Extended Review: Courtney Milan's Unlocked

I read my first Courtney Milan historical romance back in September. I’d heard good things about the author, but I have to admit (and I want you to picture me shamefaced, here, lots of shame) I’d simply never managed to make my way through my TBR pile to a Milan. But after reading her novel Unclaimed, I became a Courtney-convert. When I came across her novella “Unlocked” in the Kindle bookstore, I knew I was in for a delicious, 99-cent treat. The novella turned to be all that I’d hoped for and more. A story of love gone awry, second chances and new beginnings, there is no word better for this story than transfixing. From the stunning characterizations to the dark moments of reflection and beyond, Milan’s gift shines.

Readers I am not exaggerating when I say that Evan Carlton is one of the most lovable heroes I’ve read in a long time. And you wouldn’t think that he could be when in the first few pages you learn that a decade ago, during his first season, he was a horrible bully to Elaine Warren. His Mean Girl-style torment didn’t just make her the butt of the ton’s jokes and ruin her chance to make a good match, it made her hate herself. That hardly sounds like hero material, am I right? However, Milan realistically transforms Evan from an unlikable boy to a hero with real depth. After that first season, ten years ago, Evan left England and tried to outrun his guilt and self-hatred and finally ended up becoming a mountaineer in the French Alps. There he learned how to be a teammate, a good friend and came to realize that his only hope for finding peace was to apologize to Elaine and try to repair the damage he’d done. So at the start of “Unlocked” he heads home to England, determined to make things right.

The reformed Evan comes to life in a vibrant detail. From the tips of his decidedly functional, but unstylish brown gloves that the younger Evan, a paragon of men’s fashion, would have never worn, to the top of his head as his re-directed ingenuity, which was once used to torment Elaine is now employed to make her smile. Evan seems ready to step off the page — or bring readers into the story, as was the case for me more than once. Milan gives the hero her own gift with words and at several key moments in the story I felt like I was standing right there. In one passage as Evan recounts his journey to an avid audience at a house party, I was transported into the rapt crowd of guests, feeling the bite of the Alpine winds and the terror that Evan faced as he talks about what it was like to climb Mont Blanc.

Milan doesn’t skimp on Elaine’s personality either. The heroine is not interested in forgiving Evan for the damage he’s done. And really, I’m not sure I’d be able to forgive Evan if I were in Elaine’s shoes. In addition to tormenting her and teasing her into becoming a social outcast, thereby ruining her prospects, his relentless habit of poking fun at Elaine has resulted in a total transformation. Now she always shies away from the spotlight, keeping to herself. The word that she uses most often to describe herself is mouse. This transformation is so effective that when Evan almost misses her, even though he’s returned to England for the sole purpose of gaining her forgiveness.

“No wonder he hadn’t seen her at first. She made herself easy to overlook. Her arms were drawn tightly about her waist, as if she could squeeze herself into insignificance. Her gown, a pink so anemic it might have been white, left her muted in the crowd of bright colors. Even the pale color of her hair, twisted into an indifferent chignon, seemed to declare her inconsequential. It was only his own memory that made her stand out.”

But Milan makes sure to show the reader that even when Elaine believes that she is a mouse, she is truly a lion. She faces the mocking of her peers with a smile on her face, and barbs of her own. And although she doesn’t believe that she is brave enough to reach for the happy ending that Evan offers, we the readers know that she will be. She just has to find the challenge worth fighting for, Evan.

Milan has an undeniable gift for capturing the human spirit. Both the hero and heroine have moments where they reveal painful truths about their past. My heart broke when I learned what motivated Evan’s torment all those years ago. And as Elaine comes to love Evan, she blossoms in a way that will speak to any reader who has ever been an ugly duckling. Even Evan’s cousin, a partner in his long-ago crimes who has kept the “game” going in the intervening years, is illustrated as a complete character, neither all good nor all bad.

As the story takes several unexpected turns, I savored each new development. I’d say more but I want you to be just as surprised when you read it. But I will tell you this, my verdict? Get thee to an online bookstore, you have got to read this novella! And make sure to check out the complete *Web Exclusive Review* here.