Had submitted this review for the RITA Reader Challenge over at Smart Bitches, but unfortunately it couldn’t make its way to the site before the conference, so I am posting here for your pleasure!
While reading this novel I quite often imagined it as a motion picture - the descriptions are so poignant and insightful that you can understand and empathize with the characters and easily visualize their environ. This story is simple and intimate and the people inhabiting it are interesting and believable. Courtney Milan does write within the bounds of historical romance, and your damaged heroes are here, however she does elevate character building and motivation through her flawless writing style. When I approach a story, I am not looking for an extraordinary plot and a zillion of twists – au contraire I appreciate a simple, character driven plot. This is exactly what we have here: the hero - an ambitious tradesman engaged in a family revenge and the heroine – member of the branch of the family that he is set against, meet and fall for each other with very little contrivance.
Ash (alpha male alert) is used to getting everything, using his ruthless business acumen and instincts. He does have a haunting past populated with an overzealous mother figure who he failed to understand. However he does not hate women for it (thank you author!), he has a genuine appreciation for women, especially our heroine. He does like Margaret, without a regard for her background, and certainly enjoys puzzling her out. He is a multitude of things: a working man, a family oriented man and a lover of women, and he does also happen to possess the Big Flaw. Yes (reveal of Big Flaw to follow), he has difficulty reading and has never disclosed this to anybody. While some readers would be inclined to say: yea right, I don’t believe this, why wouldn’t he just ask somebody to assist him in learning better? And to them I say: in the time and place and in his current position that would be difficult, it would be more than just embarrassing. So I understood it, even though I didn’t feel like he was undermined in any way by that.
Margaret is smart, beautiful and … currently socially ruined because of the hero’s efforts. She dislikes him but not with a simple kind of hate, because she also feels a liking to the way he treats her at present. In the beginning she cannot quite place him - which is okay since he is a complicated persona - but her instinct aids her along the way. In Ash’s treatment of her she finds out more about her actual personality rather than her society personality. While those two are interlinked, she has not considered before what makes her valuable when her society personality and position is stripped off. And the answer is: a lot. She is quite an interesting and capable person without it, so we don’t witness a character change but rather a character’s change in self-perception.
What I found interesting is that Ash tries to improve Margaret’s self-esteem, which he feels is low because of her stature, when in fact it has been undermined by his ruination of her family. And yet it works for the weirdest reasons. The positive effects of someone’s affection aren’t always straightforward, as long as they are bringing about a change in the person we care for, which I thought was quite an interesting message to the readers.
There is a big overarching theme in the book about family and family relationships. Ash does everything for his brothers, to protect them and win their approval; he cannot be satisfied with their love alone. While that does make him insufferable it is a natural emotion. When you love somebody, including a family member, you do want their approval and you don’t want to exhibit your flaws to them in fear of losing some of their love or respect. Hence I understood his reluctance to share the Big Flaw. If they were a close knit family that wouldn’t be so valid, but Ash has spent years away from his brothers in their formative years and has hence turned his quest to help them now into a quest to also reengage with them. While he has partially done that with Mark, there seems to be a bigger rift between him and the middle brother, Smite. I hope the reasoning for that is addressed in the book dedicated to the middle brother, which is the third in the trilogy.
There are no stereotypes in this story. When the characters meet they stereotype each other, and as they go along with the story they do break those apart and so do we, which feels natural and is facilitated by Ms. Milan’s captivating writing style. The feeling one gets is very visual but not only of the character’s appearance but also of their precise emotional state. The world is not black and white for our heroes and they don’t take the easy way out, which makes the resolution a thousand times more rewarding.