The Duchess War - Guest SSL Book Review

You didn't think you were done hearing from the spectacular Kat von Sass did you? I am happy to report Ms.Von Sass, after her fab SSL Review of Fifty Shades of Grey, has again been inspired to SSL review a book, and I do hope her inspiration continues into the future. Since I don't do much reading other than strange non-fiction things about sex, I think the Orgasm Equality Movement (and this blog) deserve a smart critic willing to give us the nitty gritty on depictions/discussions of female sexual release in novels - particularly romance novels since they are an insanely huge market, and I would think a pretty influential media outlet, for us ladies. So with that I leave you in very good hands.

You might be surprised to learn that I, Kat von Sass, a well-educated and happily married lady, read romance novels. Devour like candy might actually be more accurate. I’m perfectly aware that their descriptions of sex are often implausible at best and revolting at their worst, but that isn’t the payoff for me and if it was, then I’d be reading erotica instead. I love a hot, steamy and romantic sex scene as much as the next girl, but I really just want to see people fall in luuurve. I’d prefer it if their sexual escapades were central to the plot and help with character development – and providing a realistic portrayal of female sexual response would be ideal. It’s a tall order, I know, and one that rarely gets filled. Recently I discovered Smart Bitches, Trashy Books , a group of like-minded ladies whose reviews have helped me find some new authors doing some quality work. They introduced me to The Duchess War by Courtney Milan. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it, and then had to actively restrain myself to keep from emailing Trisha in the middle of the night.

We have a fairly classic set up here: an impoverished heroine, Minnie, with a dark secret and Robert, a duke whose privileged upbringing leaves him scarred. I love that Milan’s characters have other people in their lives – siblings, parents, best friends – but we spend a lot of time getting to the central relationship in this book so there isn’t a whole lot of steamy stuff. Our duke dreams of his lady, wakes up alone and jacks it round about page 65, but we’re in the 120’s before they actually touch each other, and that happens in public. This gets our heroine all hot and bothered and upon returning home she handles her own needs quite realistically. As she pleasures herself she fantasizes about him “plunging” into her, but it’s obviously a fantasy while she provides herself with nipple and clitoral stimulation. There is minimal making out until the wedding, although Minnie stands up to her future mother in law and flat out refuses to avoid sex (to prevent whispers of a shotgun wedding) and baldly states that she wants to have intercourse and so she will. Not a conversation I ever had with my mother-in-law, thank heavens.

And then, the wedding night – oh, the wedding night! It’s well worth hanging in for the preceding 200 pages to get to one of the most realistic scenes of first time sex I have ever seen. Things start out so well, and then… it doesn’t work. It’s uncomfortable and it’s kind of a buzz kill and he doesn’t enjoy it because he knows that she isn’t enjoying it. Our brave girl doesn’t just assume that’s the way it’s supposed to be. She addresses the issue!

“No,” she repeated more gravely. “We were doing it wrong. I know what it’s supposed to feel like, at the end. And what happened for you? It didn’t happen for me.” (p. 211)

A heroine. In a historical romance novel. TOLD THE HERO THAT HE WAS BAD AT SEX. I almost fell out of the bed. But it gets better!

“I know,” he snapped. “God. You don’t have to tell me that. You could barely tolerate the act. You don’t need to rub in the fact that I couldn’t bring my wife to orgasm. I’m well aware of the truth.”

This outburst was met with silence, and Robert let out a shaky breath.

“I’m not trying to criticize,” she finally said. She sounded astoundingly reasonable, under the circumstances, and that made him want to snap at her more. “It’s just – the way we were doing it. It wasn’t ever going to happen for me. And … well, I had rather hoped it would.” (p. 211)

The way they were doing it was straight up Tab A, Slot B, repeat if necessary – in other words, penis in vagina with no other stimulation of any kind. Exactly what you would expect someone who hasn’t ever had sex before to try. They discuss this for a little bit, and she assures him that they are capable to dealing with this problem. And then… SHE OFFERS TO SHOW HIM HOW SHE DOES IT HERSELF. I’ve seen a hero urge his lady to explore herself before, but it has always been at his direction as he ‘introduces’ her to herself, and he usually grabs her hand and puts it where HE wants to see it. That Minnie volunteers the demonstration, and that Robert accepts, is really revolutionary in a genre where women are usually total innocents and men have often acquired their experience in the beds of professional partners.

So Minnie masturbates while Robert watches. Robert loves it. She asks him for some help, and he goes to town on her nipples with his mouth and they both work her clit with their hands. She has an orgasm. He enters her and insists that she keep fingering herself, while he enjoys the extra stimulation that her fingers are giving his penis as well. She comes a second time, and he orgasms after she does and then they get to snuggle and canoodle and bask in the afterglow. They are closer and more emotionally intimate than they were before. As you would be, if you’d expressed your desires to an open and eager to please partner and had a mutually satisfying sexual experience. Mindblowing.

Minnie asks Robert how much experience he’s had, and he admits that he’s a virgin because he chose not to pursue opportunities that were offered.

“I think,” he said carefully, “that given the amount of use I put my left hand to, I really shouldn’t qualify as a virgin. I’ve had scores of sexual experiences. Just… not with other people. I wasn’t saving myself for marriage.”

Just for you. (p.214)

Damn. I love that. In fact, I love the whole thing.

The newlyweds spend a few days in experimentation and not everything works. Fellatio and cunnilingus are well received. Ahem.

And then she’d insisted on trying it – and after a little instruction, trying had turned his cock hard in her mouth, his hands on her shoulders. He gasped as she took his length until he spilled. After that, it had only seemed fair to return the favor. It had taken him a little longer to get the gist of it, but it was worth the effort. (p. 224)

Yes! Learning to give head is worth the effort, for ladies and gents alike! There is more to sex than pounding away!

After that we get less detail about their encounters, but of the three interludes, we are told in the first two that there is a ‘rocking’ motion involved, which could plausibly be providing her with indirect clitoral stimulation and she does reach orgasm. The third time he does not stimulate her clit, she does not have an orgasm, and he tries to apologize afterwards. It sounds kind of shitty but it’s really a sweet scene, and she knows perfectly well that she can handle herself but obviously chose not to.

I love that these characters don’t know what they’re doing. I love that they’re not afraid to talk about it. I love that they are brave enough to offer instruction and have the experience to know what they need and how they want it. I love that they aren’t afraid to talk about masturbation. What an amazingly positive and realistic portrayal of female sexual response that demonstrates the payoff of speaking up without being preachy.

Milan’s other books also offer masturbation and communicative sex, but none that I have read so far have addressed the issue as plainly as this. The Duchess War is the first of The Brothers Sinister series, although there is a prequel that I haven’t yet read. I’m looking forward to reading them all, because this book has certainly earned all five vulvas.
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  1. Oh I totally agree with the HOLY FUCK DID ALL THIS HAPPEN sentiment. This was the most refreshing sexual intimacy I've read in any romance. Milan is one of a kind.

    1. True, true. We're lucky to have someone like her writing progressive romance novels that are also a good read.