I was lukewarm about the opening book in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. But not about the second book, The Heiress Effect: I love it passionately and with only the tiniest little reservations. I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t stop reading, it’s awesome. (I actually read this quite some time ago, but when I was looking at my ereader I couldn’t remember if I had because sleep deprivation, so ended up reading it all over again.)
Why, you say, is it awesome? Let me tell you, dear reader. Here are our main characters:
Jane Fairfield is stunningly rich but needs to remain unmarried until her epileptic sister Emily comes of age, because her sister’s guardian, in misguided attempts to keep Emily safe, confines her and subjects her to painful medical quackery—which Jane attempts to deflect with bribes and other methods, but to do that, she needs to be in the household. So she deliberately makes herself garish and horrible to repel suitors.
Oliver Marshall is the illegitimate son of a duke (see the prequel novella) who was raised in a loving, hard-working farming family and who desperately wants a political career to address class injustices (the political plot of the novel is the Reform Act of 1867, which increased male suffrage in the UK). To do that, he’s taught himself to fit in with the elite, to swallow their insults and work behind the scenes for incremental change.
Oliver sees what Jane’s doing almost immediately, the first person to do so; but he can’t afford to like her as she is, and she can’t afford to be the kind of political wife he’s looking for.
Also, there is a secondary romance involving Jane’s sister Emily and an Indian man who’s come to England to study law and work for better political treatment of India (this is ten years after what was then known as the Sepoy Mutiny). This is my first little reservation, that this whole plotline may be slightly too easy, but the two of them are very sweet and a lot of the complexities are at least raised, and I figure I’m allowed a little bit of wish-fulfillment in my fiction. (At the epilogue, it’s about twenty years early, historically, for an Indian MP.)
(My second little reservation is that one character is too blatantly Snidely Whiplash. He’s sadly plausible, and I guess everyone else turns out to be at least a bit nuanced, but it feels rather on-the-nose, especially early on.)
So: characters I liked immediately, genuine conflicts, and the thing that really hit a nerve for me: it’s a book about the personal costs of fighting oppression: internalized -isms, learning the dangers of using the master’s tools, and doing what you can with what you have (the part with the grand adventure is what started my waterworks). Oh, and grace notes of female friendship, strong adoptive families, and not magically fixing or shaming people with disabilities, too.
It’s awesome. Go read it.