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.

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.

Two Feminists Read a Romance Novel: The Heiress Effect, Courtney Milan

Last month, my adjunct sister Kate and I both read The Heiress Effect and discussed it back and forth via email in many paragraphs, with an eye to posting a joint review on the blog based on what we both said about it. I have always been jealous of Teresa and Proper Jenny and their joint reviews, so I am constantly trying to get people in my life to do joint reviews with me. And haHA! I finally conned Kate into doing this.

The Heiress Effect (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is about a woman called Jane who is doing her best to be as objectionable to society as she can. A wealthy heiress herself, she’s determined to stay unmarried until her sister Emily reaches her majority, because she is afraid to leave Emily alone with their uncle Titus, who is constantly bringing in scary quack doctors to cure Emily of her seizures. A member of her social circle, the Marquess of Bradenton, secretly makes an offer to Oliver Marshall, an illegitimate brother of a duke who is seeking to gain political power and someday become Prime Minister. If Oliver will orchestrate Jane’s social downfall, Bradenton will throw his support behind Oliver’s pet project of voting reform.

Kate: Okay, so my first thoughts about The Heiress Effect were about Courtney Milan and how some of her stuff fits into the romance genre a la body image. So I know romance novels today have evolved SO MUCH from the 70s, and even the 90s (yes, I mean less rape), but even today chances are that if you pick up a romance one of two things will happen, 1) the heroine is somewhere on the scale of pretty to impossibly gorgeous from start to finish; or 2) there’s an ugly duckling turned swan thing that will happen. Courtney Milan has not held to this formula in her last few books . . . and I like it!

In The Heiress Effect, Jane is tall, plump, not classically beautiful, and Oliver is totally into all of it. I think it’s valuable to have romances that feature heroines with, to quote Lena Dunham, bodies that their readers can “understand.” Another reason I find this valuable (and this happens a lot in The Heiress Effect) is that when Courtney Milan writes from Oliver’s perspective, she shows women some examples of how men might think lovingly or consider beautiful a body more like their own. She makes sex with a tall plump lady sound sexy in this book, and most films and TV shows would not do that. It’s kind of a huge revelation to most of us when a dude or lady likes something about our body that we have been told is disgusting and vile by pretty much all commercials/billboards/store ads ever. It’s liberating and it makes it a lot easier to say, “Fuck you” to anyone who would devalue someone for not conforming to conventional beauty standards, which, you know, most of us don’t.

Jenny: I totally agree with this. A thing that bothers me in romance novels — and something, not coincidentally, that the romance authors I like the best tend to avoid or downplay — is this idea that everyone’s into the same thing. It manifests itself most commonly in the Dazzling Beauty™ whose looks are such that every gentleman at Almack’s drops his monocle and rushes to claim a dance with her. I just don’t buy it. There have been times in my life when I’ve seen a guy at a bar or whatever and been dazzled by his beauty, but on every one of those occasions, someone else I’ve been with has said, “Him? Meh.” And that is because different people are into different things. Some people are into blondes. Some people are into brunettes. Some people are into petite skinny girls. Some people are into tall plump girls. It is a world of variety.

I remember you mentioned that you didn’t love The Duchess War — did you have the same problems with this one as you did with that one?

Kate: On paper, in theory, I love what Courtney Milan does with this book. The snubbed, illegitimate-ish commoner now made ruthless politician and the socially awkward too loud woman as a pair; she has to learn to love herself and then he has to get over being embarrassed by her because fuck society; the two interesting sub-plots where both characters have to learn to trust their own sisters. My problem with the characters as individuals is that Oliver felt too simple to me, and Jane felt too contrived.

Oliver’s obstacle is that he is so single-minded about acquiring power over those who once abused him that he’s willing to do things he knows are wrong and even deny himself the woman he loves. The harm he could do Jane would be social embarrassment, which we already know she’s used to, so when there are scenes with Jane and he’s supposed to sound menacing, like he would really hurt her, I think Milan wants him to seem sexy and dangerous, but he just kind of comes across as an asshole. His conflict with Jane, that she’s too loud and awkward for the future he wants for himself, is so one-note the whole time that when he finally gets over it it felt like it was because it was the end of the novel and the formula works that way, not because the character had really worked through his issues.

Jenny: One thing I think that would have made Oliver’s character and his struggles more interesting is if he were morally compromised to begin with. I enjoyed this about Milan’s previous series — Ash had ditched his brothers as a kid so he was super invested in Saving the Day; that guy in the fortune-telling book was cold-hearted and mean to his brother, etc. — those things felt like real conflicts with stakes. If we’d been able to see how Oliver had made moral compromises to advance his political career in the past, then the threat of him possibly ruining Jane’s life might have felt more real. Because yeah, I agree with you that his conflict was a bit anemic to start with, and I didn’t think it was resolved in a satisfactory way.

And with Jane, I thought that some aspects of her plotline felt inorganic, and other aspects were a lot of fun. Although I did have problems with her and Oliver as a couple, I liked it that Jane could solve her own problems but also felt incredibly relieved to know there was someone who would come help her out. Courtney Milan is obviously writing with a feminist sensibility in a lot of ways, and at times that can be a little heavy-handed. So although I agree that the sudden toppling of all obstacles felt a bit fake, I did enjoy that aspect of Oliver and Jane’s relationship that’s like “You can get by without me but I’ll come if you want someone there.”

Kate: When it comes to Jane, I thought all the things she does and goes through, her social awkwardness, being ridiculed, all of those are things I could relate to, and yet, it felt contrived. At the beginning of the book Jane thinks of her socially awkward pose as something she must do for the sake of her sister because it’s her only means of not getting married. But then she pretty much admits later on that she was just amplifying the things that she felt self-conscious about and that she has essentially trapped herself in this role she’s playing. People do that, they tell themselves stories about themselves, and in this way can trap themselves into playing a role. At the beginning of most romance novels, the heroines are really badly trapped be it by poverty, riches, parentage, evil suitors, etc.. In The Heiress Effect I never felt sure of how dangerous her uncle really was or how dire Jane’s situation actually was because once she found her “inner strength” the message seemed to be, “It was all in my head and I can easily put this to rights because I am Jane, hear me roar!” I liked what I think Milan was trying to do, in terms of showing how we sometimes get trapped in our own neurosis, and it also felt like way too much.

In terms of them as a couple, I was pretty unmoved by their dynamic. I feel bad writing that. I liked the book more than I’m letting on in this commentary! I liked the way Milan played with the reader, at first making us think that it was Jane who’s desperate and has to be saved by Oliver, and then once she’s got her stuff together we focus on how it’s actually Oliver who arguably has the bigger emotional obstacles to overcome. But that means that halfway into the book Oliver decides she’s the best, but she’s just not for him. Oliver pretty much knew he loved her, and Jane knew it as well, so the whole “WILL THEY EVER CONFESS THEIR LOVE FOR ONE ANOTHER”, which for me is a pretty integral part of a romance novel, was really lukewarm, and their chemistry as a couple didn’t make up for it to me.

Jenny: I mostly agree with this. One thing I did like, though, about their dynamic as a couple (this is something Courtney Milan does pretty consistently) is the way the heroine always sees in the hero the qualities he likes best about himself that society doesn’t necessarily take notice of, and vice versa. And they’re like, “Hey. You are funny!” (or, really good at strategy! or, curiously emotionally insightful!), and the other person then can’t stop thinking about them. When you have to set it up so that the hero and heroine are obsessed with each other early on, I like it much much better than the standard-issue “can’t stop feeling things in my man-parts” obsession that they’re obsessed with the idea of being seen clearly.

PS this was fun can we do it again sometime?

Kate: Yes please! I really enjoyed this.

Ha ha. See how I have brainwashed little Kate into doing what I want.

Note: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.