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Review: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

heiress What a fascinating, brilliant, challenging historical romance; it features the nicest hero I ever wanted to punch in the snoot.

In order to keep an eye on the safety of her younger sister, Jane Fairfield has to get through more than a year without getting married — harder than that might seem, when you’re the heiress to 100,000 pounds. She’s promised her uncle she’ll marry anyone eligible who asks, so she has to make good and sure no one asks; her method is to take her natural difficulties in conforming and exaggerate them as far as humanly possible. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting, but it works — she’s offensive and ridiculous and everyone mocks her.

Everyone but Oliver Marshall. “It didn’t matter how irritating Miss Fairfield was. Oliver had been on the receiving end of those snide comments one too many times to rejoice in making them.” Oliver and Jane have something in common: neither is the biological child of their official father, and both are accepted into society with reluctance, Oliver only because he’s a duke’s son and Jane because she’s so wealthy. Belligerent and blunt as a child, Oliver has smoothed over his natural inclinations in order to fit in with those who are determined to maintain the status quo, hoping to change the system from within. But he draws the line at laughing at others.

Or does he? Oliver is given a “test” by someone whose political clout he desperately needs, to make sure that “he’ll know his place, and expect everyone to be in theirs.” And to prove that, he’ll have to put Jane Fairfield in her place: “Humiliate her. Hurt her. Teach her her lesson. You know how it’s done; it took you long enough to learn yours.” (Ouch!) Even after guessing Jane’s secret and beginning to admire her intelligence and courage (and genuine attractiveness underneath the hideous gowns she wears), it’s a serious temptation for Oliver. Perhaps not even entirely for the reward — Jane brings back so many bad memories of when he was a victim of bullies:

“She had already been burned. She was afire now. She smiled and laughed and she didn’t care what they thought of her. Oliver wanted to tell himself that he wouldn’t hurt her, that he wasn’t that kind of man. But right now, all he wanted to do was push her so far from him that he never had to see this, never had to hear that low, mocking laughter again.”

This is a hard hero’s journey to read about. Oliver and Jane are actually on the same journey, to their authentic selves, but hers comes more naturally, and without hurting anyone along the way. Oliver’s resistance to letting Jane in his life, even with the most sympathetic reasons, is kind of a romance squelcher. I believed that Oliver appreciated Jane and cared for her, and I loved it when he did some crazy things for her sake, but the book never reached a level of passion for me that would bring it up to 5 stars, despite how much I admired it.

Which was considerably. Although the themes about bullying and nonconformity are similar to Milan’s wonderful Unlocked, it’s not a retread. It would take forever to talk about all the ways I think it’s clever and interesting — I bookmarked about every other page — so I’ll just touch on some:

— Although this story would stand alone just fine, elements from the previous stories are incorporated very well. We can really see how the Oliver of The Governess Affair became this Oliver.

— Jane’s horrible uncle is not a hands-rubbing villain, just a sloppy thinker who means well. (Is there anything more dangerous?)

— Milan uses the time period to great effect. There are fantastic advances in thinking, science, and politics while simultaneously there’s a ferocious old guard clinging to the status quo. (Hmmm… wonder if Milan will ever write a contemporary?)

— Oliver’s situation, though not always perfectly heroic, is very real and relatable. Who hasn’t felt sorry for someone being picked on while simultaneously wanting to get as far away from them as possible? Who hasn’t swallowed something for the sake of a greater goal? Oliver is generally a kind, honorable, decent person, and he has the face the fact that he isn’t being the man he wants to be.

So the book is excellent and the characterizations are wonderful. But I still wanted to punch Oliver in the snoot. :-)

4 1/2 stars.  Incidentally, I was surprised to find several minor editing errors in this; usually Milan’s self-published books are pristine. You can buy it in ebook or paperback here.  (And btw, The Governess Affair is still free for Kindle, and probably at other sites as well.)

 

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