Sunday 18 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 8: "A Hope Divided" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Until she was thirteen, Marlie Lynch grew up with her mother, a freed slave and wise woman. After her white father's death, she was taken in by her half-sister and has been able to combine her knowledge of herbs and root magic with scientific principles. Three years into the American Civil War, Marlie and her half-sister are working surreptitiously to aid the cause of the Union, giving aid to runaway slaves and Freedmen, taking medicine and food to imprisoned Union soldiers, and with Marlie sending coded messages about troop movements and the Confederate Home Guard to the Resistance group the Loyal League.

Unfortunately for Marlie and her sister, their various anti-Confederate enterprises are endangered when Marlie's half-brother (and technically the heir) returns home with his unpleasant and racist wife, who is deeply loyal to the Confederate cause, to the point where she offers to let the Home Guard use their estate as their base of operations. While Marlie has always been a free woman, and has been treated more or less as a part of the family, she now sees how little protection she actually has, and how easily she can be ignored and mistreated because of the colour of her skin. Only a few trusted servants know that Marlie is hiding an escaping Union soldier, Ewan McCall in the laboratory in her private quarters. While McCall was imprisoned in the camp nearby, he and Marlie would exchange notes discussing ethics and philosophy. There was an attraction between them even before Marlie came to shelter him from danger in her rooms.

As Marlie's evil sister-in-law grows increasingly more controlling and jealous, and the cruel Captain of the Home Guard turns his eye more closely to Marlie, whose independence and spirit offends him, it becomes clear that Ewan can no longer stay on the Lynch farm and will have to escape. When Marlie's freedom is suddenly threatened as well, she has no choice but to go with him. While Marlie wants to believe that Ewan's feelings for her are true, she's very conflicted because of her own background, a product of the unequal union a slave-owner and her then enslaved mother. Can a relationship with a white man ever really last, no matter how sensitive and philosophical he seems?  Marlie has also dedicated her life to the healing and helping of others; how will she react when she discovers that Ewan was a torturer before he was taken prisoner?

This is the second book in Alyssa Cole's historical romance series The Loyal League, set during the American Civil War. As with the first book in the series, An Extraordinary Union, which I read back in July of last year, A Hope Divided was widely loved and gushed over on several romance review sites I follow. In the first book, we meet spies Malcolm McCall and Elle Burns, who work to bring down the Confederacy once and for all. Ewan McCall, the hero in this book, is Malcolm's younger brother, who clearly doesn't have the social graces of his brother (and frankly comes across as if he may be neuro-atypical). While he doesn't really want to fight, he believes in the Union cause enough that he joined the army, and was quickly discovered to have a knack for interrogation, due to his dispassionate and seemingly unfeeling manner. Ewan seems to have been very good at torture, but it's not something he enjoyed or is proud of, and he feels especially ashamed of having lost control of his temper and emotions when questioning the sadistic Captain of the Home Guard who later comes to plague Marlie's existence. 

Marlie also works for the Loyal League, but in a much less active role than Elle or Malcolm. With her white half-sister and some of their most loyal servants (all freed slaves), they do their best to help runaway slaves and Union soldiers get to the northern states, and Marlie sends coded letters, and feeds and treats wounded imprisoned Union soldiers, but otherwise has lived a very sheltered life on the family's farm. Her skin colour has always kept her from being a fully accepted part of the Lynch family, but she discovers how lucky and privileged her life has been when her half-brother's vicious and prejudiced wife takes control of the household and invites brutal and ruthless Home Guard soldiers to stay in their home. Her status as an intelligent and independent freedwoman and half white means nothing to these people and she grows increasingly more despairing due to their treatment of her.

Ms Cole has clearly done a huge amount of research for these books, and as I personally don't actually know the time period very well, it was very interesting to me to learn about all the various ways many of the people of the Southern states actually worked against the Confederate cause. While the romance between Marlie and Ewan is central to the book, both have a lot of emotional baggage before they are able to commit to anyone else, even before you add in the complications of an illegal bi-racial union. At one point in the story, I was honestly not sure how exactly they were going to find a satisfying HEA together, but I am very glad that they did.

While the first book in the series was good, I think I liked this one even more, and will be excited to see what Alyssa Cole has in store in her next novel (I'm wondering if the next book will be about the third McCall sibling, the sister). 

Judging a book by its cover: Now, this is a lovely cover for a romance novel and I really like it. The cover model portraying our heroine looks confidently out at the reader, surrounded by the herbs and tools of her trade. I cannot speak for the accuracy of her dress (Civil War era America not being one of the historical periods I know a lot about), but there's no unlaced back, nor implausible amounts of skirts (while still showing a remarkable amount of leg). Just a beautiful, confident woman at her work desk. I don't know if Ms. Cole has any say in the choices of these covers (most authors don't), but either way, she's lucked out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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