky heroines, they will never be as good as the heroes are at the actual stuff of adventuring. In fact, they are more likely to introduce new perils with their persistent ass-wittery. It just makes my skin crawl.

    This novel (not to mention this review) sounds excellent – I am off to buy the first one right now.

  39. Authorial Voice: the many hued definitions | Dear Author
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 04:01:58

    […] Milan, author of historical romances such as Trial by Desire: Voice is a distinctive method of writing; it’s the way a writer deploys language to subtly […]

  40. Laura Florand
    Nov 24, 2010 @ 16:43:29

    Just finished this based on your recommendation, and thank you! It was a refreshing book: very romantic but very thoughtful at the same time about what goes into creating a couple. I liked Ned and Kate very much. Kate just keeps her shoulders straight and her chin up no matter what, doesn’t she?

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