By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
The first time I read this, I loved it. This time, though, I read it on the heels of re-reading Milan's Turner trilogy, and in my opinion, The Duchess War isn't quite as strong as those books. Courtney Milan can always be counted upon to write a smart, well-plotted story with complex, compelling characters, and this book is no exception... It just didn't hit my sweet spot as hard as Milan's books usually do.
Wilhelmina "Minnie" Pursling, aka Minerva Lane, is living a life of quiet desperation in Victorian Leicester. She was a chess prodigy in childhood and, at her father's urging, masqueraded as a boy so that she could compete in elite international competitions. Her life unraveled at 12, when her father was arrested for fraud and inexplicably blamed her for his misdeeds at his public trial. (This part of the backstory never really made much sense to me; one of the problems I had with the story.) Long story short, the crowd turned on Minerva, actually stoning her like a righteous mob, leaving her permanently scarred and terrified of crowds. Following this ordeal, Minnie changed her identity and now lives in obscurity with two spinster aunts who may or may not be closeted lesbians. She hides her intellectual light under a barrel and aspires only to the respectable security of marriage to a disinterested man. (There's another problem: if Minnie is so smart, I don't think she'd have believed an unhappy marriage would provide the sanctuary she craves.)
Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont, had a childhood as miserable as Minnie's: his father was a cruel and manipulative man who used his position to rape and pillage with impunity. (Robert's best friend is actually his half-brother, the product of his father's rape of a governess; the two boys met at Eton years before.) Robert's mother could not live with his father, so left him even though it meant abandoning Robert, too. Now grown, Robert is determined to right his late father's wrongs: he is in Leicester to make amends to workers at a factory his father ran into the ground decades before.
The dialogue between the characters is sharp and funny (perhaps Courtney Milan's greatest strength), and some of the supporting characters are great fun, especially sequel-bait Sebastian and Violet. That said, the plot of this book wasn't as tight or as plausible as I would have liked: it felt contrived, as if Milan mapped out in advance the way she wanted the story to go, and then had to wrestle characters and events into submission in order to follow the plan.