If I had to pick my number one, favorite romance author, it would be Courtney Milan. No hesitation. She's a lawyer. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She puts lawyer-geek jokes about the Rule Against Perpetuities in her historical romances. She's smart. She's funny. She's basically my hero.
Still, her latest effort, Once Upon a Marquess, didn't quite ring my bell. I'm excited about this new series and its premise, focusing on the five Worth siblings, who used to be aristocracy until their father and brother were convicted of treason. This first book stars the eldest Worth daughter, Judith, who more than anyone has borne the burden of holding the family together since their ruin. She manages to support herself and her siblings -- albeit not in the style to which they are accustomed -- by designing clockworks. She scrapes together enough money to send youngest brother, Benedict, to Eton (where he is mercilessly bullied), and to set aside a small allowance for her two sisters' come-outs. But when the money for her sisters goes missing and Judith's solicitor won't explain what happened, Judith has no option but to call on an old acquaintance who owes her a debt of honor -- none other than Christian Trent, Marquess of Ashford, Judith's ex-intended and the man whose testimony condemned his best friend, Judith's brother Anthony, to transportation from England.
One of the themes of this book that I enjoyed is the idea that even doing the right thing can have irrevocable consequences, as when Christian did the right thing by offering testimony on behalf of the Crown, but as a result lost his best friend, his intended bride, and ruined their family. He is haunted by guilt, particularly since Anthony was lost at sea during the transport to Australia. There are other examples of the same theme, where telling the truth, though right, nevertheless brings pain and consequences. Even a mother's love for her son, and her actions to protect him, have consequences that Christian still wrestles with years into his adulthood. Eventually, we learn that even Anthony's treason, though a crime against England, may have been morally right when viewed from another perspective.
I also enjoyed some of the foibles that make these characters unique. Christian suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or something very like it (and having been diagnosed with OCD myself, I think Milan did a credible job portraying his thought processes). Judith's younger siblings, Theresa (14) and Benedict (12), are very believable characters who behave in age-appropriate ways. Judith has a close friend, Daisy, with an intriguing backstory that will be the subject of a novella due out early next year, and I'm looking forward to that.
Yet this book bothered me in a few important ways. First, while I'm hardly a stickler for historical accuracy, some of the dialogue here was so anachronistic it pulled me out of the story and was very distracting. There were a few scenes between Judith and Christian where Milan was working so hard to make the dialogue clever and sharp that I think she sacrificed verisimilitude in search of a few good one liners, and in my opinion, that was not a good trade.
Second, I have noted before that I have a squick in historical romance where the couple consummates their relationship before the hero is able to commit to the heroine. I don't care whether they have formally committed to each other, so long as he is able to, but if he's engaged to someone else or otherwise unavailable to commit, it isn't honorable to expose his lover to pregnancy and social ruin and all the consequences of extramarital sex in that time period. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Marquess gender-flips that trope, and I found it just as unpalatable when Judith was the seducer, knowing she didn't intend for the relationship with Christian to have a future, and knowing that he did intend to marry her. Their first love scene struck me as deeply dishonest and wrong, and so I couldn't enjoy that part of the story at all.
Finally, the pacing of this novel was a little bit clunky and uneven. I suspect that's because Milan had to use this book to set up, not only Judith and Christian's story, but also to lay the groundwork for the rest of the novels in the series. There were times when the narrative was definitely bogged down by sequel fodder. I also found the ending too hasty and tidy to be fully satisfying, especially since most of the book was spent building certain conflicts (sorry to be vague, but I'm dodging spoilers), and then at the end Christian and Judith each decided, mostly by force of will rather than any external intervention, that those conflicts just weren't as troublesome as they'd initially believed. I understood their change of heart, but it wasn't as satisfying, from this reader's perspective, as an actual external resolution to the problem would have been. Actually fixing the conflicts wouldn't have left much room for sequels, so I get it.