At one point in 2017 it felt like Alyssa Cole’s name was coming at me from every direction. She’d pop up in every Twitter discussion that even vaguely mentioned a romance must-read list, whether the sub category was contemporary, historical or science fiction. During my 10 leagues deep obsession with the Hamilton musical I discovered Cole had contributed to a romance anthology called Hamilton’s Battalion, set during the founding father’s assault on Yorktown. She appeared on Shonda Rhimes’ culture website shondaland.com sharing book recommendations and she was splashed all over the Smart Bitches Trashy Books review website.
Yet, despite the universe’s insistence that I read her work, it was the cover design for her novel, A Princess in Theory that finally made me pay attention.
Many black authors have talked about the problems they experience creating appealing book covers for their work. Issues range from difficulties finding stock photography that feature black models, to publishing houses that woefully misrepresent the characters the author has created. Therefore, whenever I spot a good black book cover my heart soars.
Cole’s cover design wasn’t just good. It was joyful, it was effervescent. Take another look. The hero exudes strength and glows with shea butter magnificence, while the heroine is dark-skinned, curly-haired and draped in ankara fabric. What more could you ask for?
A Princess in Theory
The book’s plot line is simple but inspired. Why did it take us so long to realise the notorious scam emails from African Princes claiming to have more money than Midas would make the perfect starting point for a romance story?
I read the novel while recovering from the wonderfulness of Black Panther. It was excellent timing as I was primed for beautiful African landscapes, ground-breaking technology based on African natural resources and a mouth-watering Royal willing to put country before self.
Cole told Book Riot that she “wanted to explore, without making the book explicitly about it, how destructive colonization was by showing what was possible if it had never come to be.”
“I tried to pay attention to small details that would convey that this was a place that was steeped in tradition but also invested in technological advances that would better the lives of its people. It’s no Wakanda, but because they’re small and wealthy, they are able to do test runs of, for example, environmentally friendly technology that would be difficult to roll out in a large country.”
The story’s heroine, Naledi, is a scientist working her way through grad school while holding down a waitressing job. The scenes in her lab felt so rich and authentic I was not surprised to learn that Cole once worked in the science field editing a science journal. I particularly appreciated Naledi’s terse interactions with her co-workers, men who undermine her skills while simultaneously exploiting them.
‘She hadn’t forseen all the other variables that went into life as a woman in STEM: politicians who treated her profession with contempt and threatened her future – and the world’s. Fellow scientists like Brian, who thought that women in the lab were their personal assistants instead of their equals.
“How are you this morning?” she asked him in that tone she’d heard secretaries on old syndicated TV shows use to placate their sexist bosses. Brian smiled; he’d watched the same reruns it seemed.’
A Princess in Theory
The sparks that fly between a smart, capable scientist and the Prince hoping to sweep her off her feet are marvellous. Cole describes it as Princess Diaries meets Coming to America which really does capture how the warm, frothy tone mixes with the rich African culture.
I devoured the book like candy then dove into Cole’s extensive back catalogue for my next read. This was when I discovered that Cole had written an award-winning trilogy set during the American civil war.
The Loyal League Series
As a rule, I don’t read books set during slavery. It’s a preserving-my-mental-health thing. 12 Years A Slave gave me nightmares for weeks. There was a lot of crying after Octavia Butler’s time travel story, Kindred. So it really takes a lot for me to pick up a novel set during that period.
Maybe I relaxed my rule for the same reason Cole decided to write the series. She told Book Riot that she went from: ‘“I’m definitely not going to write anything set in the Civil War” to “I am going to write an interracial romance set in the Civil War because I hate myself! [laughs] Or I wanted to set up the biggest challenge’.
She expanded further in an interview with Jezebel.
“The more I learned about American history, the more I saw it as the staging ground for stories just as entertaining and epic as the Regency dukes and viscounts romance readers swoon for. I also saw the possibility of extending the tropes of the Civil Ware beyond “brother fighting brother” and “swooning Southern belle,” two categories that conveniently left out a whole swath of people, generally of a darker hue.”
I’ve read romance historicals that educated me about women’s suffrage, about the beginnings of the trade union movement, about women scientists in the 1800s, about the English civil war. There’s no question that romance can tackle difficult subject matter. But to fold a love story into a subject as abhorrent as slavery without being cloy or dismissive or offensive? That’s a tall order. To add another layer of complexity, the romance in book one of the series, An Extraordinary Union, is interracial.
Holy minefield, Batman!
But I think Cole thrives on this kind of challenge. She told Vulture that a through line she can see in her work is how although “every book is about something different, there’s always generally something political, there is generally some form of activism or involvement with the government or with programs to better the community.”
The activism she crafted for Elle Burns, the heroine in An Extraordinary Union, is spy work. Elle has a photographic memory. Though she is a free woman, her desire to help liberate her people motivates her to allow herself to be sold back into slavery. As a house slave she deploys her exceptional skills to spy for the Union cause.
Her love interest is a Scottish detective, Malcolm McCall. His task is to infiltrate a Rebel group in Virginia.
Cole was very aware of the problematic power dynamics between her characters. She told Book Riot:
“[I was] always trying to keep in mind the power imbalance between them, and I tried to have them both acknowledge that… It took a lot of tweaking to get Malcolm where he was—I didn’t want him to be constantly beating himself up but I also wanted him to understand as best he could her situation and her situation relative to him. Even if he thought she was amazing, how the rest of the world would view her and how the rest of the world could treat her if things didn’t work out between them.”
Cole went to town dismantling the notion of the genteel southern belle as an innocent bystander during slavery. She told Book Riot: “It’s one of those things that I didn’t set out to do but doing all the research and how everything came together, in the end I wanted to show how she was complicit in everything that was going on and was benefitting from everything that was going on, but she was also kind of ruined by the society that she was in.”
Cole’s take on the civil war goes to the heart of the power of historical fiction and the need for more story tellers. For decades the version of the southern belle constructed by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind has dominated pop culture and gone unchallenged. It obscures the active part white women played in maintaining slavery in the South. We need more writers of colour to bring wider, more varied perspectives to an integral moment in American history to more accurately depict it.
Reading An Extraordinary Union was not the anxiety-fest I had feared. But it wasn’t a comfortable experience either. I worried frequently that amidst the smouldering stares and lingering touches, violence would be just over the page. I worried that the characters were not worried enough. It helped significantly that Elle was such a spunky, intelligent heroine. And that Malcolm was the kind of ally who would lay down his life for his principles. The book managed to be life-affirming and hopeful.
Though slavery was terrible, I think we all benefit from telling it’s stories more and inserting it into the public discourse as much as possible. Not to normalise it but to remind ourselves of the dangers of allowing racial prejudice to run rampant. Cole told Shondaland.com she was dismayed by the sharp parallels between her historical novel and the present day.
“I expected maybe slight relevancy, not white-supremacists-marching-with-torches relevancy. Not the-Klan-shall-rise-again relevancy. This has actually been really disheartening — seeing the worst aspects of American history that I’ve written about, sure that they were firmly in the past, start to zombie shuffle back onto the scene to this degree.”
The book’s challenging premise and Cole’s deft execution has won it plaudits. It was chosen as a top pick of 2017 by Vulture, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. It also won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award’s Best Book of 2017 and the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018.
Cole has great confidence in her work and high aspirations for what it can accomplish. ‘Sometimes I hear romance authors say they’re not writing the Great American Novel,” she told Buzzfeed News, “Well, if you’re not trying to, that’s on you. I’m never going to say that just because there are people having sex and love in [my books].”
It is a thrill to read novels that combine Cole’s level of skill with her daring vision. She is expanding the boundaries of what romance novels can do. Romance reader or not, we should all be reading her work.
Interviews that I have quoted
Book Riot – World-Building in Romance: A Princess in Theory
Shondaland – Alyssa Cole On the Magic of Writing Romance