Tuesday 22 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 141: "Once Upon a Marquess" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 372 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Judith Worth lost everything when her father and eldest brother, Anthony, was convicted on treason. Her father committed suicide in prison, her brother was sentenced to deportation to Australia. Due to complications during the journey, Anthony never arrived at his destination, and is presumed dead. Since losing their wealth and their privileges, Judith has been the sole breadwinner for two of her younger half-siblings; the spoiled, socially challenged and extremely cat obsessed Theresa and her youngest brother Benedict, who she's finally saved up enough money to send to Eton.

Judith has been supporting her family using her skills with clockwork design and through careful saving and scrimping has set aside money for the dowry of both her sisters. Her other sister, Camilla, was taken in by an "uncle", a friend of their father's, who offered to take all the Worth children, except Theresa. At such an ultimatum, all but Camilla refused his "kindness" and as a result, Camilla has been estranged from her family for years and years. Now Judith is worried that the solicitor handling the money may have embezzled it, and she needs help. She has no one to turn to but Christian Trent, the Marquess of Ashford. Her brother's former best friend, the man she once thought she would marry, until he became the man who provided the evidence that condemned her father and brother. She's fairly certain he'll send a trusted servant, and is none to pleased when he eagerly turns up on her door step in person, on the same day her brother comes back from his first term at Eton, clearly badly beaten, swearing never to return.

Christian Trent still loves Judith. He's never been able to forget her, and he's haunted constantly by nightmares about what his actions did to his best friend. While Judith is staunchly loyal to her brother, refusing to believe he could ever have done what he was accused of, Christian instead fears that his guilt was all but certain. Christian acted according to his conscience, but believed Anthony would serve seven years in Australia, and be able to return to his family. Instead he most likely died during the journey. He knows Judith can't possibly forgive him, because he can't really forgive himself, but if there is anything in his power he can do to help her or her siblings, he has to offer it. He and Judith make a deal. If he manages to assist her in making sure her sisters' dowries have been paid to their accounts, he will get to borrow Anthony's journals. Reading them might help him to figure out the reasons Anthony may have acted as he did.

It'll come as no surprise to anyone familiar with romance, that once they start spending time together again, Judith and Christian, despite Judith's anger and bitterness, grow closer once more. Their attraction to each other is built on a mutual understanding of each other's oddness, a shared sense of (very peculiar) humour and a deep abiding affection for the same people. Christian spent most of his school holidays with the Worths and grew to love Judith over several years, never really acting on his feelings out of respect for Anthony. He proposed to Judith at her father's funeral, but she could barely stand to see him and soundly rejected him. No woman has ever compared to her in his memory, and the more time Judith spends in his company, the more her feelings for him reemerge.

This is Courtney Milan's first historical romance in a year and a half, and while she published a contemporary New Adult novel in January, the deadline for Once Upon a Marquess kept being pushed further and further ahead. As the first book of the projected seven-volume (although some will be novellas) Worth saga, this book has a lot of things to set up. Apparently Ms. Milan had a completely different plot in mind initially, but couldn't make it work, had to throw it all out and start over nearly from scratch. I suspect that is why this book is one of her weaker efforts. There is simply too many story lines fighting for attention. Judith is a great heroine - loyal, hard-working, independent and capable. Christian is really not the villain of the story, no matter how much Judith might wish he was. He's clearly suffering from tendencies of what we know know to be OCD, deals with awkward social situations with an often inappropriate and quite strange sense of humour and is plagued by nightmares his mother wants to dim by feeding him laudanum. Their romance should have been the main event here, but it gets a bit lost in all the other plot threads.

There is the treason plot, and Anthony's possible death or disappearance. Judith and Christian discover that there is a mysterious guardian having sworn the solicitor to secrecy about the welfare of her younger siblings. I don't want to spoil anything, but I suspect anyone who's read more than about three books in their entire life can figure out where that thread is going.

The third Worth sister, Camilla, has also disappeared. It turns out that her "uncle" was in no way fit to deal with a moody and distressed teenager and had her shipped off to family friends, who again sent her off and so on. To Judith's great dismay, the reason she's never heard back from any of the letters she sent to her sister is because Camilla never got them. Her cowardly "uncle" just felt it was too awkward to confess what he'd done and hoped no one would ever come looking.

Benedict Worth, the youngest son, has been mercilessly harassed, beaten and bullied at school. No matter how much Judith wants him to return, so he can have the education he's entitled to by birth, he refuses. Their family's treason charge has made him a target and he isn't going to be subjected to years of torture at a school he never particularly wanted to attend in the first place.

There is the friendship between Judith and Daisy, one of her neighbours, who make their hardships easier by making up elaborate stories about the elaborate dishes they are planning to make, the high born guests they're planning to entertain and the luxurious fabrics they dream of dressing themselves in. They never really talk about the things that bother them, keeping things light and frivolous, until Judith's recent difficulties actually make Daisy concerned enough to start demanding details. As a result, their friendship becomes even closer. Daisy is the heroine of the next story in the series, a novella scheduled to come out some time in January.

Lastly, there's the biggest problem (to me) in the book - Theresa, the insufferable sister. Like Christian, there is clearly something neurologically atypical about her, and even as a child, she was deemed odd enough that their "uncle" refused to take her in. She really does seem to exist in a world of her own, completely oblivious to all the sacrifices Judith has to make to keep them all housed, clothed and fed, and the hard work she has to do to make money. The only thing she seems interested in, is dragging in more stray cats for the already financially challenged household to support. She's rude, neglectful of her chores, refuses to listen to simple instructions and there doesn't seem to be a single rule she won't gladly and wilfully break. I'm assuming she may be the heroine of some future book, but it's been a long time since I came across a character I so heartily wanted to slap into next week and she's going to need to do some serious growing up to be redeemed as a half-decent supporting character, let alone a protagonist. She was simply odious.

Because there were so many things that had to be covered, and I suspect the whole plot of this book was by necessity a hastily assembled plan B when the first story just didn't work out, Christian and Judith's romance suffered as a result. A sub-par Courtney Milan book, especially after such a long wait, is still cause for celebration. I nonetheless hope that some of the teething problems are now past, and that Daisy's novella, not to mention, Camilla's book, which seem to be the next in line are both stronger and more swoon-worthy than this. And if it were to be revealed, in Camilla's book, that Theresa died from some sort of painful disease before that book even started, so they've already buried her, I will not be upset in the slightest.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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