Review of “A Prince on Paper” (Reluctant Royals #3) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Prince on Paper. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062685582 | 377 pages | Contemporary Romance

3 stars

A Prince on Paper has a lot of great ideas, but it is one of those books where it feels like the ideas all got jumbled up in execution. I found the setup appealing, with its setup that feels just slightly reminiscent of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (whether that was Cole’s intent is uncertain, since the characters first made appeared in book one of the series, A Princess in Theory, which came out in 2017, and was likely in development for a while prior).

And the characters themselves are very likable and complex. Nya is dealing with a lot with her father in prison following his traitorous actions in A Princess in Theory, and Johan, behind his playboy facade, is deeply concerned about his younger brother and also dealt with loss in his past due to his mother’s death.

However, while the two of them being thrown together provided amusement at first, I found my investment in their potential as a couple flagging as the story grew more and more confusing. Ultimately, I found myself skimming more than actually reading, because the romance, especially once it hit the Big Misunderstanding, did not feel well executed.

However, I really appreciated the subplot surrounding Johan’s sibling, Lukas coming out as non-binary, and especially the discussion around the issue of proper pronouns not just in English but in other languages too, as well as promoting awareness and compassion for non-binary people. I hope that, given that Cole has announced plans for a spinoff series set in the same world, that that means Lukas will get their own book.

In summary, this book seems to have the same issue that the other two novels in the series had, of being poor executions of promising ideas, as well as trying to do a little too much, to the point of neglecting to make the central romance convincing, a problem which did not plague the novellas, due to their shorter length. However, this series is still fun and has great characters (the strongest part of the series overall), and I would still recommend them to those looking for diverse and fun contemporaries.

Review of “An Unconditional Freedom” (Loyal League #3) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. An Unconditonal Freedom. New York: Kensington, 2019.

Paperback | $15.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1496707482 | 270 pages | Historical Romance

5 stars

Alyssa Cole concludes her Loyal Leagues series as strongly as she began it with An Unconditonal Freedom. And from a personal standpoint, I find this one to be my favorite of the series, due to the personal growth of both hero and heroine.

Daniel intrigued me from his initial appearance in book one, and I was moved by the exploration of his trauma of being sold into slavery and vengeance motivating his actions. Cole also demonstrates the poignant parallels between the dark experiences of slaves in this era and the modern day crimes against African Americans which she spoke about as influences in her author’s note.

As for Janeta, I applaud Cole for writing a heroine with such an interesting conflict. Amid a lot of the recent discourse about historical slave/master “relationships” (like that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings), it’s fascinating to have a story that looks at the complex experience of a child of such a union, being brainwashed to believe that slavery for others is right and that she and her mother are the exception (while also experiencing a phenomenon of not truly belonging), then progressing through her experiences working with the Loyal League.

Cole’s historical research is on point as always, and I came away from this book intrigued at the role Europe played in the Civil War. It is usually talked about as purely a conflict that impacted the U.S., so it was cool to see it in context of the wider world as well.

This conclusion to the series is, in short, absolutely wonderful. I would recommend it to any fan of historical romances rich in both historical research and a message that resonates today.

Top 10 Romances by Authors of Color (A Personal List)

Another year, and once again we have more proof how little the romance industry has progressed, first with the release of The Ripped Bodice third annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance survey, and more recently with the release of the RITA finalists, which are, once again overwhelmingly white, and while there are a couple finalists of color, Black authors in particular are once again snubbed. And, as is often the case when race comes up, while some are compassionate allies, others are…not. Claiming not to be racist, they say such things like “I don’t see color,” and I don’t care if someone  is black, red, blue, purple, etc.” (I greatly appreciate Eva Leigh’s takedown of the latter defense in particular).

Therefore, wanting to write about this whole situation, but being aware that I may not have a lot of the information, due to a lot of it being insider Romance Writers of America organizational stuff that I am only getting snippets of secondhand, I made a compromise and decided to shout out my favorite books by authors of color.

So, without further ado, and not (entirely) in any particular order, here are my favorite reads by authors of color:

  1. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018): Obviously, this one would be on the list. And Helen Hoang said on Twitter that she didn’t enter, due to her awareness of the  broken RITAs judging system, and how it favored some POC over others. But regardless, it is still my (and many others’, I’m sure) personal favorite of last year. Despite having a premise that could have easily put me off, it captured the perfect balance of steamy and sweet for me, and Michael and Stella have one of the healthiest, most nurturing relationships in romance I’ve ever read.
  2. Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (2019): I’ve been dying to read more f/f, and despite it being only a novella, this satisfied my craving completely. While the main Reluctant Royals books have fallen a little short of expectations for me, this one was beautiful, and hit all the right notes as a second chance love story.
  3. The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory (2018): I had some issues with the element of miscommunication in her prior book, but The Proposal hit it out of the park for me. I loved the emotional journey that Nik goes on toward letting herself be loved, especially after being with a partner who was emotionally abusive,  and Carlos for being such a great, supportive hero from the beginning.
  4. Her Perfect Affair by Priscilla Oliveras (2018): I was psyched when Priscilla’s first book double finaled last year, and that was part of why I ended up checking out her work. But I personally feel like this one is better than the first, although I may be biased due to the librarian heroine and the adorable hero. It has a situation that I did not expect to love, but
  5. Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins (2016): My first Beverly Jenkins book and my personal favorite of her Old West/“Rhine Trilogy,” I loved Forbidden for its captivating romance while dealing with difficult topics like race relations and Passing.
  6. Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (2018): Asexual representation is lacking, particularly in traditional publishing, and I was glad to see this one get some love last year, especially since I first heard about it through author Mackenzi Lee’s Pride Month recommendations video. I love how it deals  with navigating how to have a relationship as a asexual person, as well as touching on the pressures that Black people in America face, having to work twice as hard to prove themselves academically and professionally.
  7. I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo (2017): This is  an adorable book that put a fun spin on a premise that’s been done before: using tips from Korean dramas to impress the guy you like. And while the romance was cute, “flailures” and all, the best part about this (and a Maurene Goo book, in general) is seeing the parent-child relationships she crafts. The heroine and her father becoming closer through their shared love of K-Dramas is so sweet.  
  8. Pride by Ibi Zoboi (2018): While I’ve seen mixed reviews of this YA Pride and Prejudice retelling, I enjoyed this one. My criteria for an Austen retelling is a mix of capturing the spirit of the book, while adding something new, and Ibi Zoboi does so in transplanting the story to present-day Brooklyn, and discussing the issue of gentrification.
  9. The Forbidden Hearts series by Alisha Rai (2017-18): This series was life changing in the best way. I’m not normally a fan of super-steamy books, but I loved the way the romance in these books was just as much about the characters’ emotional bond with one another as it was about their sexual desire. And the series also beautifully develops family relationships that I could get invested in just as much as the love relationships, and while I can sometimes find that some authors focus too much on one and leave something wanting with the author, I felt Alisha Rai captured the perfect balance of the two here.
  10. The Loyal League series by Alyssa Cole (2016-19): I admit, I’m cheating on this one, as I haven’t read book 3 yet, and I don’t know for sure when I’ll get to it. But the first two books are amazing, and I love the beautiful relationships that arise between the two couples from working together in high-pressure situations.

Review of “Once Ghosted, Twice Shy” (Renegade Royals 2.5) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. Once Ghosted, Twice Shy. New York: Avon Impulse, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062931870 | 144 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Despite not being massively wowed by the Reluctant Royals series to date, I was super excited for the release of this novella, in part because I really enjoyed Likotsi’s character, but also because I was happy to see more f/f romance from a traditional publisher. And I was truly blown away. While I could definitely see ways that this story could have been fleshed out to be a bit longer (and definitely wanted it, because Fab and Likotsi’s relationship is amazing), I did like that it portrayed a beautiful love story between two black queer women, providing some intersectionality as well.

While I was initially skeptical when I saw the dual timeline setup, given that I had seen this attempted in novellas before (and even full novels) with mixed results, I really liked it in this one, getting a sense for how their past fling had potential and the reason it ended in the past, and seeing them reunite and address their lingering feelings and the reason Fab ended up breaking it off in the present. Both of them are incredibly sympathetic, and I enjoyed that they had a dynamic where, even though things did end on a bad note, when they reunited, they did not try to deny the feelings that still existed between them.

And while it is more subtle, I did like how the story touched on some of the issues facing black people today, through the explanation of Fab’s family situation. And I found it wonderful that Likotsi offered to help, regardless of how things worked out between them in the end.

This was a delightful palate cleansing novella, and one that has me anticipating more in the series. I would recommend this book to fans of black and/or queer romance.

Review of “A Hope Divided” (Loyal League #2) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Hope Divided. New York: Kensington, 2017.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1496707468 | 266 pages | Historical Romance 

4.5 stars

A Hope Divided is another utterly delightful installment in the Loyal League series, and I’m now even more excited for the release of book three in just a few days. I love how Alyssa Cole is once again stripping back the layers of what we know about the Civil War, and focusing on the roles people played as spies for the Union.

Marlie and Ewan are such wonderful characters. I love how the precarious position of a free black woman during this time period was conveyed through Marlie, as well as Ewan’s compassion for those who are enslaved. I loved that, even though there were dangers to them being together, what bonded them was their shared love of science and philosophy, and their dedication to the Union Cause.

My one complaint that it was a bit too short, and I felt like the ending could have been fleshed out a bit more. I also just really wanted more story, because I was sad when it was over, because I basically devoured the book.

I would definitely recommend this to someone who wants something a little different in terms of historical romance. Rich in historical detail and with compelling, relatable characters, it is truly a great read.

Review of “Hamilton’s Battalion” by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole

Lerner, Rose, et. al. Hamilton’s Battalion. [United States]: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1977530691 | 346 pages | Historical Romance

5 stars

While I rarely rate novellas in anthologies individually, this is one of those rare collections where each story was so uniquely layered, that it deserves a collective 5-star rating. I also give the authors props for taking a story motivated by some of the less-than-wonderful events going on in our country at the time the stories were written and expanding the fervor generated by the entertaining and politically conscious musical, Hamilton, writing the long-forgotten stories inspired by people during the Revolution that don’t fit the traditionally white, heterosexual male narrative.

Rose Lerner’s “Promised Land” is lovely in terms of how it tackles the issue of a Jewish person’s identity in the context of their country, given the way Britain has not allowed them citizenship. It was beautiful to see Nathaniel and Rachel, an estranged married couple whose issues are rooted in religious difference to an extent, navigate not only what led to their separation, but finding their place in the new country of the United States.

“The Pursuit Of…” by Courtney Milan strikes the perfect balance between being funny and conveying an impactful message. I loved the cheese, both the literal variety and some of the more romantic sort, while it also touched on John’s family’s experience as slaves, ending with an optimistic ending not only for him and Henry, but for the others as well, that feels completely believable.

I was most excited for “That Could Be Enough” by Alyssa Cole, as I was dying to read an f/f historical, and like the others in this collection, it did not disappoint. I love how this tied the other stories together, following Mercy, who played a peripheral role in the other two stories. And it was nice to read a story where the community surrounding her and Andromeda was more or less accepting of their relationship, with Mrs. Hamilton being a wonderful supporting character in this one.

I would recommend this one to fans of Hamilton and the American Revolution setting.

Review of “A Duke by Default” (Reluctant Royals #2) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Duke by Default. New York: Avon Books, 2018. 

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062685568| 376 pages | Contemporary Romance

3 stars

I wanted to love this book. Yes, I was initially annoyed by the fact that dukes now appeared to be invading contemporaries, but the blurb he didn’t appear to be just another rich playboy made me give it another chance.

And the first half of the book was promising. It has a lovely slow-burn romance rife with tension, and both Tav and Portia are wonderful characters. Despite not being likable in the first book in the series, A Princess in Theory, I liked how she was trying to turn over a new leaf and not engage in some of the behaviors that made her a hot mess. And I found Tav’s story heartwarming, especially getting to know his Chilean refugee mother, and how her story is informed by current world issues without beating the reader over the head with it. The stellar front half culminates in a lovely library scene in which Portia finds out about the identity of Tav’s father, leading to an reference exchange with the librarian where she goes looking for info, that also contains a nod to the romance industry and its plethora of dukes, eliciting one of many laughs from me.

However, the second half, bringing about Tav’s “duke lessons” sent the story downhill for me. Not only is he the illegitimate son of a dukedom that has already passed to a legitimate distant relation, so he couldn’t inherit under any circumstances, but he was given the title Duke of Edinburgh. As in Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. I can normally let some more obscure real life titles slide, but considering the public profile of not only prince Philip, but the entire Royal Family, as well as the fact that the Queen makes an appearance towards the end of the book, it seems like a ridiculous thing for Cole to miss, especially since she refers to the dukedom as “the Royal Dukedom of Edinburgh” at times. Additionally, I found it a bit ridiculous that she tried to pass off the cousin as a villain, when he has every right to be upset. I might have been fine with this gender-swapped Princess Diaries plot if there had been a reveal to confirm he was actually legitimate and born to a secret marriage, or if Cole had followed her own example from the previous book and set the action in a fictional country so she could make her own rules.

On the whole, I still think fans of romance will like this book, especially if they’re fans of both historical and contemporary, and aren’t too hung up on the legalities and protocols surrounding the aristocracy, or can avoid picturing Prince Philip every time they see the words “Duke of Edinburgh.” However, for those who are, I would approach this book with caution.

Review of “A Princess in Theory” (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Princess in Theory. New York: Avon Books, 2018 ISBN-13: 978-0-06-268554-4, $7.99 USD. 

4 stars

A Princess in Theory is overall a great book, but not without its flaws. While I felt like the first half of the book was well-done, establishing who Ledi and Thabiso are and building the relationship between them, once it hits the middle, the book does fall flat slightly. I feel the mystery element as far as what was going on with Ledi’s parents and the mysterious illness was compelling, but the story ended with some unanswered questions. And despite there being a major reveal at the halfway point for Ledi, I didn’t feel like that or how it impacts her relationship with Thabiso going forward, is properly addressed, even though the premise is that she’s his betrothed, and his family intend to honor it by the end, despite entertaining other options. While I understand that the characters have more modern notions of romance, given the subgenre, I still wanted more closure there.

However, I did really like Ledi and Thabiso, and how their characters are written contrary to expectations of both their character types and the popular hero and heroine types in romance. Thabiso does kind of have a bit of a sense of entitlement, due to his upbringing as royalty, but he is definitely a sweet guy at his core, and the opposite of the typical alpha hero (one particularly fun, meta moment is when he mentions sneaking his mother’s Mills & Boon books).  Ledi is very different from the nerdy, quiet characters you stereotypically think of in people in STEM fields, and I like that there is equal focus put on her relationship with the sometimes problematic relationship with her best friend as there is on her professional life and her developing romance with Thabiso. The character are also complemented by great world-building through the development of the Thesoloian religion and culture, which only enriches this story.

Review of “An Extraordinary Union” (The Loyal League #1) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. The Extraordinary Union. New York: Kensington Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-4967-0744-4. Print List Price: $15.00.

5 stars

This was a book I never expected to love. I was always interested in stories beyond those of “Regency dukes and viscounts” (just as Cole expresses in her Author’s Note, 257), and in stories with more colorful casts, but as I have expressed numerous times, I have been reluctant to read many American romances, and my one attempt in reading Beverly Jenkins’ Forbidden ended with disinterest, due to the Old West setting. I did not expect this to be any different, as it was set in the South, and that is not one of my favorite settings either.

But the characters and the concept quickly won me over. I sympathized with Elle every step of the way, as she had to pretend she is mute, and take abuse from Susie in order to fulfill her mission. And Malcolm is a great hero as well, who has respect for Elle. I didn’t know how it would be possible for them to be together, given the time period, and I found the ending to be realistic, yet satisfying.

I also love that Cole did not shy away from depicting the racial issues of the time. We see how badly the slaves are treated, in a time when they were considered only partially human, and it’s fascinating to read this and reflect on how far we’ve come…but also how far we have to go to heal the wounds of the Civil War.