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REVIEW: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

countessDear Ms. Milan,

I believe I’m not alone in being in a serious historical romance funk. Among the readers I talk to, it seems that many of us who have been primarily historical romance fans for years are finding it hard to get excited about the current crop of books. That this malaise is shared by others suggests that the problem is not with the readers, but with the reading material. But I don’t know that this is necessarily true, at least for me, because even when I read what objectively (well, as objectively as a subjective judgement can be) is a perfectly fine historical romance, like The Countess Conspiracy, I remain somewhat unmoved.

Sebastian Malheur and Violet Waterfield have been friends forever, and co-conspirators of a sort for the past several years. They grew up together, and Sebastian stood by Violet during her difficult marriage (which ended with her husband’s death in a fall). Now he’s doing even more for her: for several years now he’s been pretending that Violet’s scientific discoveries are his own. He publishes papers and gives lectures on them, neither of which Violet can do. For one thing, her early attempts to submit her findings on plant reproduction* to scholarly publications were utterly ignored because she’s female. Even if she were to find someone who would publish her work, she would be subject to social approbation, something her very proper mother has drilled into her as a fate worse than death.

* Though it’s not presented in a particularly complex manner, I’m not going to even try to explain too much the nature of Violet’s work, for fear of getting something wrong.

It’s the subject matter of Violet’s research that makes it especially scandalous – her breeding and cross-breeding of various plant species is a shocking topic for delicate Victorian ears and eyes, with its vague but undeniable connection to S-E-X. It’s shocking when Sebastian delivers the lectures, too, but he’s a man, and a charming, rakish one at that, so the shock is more of the salacious “ooh!” variety. Still, Sebastian does receive some social disapproval, and it’s starting to wear on him. Even more wearing is the knowledge that he’s living a lie; he feels like a fraud, and it’s turning his naturally sunny disposition darker.

Sebastian has been in love with Violet for as long as he can remember. She’s a few years older than him, and he trailed after her as a child and then later included her in the “club” he has with his two best friends from school, Robert and Oliver. This detail felt a little false; a woman being included in a social quartet with three men she’s neither married nor related to, in Victorian times, seemed unlikely. But I guess it’s meant to show that Sebastian insists that Violet be included in everything, up to and including Oliver’s bachelor party,  because he adores Violet.

Both Sebastian and Violet have family baggage to deal with, in addition to their own fraught relationship. In Sebastian’s case, his carefree, happy and easy existence is upended by conflict with his older brother (in addition to his angst over the charade with Violet). Benedict is dying of some sort of unspecified heart ailment, and Sebastian is troubled to realize that Benedict doesn’t want to give guardianship of his only  son to his younger brother, preferring a more distant but upright relative. This leads to several discussions between the brothers which cause Sebastian to realize that Benedict has no respect for him, in spite of Sebastian’s supposed scientific accomplishments. Sebastian’s attempts to prove Benedict wrong only make things worse. This conflict was well-done – it felt real and I could understand the difficulty from both POVs; the brothers are just very different in a way that’s pretty much guaranteed to cause resentment.

Violet’s issues are more serious. Her father killed himself, a scandal that had to be hushed up and denied, and which lead to Violet’s mother instituting some very rigid rules for her daughters regarding proper deportment. Violet’s sister Lily takes to the rules with enthusiasm, marrying (happily) and producing an endless stream of children, and generally cleaving to the conventional model of Victorian womanhood with gusto. Violet loves her sister but is jealous of her in some respects; she feels that her only value to Lily is as a helper and fixer when things go wrong.

Her relationship with her mother is even more difficult; Violet resents the rigidity with which she was raised, especially after her father’s death. Though she follows her mother’s rules, she’s keenly aware of how they circumscribed her life during her marriage and how they continue to do so in the present. Further, she is sure that if her mother knew her secret she would turn on her without a second thought. Violet does not feel unconditionally loved by either her mother or her sister; there are rules and regulations attached to their continued approval and support.

It takes Violet a while to realize that this is not the case with Sebastian, and if I had any issue with her, that was it. She really does take him for granted. There’s a closed-off part of her that refuses to acknowledge what’s between them and what could be between them (there are reasons for that, but they aren’t explained for a while and by the time they were I was a bit frustrated with Violet). Also, Violet is portrayed as something of an absent-minded genius, one who isn’t even aware of her surroundings when she really gets going with her work. The latter depiction is a common one for scientists in fiction, and it may even have the ring of truth, but it sort of bugs me. I think it’s often played too broadly, or, as here, used to excuse someone being a bit of an insensitive ass.

Before I learned the deep, dark secret of Violet’s unhappy marriage (which was a bit different than what I’d expected), I also got a little tired of Violet’s interior monologue, which was all about how unlovable she was and how she drove everyone away eventually. Actually, even after Violet’s secrets are revealed, I’m not quite entirely sure how the pieces fit together to make her so self-loathing. I had to chalk it up to Violet’s pain over never really feeling like she could be her true self with the world. (Though in that, I’m not sure she was so unusual for her time and place.)

There’s plenty to like in The Countess Conspiracy. The writing is good. I liked Violet. I liked Sebastian. I liked the (somewhat unusual) role reversal, where he’s the charming, flighty one hiding an unrequited love, and she’s the dark and angsty genius. Still, it added up to a bit less than the sum of its parts for me, and I’m not sure why. Since I can’t find much fault with the book (well, I have found fault, but it’s all minor stuff in the larger scheme of things), I have to conclude that it’s part and parcel with my general historical romance malaise. Sigh.

My grade for The Countess Conspiracy is a straight B.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

17 Comments

  1. Jasmine
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 13:04:14

    I am midway through this book but stopped reading last week (after tearing through the rest of the series) because Violet’s interior monologue annoyed me so much. You’re self-loathing, I get it, can we move on and get on with the story? I’ve been wondering if I should keep reading, I don’t think it’s just that you have historical malaise, I think it’s that these characters have malaise and it makes the book drag. And I’ve loved Milan’s other books, so I definitely don’t have historical problems.

  2. Willaful
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 13:20:43

    I don’t think it’s you. My historical malaise so far only extends to the light and fluffy, which this most definitely isn’t, and I felt the same way. Good book, unquestionably worth a B, but I simply do not get the passionate raves.

  3. leslie
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 13:53:40

    @Willaful: Nor did I.
    Courtney Milan is an auto-buy for me, but I could of easily put this book down without a second thought. I liked many things about the story, but Violet’s inner turmoil and Sebastian’s brother’s nasty attitude went on too long for me and cut into my enjoyment. B-

  4. pamelia
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 14:38:23

    I enjoyed this one a little more than everyone else here because I really felt like this was the most emotionally powerful Milan I’ve read. I really loved her other books too, but they always appeal to me on a more cerebral “isn’t that fascinating” level (I guess you could call it my Spock side) whereas this book just engaged my emotions (or my Captain Kirk side) while at the same time remaining intelligent and well-thought out. I can understand others being frustrated with the late reveal of Violet’s big dark secret, but it worked for me and I was in tears for her by the time the truth was revealed. I was also rather pleased with the way the familial relationships shifted and changed through the book — with Violet’s sister and mother and with Sebastian’s brother.
    I wouldn’t say though that I’m experiencing a downturn in my interest in historicals, but rather an uptick in my contemporary glom tendencies and they are taking up more of my reading time at the moment. I still read both and I’m sure the pendulum will swing back to the historical side eventually.

  5. leftcoaster
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 16:29:30

    I’m another person who has Ms. Milan on auto-buy. I trust her more then I trust most authors, based on the female and male characters she has written in the past, so when it gets angsty it doesn’t bother me at all. I enjoyed this book but found it more problematic then her others. I adored the way she portrayed a scientist and her obsessions and leaps of thought, and it was icing on the cake that the scientist was female. I enjoyed the first half of the book immensely, but I think there was too much going on, and the rush towards the happy ending wasn’t very satisfying to me, nor was the way the marriage drama seemed crammed into the second half. As a female scientist, I felt like her science happy ending was really far fetched for my century, let alone hers.

  6. EGS
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 19:37:26

    Glad I’m not alone in being in a historical romance malaise. My auto-buys have dwindled significantly in the past few years; currently, only Elizabeth Hoyt and Tessa Dare are on the list. Oh Lisa Kleypas, come back to historicals!

    I like Courtney Milan but haven’t gotten into this series yet.

  7. Faye
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 20:05:14

    I loved this one, and I loved Violet. I particularly liked that the trope of emotionally walled-off hero being warmed by the heroine’s true love and open heart was flipped on its head.

    I had a different view of Violet’s relationship with her mother than Jennie did, too. I remember her sister chafing at the Rules (I just want to be happy and open and live in my golden world where everyone loves me, why are you being gloomy) while Violet embraced them and saw them as her mother’s way of protecting her and caring for her.

  8. Ducky
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 21:12:13

    I liked the book but I too found the heroine’s self-loathing too much. I also found it a bit hard to swallow that a smart and educated lady like Violet couldn’t come up with a way to avoid what her husband was putting her through after it became clear that her life was at stake. There were remedies available – not “officially” or legally of course, but still there were ways.

  9. Jennie
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 01:30:46

    @leftcoaster: I think this is a good point, though I accepted it to some degree as romantic fantasy: supposedly with the support of her formidable allies, Violet could somehow be “out” as a lady scientist, but I think we know the reality would have likely been different.

  10. Jennie
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 01:32:54

    @Ducky: That’s a good point, and one I hadn’t thought of. Violet was very much the victim of her husband; aside from knowing that she at least at one point enjoyed sex with him, their relationship was very vague. I did notice that even in her thoughts he was almost always referred to as “her husband” – I can’t remember if his name was ever even mentioned.

  11. Jennie
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 01:45:39

    @pamelia: I did like the resolution with Sebastian’s brother, which I thought was realistic and rather bittersweet, and Violet’s mother’s reaction was unexpected. However. (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER)
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    SPOILER!!!!
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    I was kind of weirded out that I think Violet’s mother confessed to murdering Violet’s husband, and Violet had basically no reaction and then it was never spoken of again? What was THAT about?!

  12. Ducky
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 03:09:20

    @Jennie:
    No, her husband’s name is never once mentioned. I read somewhere that this was deliberate by Milan because as he was basically forcing sex and the resulting disasterous pregnancies on Violet he wasn’t deserving of having a name in the story. Or something like it.

  13. leftcoaster
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 16:20:46

    @Jennie, yeah, I know, I’m down with the romantic fantasy, it’s why I read romance! But I guess the thing is, I have love and my own version of HEA whereas I left a successful academic science career (if success is publishing in top tier journals and having your pick of postdocs) because I just couldn’t deal with the assholes anymore… I walked away from being told I’d be fired if I got pregnant or failed to work 60-70 hrs a week. So in this case, the science fantasy was just too far removed from reality for me to swallow, where I feel like being loved and desired for who you are is not so far removed from the realm of believable fantasy.

    It’s certainly a case of being harder on your favorites, and Ms. Milan is one of just a few that I would call favorite, trusted authors.

  14. interrobanged
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 19:39:13

    I’ve really loved all of Courtney Milan’s other books, so I am not sure why this one just didn’t work for me. Like Ms. Milan, I am a lawyer and have a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering. So this book should have been a LOCK for me if only due to my STEM background. Unfortunately it wasn’t.

    I’m sure we all would like to be loved and understood by a man like Sebastian. But it seemed like Ms. Milan’s tactic to make this book “unique” was to simply reverse the usual tropes. So, instead of the man being difficult, prickly, and emotionally distant, Violet got those traits; and instead of being understanding and flexible, Sebastian got those characteristics. How disappointing.

    Like almost all romance heroes and heroines, these characters suffered from a complete and utter inability to communicate. The majority of their issues revolved around their mutual failures to communicate, and the resolution of those issues only occurred after they successfully communicated. It seems that this failure or inability to communicate is endemic to romance novels; I hate sitting there reading a book and thinking to myself, “Well, why don’t you just SAY THAT FOR GOD’S SAKE THIS IS SO STUPID.” And I did that quite a few times during this book.

    The writing was tight, which was nice. Ms. Milan is always good in that regard, and the science was interesting and correct. So I enjoyed that. The sex was … meh. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood, but usually I find Ms. Milan’s writing quite good in this regard, but this book did nothing for me. 

    The ultimate test of a book for me is whether I want to re-read it later. I won’t be re-reading this one.

  15. Susan Proctor
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 11:14:18

    Jennie, All you said and more. I thought something was off from the first book with this series and after reading this one, I think this story should have been first. Apart from any less than positive comments, Courtney Milan is a wonderful author and I always look forward to her newest book.

  16. Willaful
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 14:25:57

    @Susan Proctor: Oh, I dunno — I really enjoyed the “aha” moment, the surprise that was really not at all surprising, in this one.

  17. Jamie Beck
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 14:57:48

    I’m a day late to this party, but wanted to chime in. I am a huge fan of historical romance, but like many of you, have been getting a bit bored with them. I do love C. Milan’s writing. She creates a lot of layers in her stories and characters, and her voice is distinct and engaging.

    Like Jennie, I had problems with Violet. I never liked the way she treated Sebastian (for 3/4 of the book), and her self-loathing was really overwhelming at times. Objectively, given the way she was treated by her family and husband, I could understand how she would have those moments and doubts, but it did seem to be too extreme…especially considering how adoring Sebastian was from start to finish. I must say, I did LOVE him, which carried me through the parts of the book I didn’t love.

    I think the B rating is fair, but on a relative basis (compared with other historicals I’ve read recently), I’d bump it up to B+ simply because I think her writing/voice is top notch.

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