I was not pleased that the first book in this series didn’t really click with me. So many people enjoyed it! I wanted in on the party. But something about the romance between the MCs didn’t gel with me, so I rated it three and a half stars and moved on with my life, hoping that book two would be more my style. And it was! Oh, yay.
Something that I did really appreciate in the first book and that holds true for this one as well is that it’s really good Civil War-era historical fiction. Cole clearly did her research, and the plot and the characters are informed by their historical circumstances. It’s just that with this one I got the added benefit of also thinking the leads had chemistry and their romance felt earned.
Marlie Lynch left her mother’s house at the age of thirteen to live with her white relatives. Her white father died, and her white sister wanted to take her in and provide for her. Marlie’s mother wanted her to have as much opportunity in her life as possible. But Marlie didn’t want to leave her mother to live with her white relatives, even if they do their best to love her and treat her equally, though she grows to love them and appreciates the privilege that her sheltered circumstances allows her. She uses her mother’s root woman teachings and builds onto them a foundation of science. She has a laboratory in her rooms, where she makes medicine that she both uses as a healer, and sells. With the onset of the war, she and her sister (who are Unionists, Southerners sympathetic to the North) are part of the underground railroad, and frequently make trips to the nearby prisoner of war camp to help the prisoners.
This is where she meets Ewan McCall, a POW who used to be a counterintelligence agent. Over the course of months, they strike up a tentative friendship as Marlie brings him books to read, writing notes in the margins and arguing about philosophy. They both secretly begin crushing pretty hard on each other. And then Ewan escapes, taking up residence in Marlie’s secret room, and their relationship develops from there.
I’m finding it sort of hard to talk about this book, actually, because there were a surprising amount of layers. It’s not just a simple love story. Marlie and Ewan both have their own issues to work through. Marlie has a hard time trusting anyone with her heart, which is still sore from being given away by her mother to a white family who, despite their best intentions, never forget that she’s black. And Ewan is convinced he can’t be trusted. Stemming from his abusive childhood with an alcoholic father who eventually committed suicide, he has kept his emotions under strict control since then, worried that he would also become a monster. Feelings which are exacerbated by his job as a counterintelligence agent, where he tortures people for information, and sleeps well at night afterwards. He can’t reconcile what he sees as the terrible things he’s done, even though he knows doing them helped save people’s lives and furthered a cause he believes in. And then of course, there’s the issue that she’s black and he’s very white. He’s described as having shocking red hair and a darker beard. Like so:
Actually, their romance isn’t always the main focus here, which surprised me. There was a lot of focus on their character arcs individually, and their histories, and a lot of focus as well on the war. The villain here is a Confederate soldier who leads the Home Guard, who are in charge of hunting down deserters and skulkers (people who refuse to join the army for various reasons, including religion like the Quakers, poor whites who can’t afford slaves and don’t want to lose their breadwinners to the war, and people who are Unionists or abolitionists). Cole writes in the author’s note at the end that she was fascinated by stories about people in the South also fighting back in their own ways, which are narratives that don’t get told a lot in stories about the Civil War.
All in all, I’m definitely glad I gave Cole another chance as an author, and I’m even more excited now to read her contemporary royals series that’s starting later this year.