Loyal League, Book 2
Review of Loyal League, Book 1 here
Heat Factor: Trying to stay alive leaves little time for loving
Character Chemistry: Beautiful
Plot: He’s a Union soldier on the run. She is hiding him in her attic.
Overall: All the pieces are there, but…
On finishing A Hope Divided, I felt a vague dissatisfaction. Even though I loved the protagonists, and thought the subplot of anti-Confederate activity in the South was both interesting and an important corrective to how the Civil War is frequently remembered, and found the writing engaging, this book didn’t quite click for me, and I’m not sure why.
Let’s talk more about the protagonists. Marlie and Ewan are thoughtful nerds with strong convictions about right and wrong and a commitment to justice. But they are not in the kinds of protagonists that I find eye-rollingly moral – they are also complicated people.
Marlie is a free black living with her father’s (white) family, where she is basically treated as a family member. However, she has been extremely sheltered – or controlled – for her own safety; her world, though privileged, has been narrow. She lives in a liminal space, betwixt and between, until the war literally arrives on her doorstep and she becomes visible to the Confederacy. The events of the book force her to grapple with her identity, and what it really means for her to be black in America. As I expected, based on my previous experience with Cole’s work, all of this is well done; it’s thought-provoking and sometimes heart-wrenching.
I loved that Marlie wasn’t a traditional “bad-ass” heroine, but still acts heroically. She doesn’t shoot or have ninja skills or carry a knife in her drawers. Instead, she barters her healing skills for aid as she and Ewan travel through the North Carolina woods, and has been helping the cause by passing messages and preparing poultices for Union prisoners. I admittedly do love a good bad-ass heroine, but I really appreciated Marlie’s example of being brave without the bravado.
Ewan is one of those characters who was wonderful to read about, but who would not be a comfortable boyfriend were I to meet him in person. He pays close attention to the world around him, is insatiably curious, and admires Marlie for her brains. He is attentive and kind and listens to her. On the other hand, he lacks empathy and social skills, and shrugs off the suffering of pretty much everyone who is not Marlie.
Ewan’s biggest defining character trait, however, is linked to his work during the war; let’s just say his attention to detail and lack of empathy make him an exceptional candidate for deploying “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Throughout the book, he broods about how he is not deserving of love because of the terrible things he has done; of course, because this is a romance, he learns that he is, in fact, worthy of love. As Marlie points out to him, “if a man does something unjust because he believes it his duty, then he is the one hurt.”
As a sidenote: I wonder, if Ewan were exactly the same character, but this were a contemporary, and he were stationed at Guantanamo, would I still see him as a good romance hero?
The point of all of this detail about Ewan and Marlie is to show that they are portrayed as complex people stumbling their way through a tough (understatement) situation and trying to figure out their relationship as best they can. And when they did, I was happy enough for them, but not really emotionally invested.
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Looking for something similar? Cole’s Civil War books really stand out – I can’t think of anything else like them – but I will do my best to make some recs.