Friday 29 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 23: "A Princess in Theory" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Naledi "Ledi" Smith's parents died when she was very little, and she was shuffled through a series of foster homes her entire childhood. She learned to rely on no one but herself. When she keeps getting persistent e-mails about some African country named Thesolo and how she's the crown prince's intended, she obviously assumes that these communications are spam and deletes them all. Now she's working hard to get her degree in epidemiology and waitressing on the side, in between worrying about her hard-partying best friend Portia, who seems to be going off the rails a bit.

Of course, what Ledi doesn't know is that she was born in Thesolo, and her mother was best friends with the current queen. For reasons known to no one but her now-deceased parents, they chose to break all ties to their former friends and family and flee to the United States. While Ledi has loving grandparents and an uncle and cousin in Thesolo, not to mention an actual royal fiancee, she was too little to ever be told about this, and as her parents were using fake names when they died, no one was able to track down Ledi's true family.

Her royal betrothed, prince Thabiso, keeps being pressured by his parents to find a suitable replacement to marry. He fondly remembers his childhood friend, and while he feels hurt and betrayed by her parents' actions, he keeps asking his hyper-efficient assistant to continue the search for her. When she is tracked down in New York, he decides to travel to see her and confront her about the perceived abandonment of her duty. When he meets her, Ledi mistakes him for someone else and he likes the idea of getting to know his fiancee without any of the trappings of his title and status in the way. He doesn't exactly make a great first impression on her, being absolutely dreadful at the job he impulsively decides to pretend he's applying for, but pays one of her neighbours to go on an extended vacation, so he can rent her flat and be just across the hall from Ledi. He discovers that Ledi has absolutely no idea where she came from and what is waiting for her in Thesolo, she is completely ignorant about what her heritage entails.

Ledi is undeniably attracted to the handsome guy who suddenly moved in across the hall from her, but suspects there may be something strange about him too. When she discovers the truth about his identity, she's already half on her way to falling in love with him and is furious about his deceptions. She nevertheless agrees to come with him to Thesolo to see her forgotten homeland, not because she has any intention of marrying him and becoming a princess, but because there is a mysterious illness spreading among the population, and as an epidemiologist in training, trying to find out what is causing the disease would be incredibly good for her future career. She agrees to pretend to still be Thabiso's fiancee, as it makes things easier for her when she returns to an unfamiliar country, but is pretty clear on the fact that she'll be going back to her life in New York once she's helped figure out what is causing the strange illness.

This is the first in Alyssa Cole's Reluctant Royals series, which keeps being lauded all over the romance review blogs. Her contemporaries just keep getting so much love and keep appearing on best-of lists, but neither of the other two books I've read in this series has done much to impress me. A Duke by Default (about Ledi's best friend Portia who cleans up her wild child act and tries to get her life in order in Scotland) ended up on my Worst of 2018-list because it kept pushing all of my "nope"-buttons and A Prince on Paper (about Ledi's shy cousin), while somewhat better, still didn't exactly wow me. So if I hadn't actually already paid money for this one, I may not have even given Ms. Cole a third chance. I like her historical novels better, and will still keep reading those, but at least, reading the series in the wrong order, meant that I finally got a book I actually liked, and may possibly, at some future point, consider re-reading. I can only imagine my disappointment if I'd read the series in the order it was published.

My friend and fellow reviewer Narfna points out in her review (she read the series in order) that the heroine is a lot more sympathetic and relatable than the hero. This seems to be typical in all of the Cole contemporaries I've read. I found Portia's surprise duke utterly insufferable and wished her to find her HEA with anyone else, and the flamboyant step-prince who woos Ledi's cousin also made me roll my eyes a lot. While Naledi is a wonderfully realised character with obvious hopes, dreams, ambitions and extremely understandable emotional baggage because of her childhood, Thabiso is a lot more slick and complex. While it's obvious to the reader why he might find a break from his regular royal routine and scrutiny refreshing, he has very high-handed ways, and pretty much stalks and keeps lying to Ledi in order to spend more time with her. He also didn't have much personality beyond being a handsome royal who refused to cave to his parents' persistent matchmaking.

This is my favorite book of the series, and even with this, I have quite a lot of quibbles and misgivings. I'm not sure I'm going to re-read even this one, which I liked better than both the other main books in the series (there are also two novellas). Hence I can't give the book four stars, and I'm a bit reluctant in wholeheartedly recommending it. Still, while these books just aren't for me, Alyssa Cole does not lack for enthusiastic supporters online. Based on her Twitter feed, she's a great lady, I'm just sorry I couldn't really fall for her brand of escapism. 

Judging a book by its cover: While most of Alyssa Cole's contemporaries in this series just have not been working out for me, I cannot deny that the covers for the various books are gorgeous. The colourful dresses that the cover models wear are all breathtaking, and there is such a sense of joy in each of the images. This book (the first in the series) is no exception.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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