Smitten (Review of Courtney Milan’s “Unraveled”)

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Unraveled is what happens when Courtney Milan perfects the historical romance novel. Pardon me, she doesn’t “perfect” it—she bulldozes over tired tropes and constructs something complex and wonderful out of the ruins. After publishing her debut novel in 2010, former law professor Milan has since reinvigorated the genre and won several awards for her work. Her refreshing new approach to the genre has drawn jaded former fans of historical romance back to the realm of ripped bodices and declarations of undying love. Oh, and did I mention most of her books are self-published e-books that usually cost about five bucks on Amazon?

Smite Turner’s tale, Unraveled, ends Milan’s Turner brothers series with all the satisfying goodness of a steaming mug of hot cocoa after a chilly winter day. In this final installment, we finally get to learn more about the mysterious Smite Turner, the younger brother of a duke and the older brother of a renowned scholar.

Unraveled = delicious hot cocoa, if hot cocoa also made me cry.

The characters in this novel surprised me with their depth. No flat caricatures for Milan—each main and secondary character breathed new life in Unraveled, regardless of their past appearances. Smite’s not the emotionless automaton that he seems in the first two Turner books, but his character hasn’t dramatically changed since his scenes in Ash and Mark’s stories, either. Viewed from a new perspective, Smite’s odd reticence and black-and-white view of morality just make sense. He fears intimacy because of his trauma-filled past, not because he’s too proud to hang out with Ash. He values justice over everything because he wants to prevent the starvation and abuse he experienced himself. I’m a huge sucker for well-timed context for old characters in a new setting, and Milan delivered.

Speaking of the Turners, Milan elevates the “brothers” trope to new heights—both in the overall series and Unraveled specifically. As common as “brothers” series are, I’ve never read a romance novel that connects separate stories so well. The Turners each overcome their insane mother’s abuse in different ways, but the full background unfolds throughout the trilogy, finally resolving by the end of Smite’s tale. The realistic, loving, and often painful sibling relationships between Ash, Mark, and Smite kept me coming back for book after book, and they concluded so perfectly in Unraveled.

Milan never overtly compares the hero to a cat, but Smite is a stern but cuddly cat-petter who shies away from being “pet” himself. AKA, this is Smite’s face when he’s not looking at Miranda. A+ implicit analogy.

Not that Ash and Mark Turner aren’t great heroes, but Smite won over my affections within the first few chapters. He’s an odd soul who seems like this gruff, be-wigged magistrate, but actually secretly likes petting cats. (The heroine discovers Smite’s clandestine affection early on, and teases the exalted “Lord Justice” for it.) With his blunt, often tactless quips, Smite reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock—if the sociopathic BBC Holmes actually worried about the consequences of his actions. I love that Milan wrote a hero with honesty rather than ambition, and though Smite had some tough times in his past he isn’t a typical hopeless rake at the beginning of Unraveled.

And then–enter Miranda Darling, a tough young woman who’s known hunger and hardship on the streets of Bristol, just like Smite. One of my favorite qualities of Milan’s books is her examination of class boundaries. So many romance novels only focus on the elite of Regency/Victorian England. (Dukes, check. Viscounts, check. But blacksmiths and seamstresses? Hell no.) In Unraveled, not only did Milan throw a magistrate and a lawbreaker together; she didn’t shy from the realities of Miranda’s life and forget about the socioeconomic gulf between a brother of a duke and the daughter of an actor.

Contrary to what most historical romance novels would have you believe, not everyone in Regency or Victorian England had enough to eat, let alone go to balls every night.
Contrary to what most historical romance novels would have you believe, not everyone in Regency or Victorian England had enough to eat. Milan acknowledges the gap between rich and poor in her books.

The main romance, more than the crime procedural subplot that weaves through the background of the novel, is what made me savor every page. On the surface, Smite and Miranda couldn’t seem more wrong for each other. He’s common-born, but educated and powerful. She was raised by a troupe of penniless actors and has a secret love of danger. However, both characters know hardship and what it means to be alone. They navigate their difficult pasts together; they are not broken, and they admire each other for surviving.

Miranda and Smite have been betrayed and abandoned and hurt, but they don’t just despair. Thankfully, there’s very little bosom-clutching anguish in Unraveled; Smite and Miranda help each other heal, but the magical power of love doesn’t swoop in to save the day either. Of course, Smite and Miranda are flawed so they mess shit up, but at least their love story resembles the meeting of two traumatized souls in real life.

However, they’re not all doom and gloom. Smite and Miranda also had a sweet little inside joke that carried through the book:

“‘Miranda Darling,’ he said in repressive tones that would brook no argument.

So why was it that she heard ‘Miranda, darling,’ instead? Maybe he paused for emphasis. Maybe he paused to indicate a comma. Never had one little punctuation mark mattered so much.”

Finally, I appreciated that Miranda and Smite did something incredibly rare for a romance hero and heroine—they communicated. When faced with a threat of blackmail, the typical romance heroine keeps valuable information from her lover, until the sordid secret bursts forth in a shower of angst and pent-up tension. Milan knew that romance readers have seen that trope a million and one times, so she made Miranda intelligent enough to avoid that trap altogether:

“It seemed to be a matter of basic, common sense. When one is threatened by a shadowy criminal figure, one goes to the magistrate that shares one’s bed rather than the shadowy criminal figure.”

It was SO refreshing—and allowed Smite and Miranda to actually team up in order to foil the main antagonist, instead of worrying about the problem separately.

We read romance novels for the warm and fuzzy feelings at the end, and the final book in the Turner series ultimately felt like a snuggly blanket Milan had knit from some really heartbreaking yarn. I wrapped myself in Unraveled and didn’t surface until I turned the final page and felt the satisfaction all the way down to my toes. I won’t give away the ending—because spoilers—but Smite’s story satisfied me like no other final romance plot has.

[Courtney Milan’s suggested reading order of her books can be found here.]

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