Dear Ms. Milan:
It seems very apt that the last book in the Brothers Sinister series is being promoted with a funny tumblr written by one of its characters, because it feels like a book that sprang from the Internet. I’m honestly not sure if that’s a complaint or a compliment. I’ve admired how previous Milan books work still current themes into historical fiction in a plausible way — the bullying in Unlocked, for example — yet at times I’ve felt like I’m seeing behind the curtain too much. That definitely happened here, yet I was so utterly charmed with the book overall, I’m trying to work out a way in which I can rationalize my discomfort.
If I recall correctly, we first met Frederica Marshall — Free — in The Heiress Effect. Through her brother Oliver’s eyes, she was depicted as young, idealistic and naively fearless, liable to get herself into serious trouble. Then it became clear that she has educated herself well, knows what she’s doing as a champion for social justice, and is perfectly willing to get into trouble for the good of her cause. The Free of this story, set ten years later, hasn’t changed much: she’s now the editor of the Women’s Free Press, and a investigate reporter. (She’s in a privileged position to do this, as the sister of an MP who’s the brother of a Duke: her undercover work is certainly dangerous and traumatic, but she can count on rescue when she needs it.) Her visibility makes her a constant target for hate, and she’s no longer fearless, but she conquers her fear by thinking about the agoraphobic woman she was named for. (See The Governess Affair.)
Free is approached by Edward Clark who, unbeknownst to her, is the presumed-dead brother of a ruling class man who’s been harassing her. Edward’s primary goal is to watch out for an old friend also targeted by his brother, Free’s employee Stephen Shaugnessy. (Author of the satirical “Ask a Man” column.) But he’s also very attracted to Free, and soon discovers she needs his specialized assistance even more than Stephen does. The traditional hero for an idealistic heroine is a cynical bad boy, and unusually for this series, that’s what we get in Edward. He’s a liar, a forger, and a thief; as he pointedly comments to Free’s brother Oliver, “Keep your brotherhood of left-handed do-gooders, Marshall. Your sister needs a man who is actually sinister.” Free, who is very much nobody’s fool, takes some time to trust Edward, but once she does, her trust is absolute and warranted:
His mouth was hard and desperate, lips opening to hers. The unshaven stubble on his cheeks brushed her. It made the kiss all that more complex — so sweet, so lovely. She’d wanted this — wanted him — for weeks, and now she didn’t need to hold back.
Still, she set one hand on his chest and gave a light push. “Wait.”
He stopped instantly, pulling away. “What is it?”
She laugh and dropped her voice to mimic his. “‘A trustworthy man would never do this.’ Oh, yes, Mr. Clark. Look how untrustworthy you are. You stopped kissing me the instant I asked you to do it.”
Edward’s cynicism is based on a very hard life, and he’s particularly contemptuous of do-gooders, because his own attempts in that line failed so spectacularly.
“… you’re delusional if you think you can accomplish anything. You’re pitting yourself against an institution that is older than our country, Miss Marshall. It’s so old that we rarely even need speak of it. Rage all you want, Miss Marshall, but you’ll have more success emptying the Thames with a thimble.”
He touched a finger to his forehead in mock salute, as if tipping a hat. As if she’d just departed the land of reality, and he wished her a pleasant journey.
“You’re right about all of that. If history is any guide, it will take years — decades, perhaps — before women get the vote. As for the rest of it, I imagine that any woman who manages to stand out will be a target for abuse. She always is.”
His eyes crinkled in confusion.
“What I don’t understand it why you think you need to lecture me about this all. I run a newspaper for women. Do you imagine that nobody has ever written to me to explain precisely what you just said? […] Do you suppose I’ve never been told that I’m upset because I am menstruating? That I would calm down if only some man would put a child in my belly? Usually, the person writing offers to help out with that very task. […] Do you think I don’t know that the only tool I have is my thimble? I’m the one wielding it. I know.”
Free explains to Edward that her work is about women, not about men, and that what he sees as a futile emptying of the Thames, she sees as watering flowers and making them bloom. I wish I could quote this entire scene, because it’s so wise and lovely. And it sets the stage for a tender romance. Free is too smart to give in to her initial attraction to the unscrupulous Edward, but as time goes on she realizes that he always, always has her back, and she sees that he’s her match:
She could see herself with Mr. Clark at some point in the future — an old married couple sitting on a porch in summer, holding hands and reminiscing over past times.
Do you remember the time you blackmailed me?
Yes, dear. You blackmailed me right back. It was the sweetest thing. I knew then we were meant for each other.
The con-man in Edward is equally thrilled by Free’s intelligence, and the caring person beneath his cynicism is drawn to her positive insights:
“…every time you talk you turn my world upside down.” His smile was tight and weary.
“You’re wrong again. The world started out upside down. I’m just trying to set it right side up.”
“Either way gives me the most astonishing vertigo.”
I loved seeing the experience, intelligence, and bravery of a genuine social activist, a role usually treated with, at best, condescension in romance. Edward is a bit more of a type — the tortured man who doesn’t feel good enough for the heroine — but he’s so sweetly drawn, he doesn’t feel like a cliche. They’re both very appealing, and the yearning between them is a delicious, bittersweet ache. I felt that both begun to act out of character in the second half of the book — Free doing something outrageously foolish, Edward feeling cowed — but I suppose it can be justified as the effects of love. (Though I did find the lack of any discussion about birth control or disease prevention just wrong; Free would be very much aware of these issues.)
I was more bothered by moments that really took me out of the story, like Free’s suggestion for an article, “Won’t someone think of the dukes?” I think the book is very deliberately drawing on current issues for women, particularly online — such as the letters Free mentions above, and the fact that a man has a vicious vendetta against her simply because she refused to be his mistress. This all seems quite plausible. But there are a few places in which the book reads to me like its tumblr account — that is, a modern element being jokingly forced into a Victorian mold. And as with A Kiss for Midwinter and its long discourse on the true nature of the hymen, the story sometimes felt self-conscious. One of Free’s assistants helps by telling them when their writing is “condescending to women who knew the confines of their station better than they did” –I may be wrong, but from what I know of the history of feminism, this seems like wishful thinking.
I did find a rationalization: the book may be a bit of a historical fantasy, but in a genre so filled with disturbing fantasy elements, why not embrace those with a deliberately subversive and feminist slant? But the real truth is, I just liked it tremendously, and so am willing to overlook the parts that I found jarring.
Although there’s still a novella coming — an interracial romance featuring the charming Stephen Shaugnessy (Actual Man) — this has the feel of a series wrap up. Robert finally gets to know his half-brother Oliver’s other family, long a heartfelt wish, and there’s a secondary romance for Jane’s friend Genevieve (now her secretary) and Violet’s lonely niece Amanda (one of Free’s assistants.) The end is a sentimental treat for readers of the series, so although this could stand alone, you’ll probably enjoy it even more if you’ve followed the others. B+