Thursday 20 May 2021

#CBR13 Book 15: "The Devil Comes Courting" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC granted to me by the author, which has in no way influenced my review. I had also pre-ordered the books many months ago, because Courtney Milan is an auto-buy for me, every time.

Amelia Smith is a Chinese woman raised by English missionaries in China. When she was just a little girl, her birth mother, a woman fleeing during one of the many conflicts in the country, asked Mrs. Acheson, the woman who Amelia has thought of as her mother ever since, to help her child and take care of her. Amelia has faint memories of her birth mother asking her to wait for her, promising to return, but it's been nearly two decades and Amelia has long since given up hope. In her mid-twenties, she has already been widowed once, after a marriage to a much older missionary who worked in India. Now it looks like marriage to another missionary is imminent, although she hasn't actually met the man himself, only his prim and officious mother. Amelia didn't particularly enjoy marriage, and isn't exactly happy about the thought of another one to a complete stranger. So she fairly jumps at the chance at a different fate when an unusual job offer is presented to her.

The alternative fate in question comes thanks to Captain Grayson Hunter, an African American man in Asia to lay cables for an overseas telegraph line. He's told by Amelia's brother that Amelia has a brilliant mind and criminally underestimated potential, so comes to the town where she lives to find her. He doesn't actually know the person he's looking for is a woman at first but doesn't let his initial attraction to Amelia get in the way of his business plans. He finds her beautiful and enthralling, but what he desires most is her mind and the possibility that she may be able to find a way to encode Chinese characters for his telegraph network, a feat no one has yet to achieve. Grayson is used to burying his true emotions and pushing on to make his business plans become a reality, not just in matters of romance and sexual attraction, but also with regards to the serious losses he has suffered so far in his life. A relationship between him and the intriguing Mrs. Smith would be impossible, so he tries his best to ignore their obvious mutual attraction and chemistry. 

The Devil Comes Courting is the third full novel in The Worth Saga, published a full three years after the second novel in the series, After the Wedding. The Worth family, who we first meet in Once Upon a Marquess are mostly side-lined in this story, which focuses on Captain Grayson Hunter, brother of the hero in After the Wedding, and his ambitious plans to establish a world-spanning telegraph network. Unfortunately, most of the people he laid the initial plans with, including two of his brothers, are now dead and Grayson suffers terribly from survivor's guilt. We do have a member of the Worth family as a secondary character in the story - young Benedict Worth is now seventeen years old, and has left his home in England, where he was always miserable (your noble father and brother being convicted of treason will make life a lot less fun). He is now working for Captain Hunter under the pretense of looking for his sister Theresa, who ran off to Asia many years ago in search of their previously unheard-of half-sister. He doesn't feel like he can return to Europe until he has exhausted his search, so he diligently looks (but not too hard) for his sister in every port they come to. Captain Hunter assigns him to be Mrs. Smith's liaison in Shanghai and the two strike up a close friendship.

In her afterword, Ms. Milan says that this is the novel she structured her entire series to centre around. That probably explains why neither Once Upon a Marquess nor After the Wedding, the two first books in the series, felt entirely up to her gold standard of historical romance writing. However, I would gladly take ten slightly underwhelming (but still good) romances if the result I get is this masterpiece of a novel. Apparently, it's her longest novel yet, clocking in at over 400 pages. It doesn't feel long at all, the pages just fly by and both Amelia and Grayson are such amazing protagonists to spend time with, so you don't even mind (too much) that for much of the story they are separated and often on the other side of the world from one another. Grayson spends a lot of his time on ships, getting telegraphic cable pulled across the ocean floor. Amelia is stuck in Shanghai, trying to puzzle out a way to encode Chinese for the telegraph, since Grayson's dream is that the telegraph should make communication available for everyone, both in the interior of China and around the world. 

One of the obstacles in the way of their telegraphic empire is, in fact, to convince Chinese officials to allow telegraph lines within China, not exactly an easy task when the Chinese (pretty rightfully, in many cases) saw foreigners as barbarians and had two European-caused wars in their recent past to make the animosity towards outsiders even greater. Luckily, both Amelia and Grayson are brilliant and driven and work diligently both together and apart to achieve their goals, which means they have both professional and personal triumphs to celebrate by the end of the book.

There are so many issues covered in this book, so much interesting and unusual history explored and I'm not going to lie, I cried several times, both sad and happy, moved tears. Amelia and Grayson are impossible not to love, both separate and together, and they've both been through a lot throughout their lives. Amelia, already separated from her birth family and believing them to be lost forever, comes to realise several difficult truths about her new adopted family that forces her to reassess entirely who she believed herself to be and what she's going to do with her life going forward. Grayson, as I mentioned earlier, suffers terribly from survivor's guilt and believes that his surviving family, especially his mother, only sees his dead brothers and laments their deaths whenever he's around. So he ignores his family's frequent requests that he visit them in the States and spends most of his time away, laying telegraph cables. He believes he may finally find some peace and satisfaction if he finishes what he and his dead brothers started, and is prepared to go without close personal relationships or affection until that dream is achieved.

Courtney Milan is my favourite historical romance writer currently working. Every time she releases a new book, it's a treat, and this book just blew me away with how good it was. It almost rivals my absolutely favourite of her books, The Suffragette Scandal. Once I reread it, who knows, it may even overtake it? I'm only sorry that my hectic personal life and struggles with depression and executive dysfunction mean it has taken me so long to review the book. This should be read by absolutely everyone - you don't even need to have read anything by Milan before, it works marvelously on its own. This will clearly be in my top 10 at the end of the year. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm really not a fan of the continued tradition of "find a stock image of a woman in a wedding dress and then colour it in with any colour required to make a period-style dress, sort of" on these covers, at least this one is better than whatever was going on with After the Wedding, which might be the worst cover on any Courtney Milan novel ever. There's also the fact that Asian protagonists feature front and centre on romance covers, so yay for that, no matter how anachronistic the dress she's wearing is. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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