I liked this! Almost without reservations! It feels so good to really like a book Alyssa Cole has written. I had some troubles with the first book in this series similar to the ones I’ve had with Reluctant Royals (character chemistry, mostly), but the second two have both been my favorite things by far that she’s written. I think maybe it’s because they’re such hardcore historical fiction, and with this one especially, the focus is almost equally split between historical detail, individual character arcs/growth, and the romance plot. There’s only one sex scene, and it was pretty brief, and I didn’t care at all! That’s not where the meat is here. (These are the only romance novels I’ve read that actually come with a bibliography of sources at the end, and it’s very substantial!)
Our main character is Daniel, who we’ve met in both previous books. Daniel has had a rough go. Born free and training to become a lawyer, Daniel fell in love with Elle (the protagonist from book one) from a young age, and was extremely hurt when she turned down his marriage proposal, ending up marrying a white man and going off to become a spy (a thing of which he disapproved). But when he’s captured and sold into slavery by two white men pretending to be abolitionists, his entire outlook on life is questioned. A stubborn man with a bit of an ego, the sudden reversal of everything he’d thought to be true leads Daniel to become depressed, even suicidal, after he’s freed; he believes that everything he touches turns to poison, he trusts no one, and does not believe in the cause for which he fights. He’s extremely angry. I don’t actually think I’ve ever read a romance novel before where the hero had thoughts of suicidal ideation, but he definitely does here, and I found it extremely interesting for her to actually go there. If there is anything I’d have liked for the book to do that it didn’t, I wish there would have been a way to retain some of that darkness towards the end and not have it dissipate almost completely as it does.
His counterpart is Janeta Sanchez, born to a Cuban plantation owner who plucked her mother, a slave, out of the sugar cane fields, bedded her, then married her once his first wife had died. Janeta has been raised to believe that she is special, different from all those who look like her and who work the fields. This is especially enforced by her mother, who didn’t wish her to be looked down on by others. She has infiltrated the Loyal League on behalf of Henry, the white man she has loved forever, and who wishes to join the Sons of the Confederacy (a pre-cursor to the KKK). He’s convinced her that information she passed on to him about the Union soldiers occupying her house is the reason her father is now imprisoned, and she can help get him out by infiltrating the LL. But growing up steeped in a culture supported by slavery, now that she’s out in the world, she’s questioning everything she’s been taught. She’s a really interesting mix of competent, emotionally intelligent badass, and naïve about the real world. And I absolutely loved the way that Cole played it with her emotional growth here. She spends the exact right amount of time on each stage of her de-programming, not coming to things too late, and being really astute about the sometimes devastating things she’s learning that are completely re-writing how she thinks about herself and her place in the world.
And then there’s their romance. They had such good chemistry! Daniel doesn’t trust anyone, and Jeneta is hiding everything. But her genuine compassion, curiosity, and steadiness compels him. And she for the first time is realizing what it looks like when someone really cares for her as she is rather than expecting her to just fit in and conform. I didn’t even mind the keeping secrets thing, which I normally do, because of how it all shakes out. Again, the only thing I really wish could have been a little different is the ending. I think Daniel comes out of his funk a little too easily, and the emotional climax lost some of its impact. I’m not sure how else she could have played it, but it seemed a little too easy.
Still, small complaints when the rest of it was so satisfying.
Read Harder Challenge 2019: An historical romance by an AOC.