Happy Book Birthday, Alyssa Cole! We adore A Princess in Theory, the first book in her new Reluctant Royals series and the embodiment of the power behind why REPRESENTATION MATTERS.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
By now you know that I’m a massive Alyssa Cole fangirl. It’s my truth. What I love most about Alyssa Cole is that she fearless in telling stories that feature women who look like me. Reading her work makes me feel visible and empowered–that my experiences matter and are worthy of being included in the romance genre. This is part of what makes A Princess in Theory one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever, EVER had. I think about the first time I was reading the book and how, from the beginning, my heart was so full. I mean, there were several times that I had to stop and physically flail because I was overjoyed. The romance and drama are too juicy and, for me, hearken back to the classic romantic comedies I’ve loved. I was drowning in Coming to America and While You Were Sleeping feels! At the same time, I still think it’s so refreshing to read about royals in a contemporary setting, especially since they’re from Africa (like me!). For all these reasons (and more), A Princess in Theory is MUSTREAD.
Naledi Smith has spent the majority of her life in foster care. Though she remembers little about her life prior to losing her parents at four-years-old, Ledi feels the loss of her family and the connection to something larger so acutely. Yet, she’s been able to build a life for herself in New York City. Ledi is a grad student, pursuing her degree in epidemiology (the study of infectious diseases). As if that isn’t enough to keep her busy, she also has a position as a lab assistant (though the lab’s postdoc is a total jerk), as well a waitressing job. Ledi does what she has to do to make it work, and, outside of work work work, her bestie Portia keeps life interesting. But then… something random starts happening. Ledi starts getting emails from someone claiming that she is the future queen of somewhere called Thesolo and she’s betrothed to Crown Prince Thabiso. Clearly, Ledi doesn’t have time for this foolishness, so she responds once with a pointed “FUCK. OFF.”, deletes all the emails (they are numerous and increasingly insistent), and keeps it moving.
Prince Thabiso of Thesolo is getting fed up with his parents’ insistence that he get married, especially since the mystery of what happened to the girl he was betrothed to as a toddler hasn’t been solved. When a not totally above board internet search reveals that Naledi Smith is Naledi Ajoua, his betrothed, Thabiso immediately wants to get in contact. And after the failed emails, Thabiso decides to go to NYC to meet Naledi in person.
The first time Thabiso meets Ledi, a case of mistaken identity unfolds, whereby she believes him to be a new co-worker and neighbor named Jamal. Thabiso knows that he should correct Ledi’s misaprehension… but then he starts to get to know her as an ordinary man, not as a prince. He still has a lot of questions about why the Ajouas broke their betrothal promise all those years ago and absconded from Thesolo with Naledi in the dead of night without any explanation. But Ledi is everything he’s ever wanted.
As for Ledi, we already know she doesn’t have time for fuckboys, no matter how cute and charming they might be. And trust, Jamal is both of those things (cute and charming). Yet, there’s something about Jamal that reminds her of “Happiness. Belonging. The knowledge that she was loved…”
Ledi really doesn’t want to let this go, but she’s also cynical, because how long can it last?
Naledi Smith Ajoua is 100% my homegirl and I find her so relatable. She’s a beautiful Black, African woman, a brilliant scientist, out here trying to make a life for herself. Ledi doesn’t trust people easily because, one way or another, they always leave. But, she knows the costs of being viewed as a “problem” or “difficult.” This makes Ledi quite vulnerable, even though she tries her best to insulate herself.
I think this is part of what draws Thabiso to Ledi, because he has similar vulnerabilities. Yes, he might have a Playboy Prince persona, but the truth is, he’s facing a lot of pressure in trying to manage Thesolo and protect his country from would-be neo-colonizers. On top of that, he’s dealing with the outbreak of some mysterious disease in Thesolo that is being framed as a bad omen for his rule. Furthermore, just as Ledi has lived with loss, Thabiso has too, growing up knowing that the person who was meant to be beside him has been missing:
“When I was a boy, I was certain I had a soul mate, even though many people told me otherwise. For a short period, I required those around me to pretend that she was real. A place was set for her at snack time. I asked that gifts be purchased for her. I was often found talking to an empty chair as if she were beside me. Eventually, my parents became worried and tried to wean me off of this imaginary soul mate, so I tried to run away and find her. I was seven, so this didn’t go over too well.”
Ledi smiled. “OMG, this is so sweet. I can imagine exactly what you would have looked like as a kid.”
Her brow furrowed as she stared at him, and he wondered if she was conjuring an image of him or pulling one from the recesses of her memory.
“What happened to your soul mate?” she asked.
“I stopped believing for a while there,” he said. “Became too busy with grown-up things and stopped thinking of her.”
“Hey, sometimes you do what you have to,” she said. “I stopped thinking of my parents because it hurt too badly, and then one day I tried to remember them and I couldn’t.”
She stared out toward the river. Thabiso saw the opportunity before him like a neatly wrapped present. He made his move. “Would you want to know about them, if it was possible?”
An expression of distaste passed over her face. “Why? They’re dead and I’ve gotten along just fine on my own. Knowing who they were wouldn’t change any of that.”
“I need to tell you,” he said between kisses. “Who I am.”
“I know who you are,” she said. She pushed away from him and pulled off the screenprinted T-shirt she was wearing, revealing a soft, worn-looking gray bra cupping her silky brown breasts.
“You’re the guy who learned to cook for me. The guy who’s made me laugh harder than I have maybe ever. Who made me come so hard I thought I’d peed myself.”
That shouldn’t have made him harder, but it did. Oh, praise the goddess for American oversharing, it did. He ran a fingertip over the frayed faux lace that edged her bra. She shuddered at the merest accidental brush against her skin, and he chuckled.
“I love that you speak so freely,” he said. Her hand came to cover his, and when he looked up at her, she was shaking her head.
“I usually don’t, to be honest. I feel like my entire life has been me trying to keep everything together, but right now I want to fall apart. And I want you to be the guy that makes me…”
…“You are lovely, yes, but you make me feel . . . you make me feel like I can be anything.”
And it was true. Everyone else had been taught to treat him like a future king, but Ledi released him from that confinement, showed him that he was more than the Moshoeshoe lineage he’d been born into. She smiled and her arms went around him, banding him in something that felt like much more than lust.
“And you make me feel like I’m already something.”
He kissed her then, and all the words left them.
The perfection is just too much! But how is Thabiso supposed to reveal his true identity to Ledi and still keep her in his life?
I really want to avoid spoilers because there are multiple big-reveals that need to be experienced first-hand… how does Ledi find out who Jamal/Thabiso really is? Why did Ledi’s parents leave Thesolo and will she ever go back? What about the Ledi’s relationship with Thabiso? Would she ever agree to be his queen?
*EEEEEP* Just thinking about the answers to those questions makes me want to do another re-read! A Princess in Theory thoroughly gives me life! The story, itself, is so well-written and well-constructed. The world-building is beyond impressive, especially as it relates to conveying life and customs of Thesolo, a wonderful, authentic balance between tradition and modernity, which rings true to me. You already know how much I adore Ledi and Thabiso, but there are also come pretty compelling secondary characters, like Portia (Ledi’s BFF) and Likotsi, Thabiso’s fierce and stylish PA.
What makes A Princess in Theory even more special is that, in a time where public discourse is framed around questions of inclusion and diversity in media and representations of Africa and the diaspora, with this novel, Alyssa Cole makes a glorious contribution. Give me all the representations of Africa and Africans as modern and progressive. Give me all the sexy, swoony portrayals of Black Love. So, I’ll be here, cheering Alyssa Cole’s name from the rooftops, because her work is the embodiment of the power behind why REPRESENTATION MATTERS.
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU Alyssa, and Happy Book Birthday!
Friends, don’t even wait. Go add A Princess in Theory to your Goodreads TBR list and download your copy right now. Binge-read it (trust me, you won’t be able to help yourself) and then find me on Twitter and come flail with me!
*Many thanks to the author and publisher for an advanced review copy.