Review: Hamilton’s Battalion

If you follow me on Twitter, you may already have seen me shrieking about Hamilton’s Battalion, a collection of novellas by three of my favorite romance authors. But I’d like now to review it in a more measured fashion, after some days with the text and a mature1 consideration of its merits.

Hamilton's Battalion

Ha! You thought I was going to put an all-capsy shrieky paragraph down here after the cover, didn’t you? You thought all that maTOOR business was setting up a joke, but it wasn’t. That’s just how I say mature, which shows that I am a sophisticate.

The first thing that struck me about Hamilton, the very first time I heard it on NPR First Listen,2, was its fundamental hopefulness about the American experiment. It used a story about America’s past to propose a version of America’s future that felt optimistic and worthwhile and attainable.3 Hamilton’s Battalion is a worthy successor to the musical that inspired it, espousing hope in the project of nation-building without ignoring the failures that inevitably accompany that project. It’s also a darn good on-ramp to the genre for Hamilton fans who are romance newbies.

Let’s get into the novellas!

Second Chance at Love: “Promised Land,” by Rose Lerner

Rachel fled her wifely duties years ago and now fights the British in the disguise of a man; but when her husband is captured as a spy and brought into her camp, she has to face the life she left behind.

Rose Lerner packs a ton into this short romance: Rachel and Nathan have much to blame each other for, and they spend a lot of the story properly talking about where they went wrong with each other, and why. When they eventually reunite, it’s with a new understanding and acceptance of their differences — which is what Rose Lerner excels at, and why she’s one of my faves.

“Promised Land” also talks about religion in this way that I rarely see in fiction. Rachel and Nathan are both Jewish, but Rachel has fallen away from some kinds of religious observance since she left home — by necessity and by desire. As the book goes on, she and Nathan talk about the different practices of faith, and why they matter, and what they want for themselves as Jewish Americans. I cried a lil bit. Don’t judge me.

Road Trip: “The Pursuit of…”, by Courtney Milan

This one’s about a free black soldier who stumbles upon a British officer just as the war is coming to an end. John and Henry wind up traveling together in part because Henry can’t think of anything else to do with himself — he’s deserted his post and would face only disgrace if he went back to his family.

Eh, this was my least favorite of the bunch. I loved the conversations John and Henry had about worth and freedom and espoused vs practiced American values. I just didn’t care for Henry. He’s that chatty nonsense-talking brand of Milan hero that’s never done it for me in her past books, and didn’t do it for me here. But I understand from other reviews that I am in a heavy minority. “The Pursuit of” has a road trip and much discussion of values, and if you like those things you’ll probably like it. I have failed this city.

Chaos Muppet & Order Muppet: “That Could Be Enough,” Alyssa Cole

After years as Eliza Hamilton’s servant, Mercy has seen enough of love to know that she doesn’t want anything to do with it. But she begins to reconsider when her household is visited by a confident, vivacious dressmaker determined to draw Mercy out from the limitations she’s imposed on herself.

I don’t know if unified Muppet theory is the best way to describe this story, actually! What I like about it is similar to what I like about the Jane Eyre / Rochester romance, i.e., the inherent funniness of someone friendly and verbal and external hooking onto someone who holds everything very close to their chest, and then being relentlessly nuts about them, no matter how confusing the unfriendly one finds this. That’s this novella. As a not-un-walls-having person myself, I found it really poignant to watch Mercy discover that all the acceptance she’s been too frightened to ask for was at her fingertips all along. And I loved how reluctantly drawn she is to Andromeda from the first minute they meet. It’s a lovely story with (of course!) a happy ending.

Hamilton’s Battalion is poignant and clear-sighted, but somehow joyous too; a wonderful collection of stories about the unquashed and unquashable potential of our country and its people. (And love, obviously.)

  1. Pronounced maTOOR, naturally
  2. This happened the same day we found out David Cameron fucked a pig, so a p. good day all told.
  3. I maintain that Hamilton, like many historical fictions, is about our time and not its. That doesn’t solve the problem of its ignoring the existence of indigenous peoples who were violently displaced in the name of the American experiment.

Spies and Cons and Really Frank Conversations about Sex

It’s time for another romance novels round-up! I have read some pretty m.f. great ones in the last month, and I bring them all to you for your delectation and delight.

I frequently recommend Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series to romance newbies, particularly ones who are coming to romance from SFF. Her latest book, An Extraordinary Union, maintains everything I love about her earlier work, but this time with spies!

An Extraordinary Union

Elle Burns is a former slave, former staple of the abolitionist circuit, and current spy for the Union. Her eidetic memory makes her a unique asset, and she’s posing as a mute slave in Richmond as she tries to gain intelligence about the Confederacy’s plans. When she finds herself having a legit nice conversation with a visiting Confederate soldier, she starts to question herself but GUESS WHAT Y’ALL. He is not a real Confederate soldier after all, he is ANOTHER SPY.

Cole doesn’t shy away from the fear that dogs Elle’s every step when she’s living as a slave, and she doesn’t elide the horrors of slavery. At the same time, because the reader knows that Elle and Malcolm are going to win and live happily ever after, it doesn’t feel upsetting in the way that most fiction set in this time period (rightfully) does feel. If you (like me) are fed up with the master/slave Nazi/concentration camp victim romances that keep getting published somehow, An Extraordinary Union is a wonderful, and surprisingly fun, antidote.

When I first started reading Ruthie Knox, I feared that her heroines might be too manic pixie dream girly for me. But my fears have always been allayed, and her latest book, Madly, pulls off an array of emotional tricks with casual aplomb.

Madly

Allie and Winston meet by chance, at a bar, and because they both have a lot to get off their chests, they embark on a program of radical honesty with each other. “When you’re ready to mess everything up,” Allie says, “you can practice [being you] on the mailman.” So they become each other’s mailman (plus banging).

Knox sensibly populates her world with relationships other than the central one, so we get to see Allie struggling with being a sister and daughter, and Winston with being a father. They also have sex setbacks, which is vanishingly rare in romance novels: Sometimes the thing they both wanted to try doesn’t work exactly like they were imagining, and they have to put a pin in the sexytimes to talk about feelings or come up with a new plan of (sex) action. It’s refreshing and great, and Knox seamlessly puts the sex scenes in service of their burgeoning relationship. She’s one of my favorite contemporary romance novelists, and this may be her best book yet.

OMG and they talk about how non-penetrative sex is still sex. Allie says, “I want to say fuck you to the whole idea that getting penetrated is the point of the deal, like it’s not sex if there’s not something inside me. I’m inside me. I am.

Next up, I read Cathy Pegau’s Rulebreaker, the story of a woman called Liv who gets involved in a massive con that will get her fifty million credits and a new life. All she has to do is cozy up to the sexy head of a major company….but guess what. Guess what happens.

Rulebreaker

Ding ding ding! That’s right! Liv finds herself falling for Zia, the sexy, competent executive whose secrets she’s supposed to be learning. Rulebreaker is tremendous fun, with an array of shifting loyalties for Liv to sort through as she’s trying to decide where her heart lies. I have a spoilerish gripe, which I will discuss in the next paragraph. Jump down to the next book cover if you want to miss the spoiler!

Okay, are you gone?

Okay. So it turns out that Zia’s company is testing a new air filter? or something? on a bunch of prisoners who’ve volunteered to test this air filter while working in The Mines. Liv discovers that the death rates on these tests are higher than Zia has realized, and that many of the inmates are unwilling participants in the tests. And Zia’s really sorry that she didn’t put a stop to the unethical tests in the first place, before they reached this peak of unethicalness that she didn’t know about. Uh, but, I am not actually fine with love interests who are part of a corporation that’s doing tests on prisoners where one in five of them die? That’s morally disqualifying! And it dimmed my delight in this particular HEA. Like maybe Liv should find someone with equally nice boobs but who didn’t preside over a convict leasing program.

The thing that I am the trash of: Stories where one person has always been told that a quality they possess is Wrong and Bad and they are all messed up about it but then here comes their love interest like “Hey, I think that quality is very nifty; in fact it makes me want to bang you like a screen door in a hurricane.” If you also are the trash of that thing, please allow me to direct your attention to The Lawrence Browne Affair.

So Lawrence Browne is the scion of a terrible family who wants to not be terrible (yay), and he’s got an anxiety disorder (yay), and he’s all cooped up in his drafty miserable stately home trying to do Science (yay), all the while believing that he is Mad. Along comes Georgie Turner, his new secretary, who is secretly on the run from like a London gangster, and who is also the perpetual fuck-up of his family in that he has a penchant for doing things like getting in bad with London gangsters. The book not only features the thing I am the trash of (see above) but also some home renovation, which I always find immensely satisfying in fiction.1

What romance novels have y’all been reading lately?

  1. Not in real life. In real life home renovation seems hideously stressful.

Blood Magic and Apocalypses: A Romance Novels Round-Up

Welp, here it is somehow Friday already, and I do not feel that I have accomplished anything this week. Anyone have good weekend plans? Mine focus heavily on hibernation. In the meantime, here are some romance novels I’ve been reading lately.

Rag and Bone, KJ Charles

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.)

KJ Charles writes about half-and-half straight historical romance novels and creepy magic creepiness romance novels, and I would be hard-pressed to say which genre I prefer. Rag and Bone is in the latter category, a companion novel to her “Charm of Magpies” series. Crispin was raised by a warlock and got into bad habits, but now he has been found by good magic-users, who are trying to teach him to do magic that doesn’t skip on the raggedy edge of necromancy. Unfortunately for him, and for his (secret, cause it’s olden times) lover, a dustman called Ned, there is an old, malevolent force stalking the streets of London.

Rag and Bone is hella creepy — as are all the books in this series: come for the sexytimes, stay for the nightmare-inducing British witchcraft.1 In his warlock days, Crispin cut off a piece of his finger and used the bone to make a pen that writes in his blood and serves as a conduit for his magic. There’s unexplained spontaneous human combustion. There’s the sound of singing, and nobody to do the singing. As always in Charles’s books, you get halfway through the book and can’t imagine how things are going to work out for her characters; but then, of course, they do. This is romance! So knowing that, it’s just fun to watch Charles get her characters into increasingly horrific scrapes, trusting that she’ll also be able to get them back out.

Mixed Signals, Alyssa Cole

The third in Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series, Mixed Signals is best read after the first two — but you should read the first two!2 The basic premise of the series is that solar flares (I think? I’m fuzzy on the science) have put out the lights across America. The chaos is about what you’d expect, and the survivors of the immediate aftermath must find a way to make their lives in an irretrievably altered society. Since this is a combination of two things I love — romance novels and process dystopias — I am obviously in for this.

By the start of Mixed Signals, it is years on from the initial collapse of society, and the country is rebuilding. Maggie Seong was only a kid when the lights went out, and now that she’s heading off to college, there’s been enough progress to where there are, you know, colleges to go to. As Maggie struggles to work out what she wants, her campus faces attacks from Luddite groups who want to undo the progress that everyone has worked so hard to achieve. The central romance (of the friends-to-lovers type) is a little thin, actually, but I didn’t mind because Cole’s worldbuilding is so much fun. I love this series, and I hope Cole keeps thinking of new stories for this world she’s created.

Once upon a Marquess, Courtney Milan

I…didn’t really care for this one. Courtney Milan was one of my first introductions into romance novels, way back in 2012/2013 sort of time, and it was sort of a revelation to me that romance novels could be funny and feminist and great. But I haven’t loved her most recent historicals (her book Trade Me was quite good! with all the negotiating of power dynamics!), and Once upon a Marquess was heavy-handed in the way that’s been frustrating me with Milan lately. Sigh!

It’s particularly sad because Once upon a Marquess is the first in a new series, the kind where each family member gets a story, and I love those. I’ll probably read at least one more in the Worth series before giving up, though.

Listen to the Moon, Rose Lerner

If you have talked to me about romance novels in the last recently, you’ll probably have heard me say, “ROSE LERNER SHOULD BE MORE FAMOUS.” Listen to the Moon is more grist for that opinion mill. The historical world her characters inhabit feels completely lived in, and the obstacles that stand between her protagonists and their happy ending are never contrived.

Listen to the Moon is a particularly fun book because it’s that rarest of beasts, a historical romance between two working-class people. John Toogood is a gentleman’s gentleman who has lost his position through no fault of his own, while Sukey is a maid-of-all-work who drives John mad by settling for good-enough (rather than perfection). Rose Lerner has obviously done extensive research into the ins and outs of being a house servant in the 1800s. This book is a treat on every level.

What about y’all? Read any good romance lately? I need some recommendations for upcoming airplane travel!

  1. Or the other way around! I don’t know your life.
  2. Confession, I cheated and skipped the second one because it was checked out at my library. I don’t recommend this. I followed the plot of Mixed Signals just fine, but I wished I hadn’t missed out on whatever went on in Signal Boost.