In A Hope Divided, Alyssa Cole weaves a compelling story with thoughtful characters who convince us that love can and does conquer all, even in an era marked with the barbarism of slavery. MUSTREAD for all historical romance fans!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
It’s been almost a year ago that I read my first book by Alyssa Cole, An Extraordinary Union, and since that time, I’ve come to admire her so much. I can’t hide it, I’m a massive fangirl for Alyssa. She does it all, from historical and contemporary romance to sci-fi and fantasy. And in every sub-genre, Alyssa relies on her in-depth research to weave intricate and engaging stories that seize the reader from the very beginning and sweeps us away with the authenticity, drama, and romance.
A Hope Divided, the second book in the Loyal League totally picks up this mantle with a gorgeous and, in parts, heartbreaking story about the intricacies of interracial love in the Civil War era.
We first “meet” Ewan McCall at the end of An Extraordinary Union, when the family receives a letter that he’s being held in a Confederate prison… yikes! A Hope Divided picks up with Ewan in that very same predicament. It’s pretty dismal, with sickness spreading, lack of food or any protection from the elements. With that said, Ewan makes the most of his time–he uses his skills in engineering to design a system to prevent the contamination of drinking water with sewage. Ewan also keeps up his mental acumen with help from Marlie Lynch, a young Freedwoman from a nearby farm who visits the prison in order to provide medical services and a lending library. Ewan and Marlie strike up an unexpected friendship–she calls him Socrates and they debate and exchange notes about Greek philosophy. Their banter is sweet, engaging, and almost enough to make you forget that Ewan and Marlie are trapped in the most horrific of circumstances. Almost.
But, unbeknownst to the other, both are doing their best to contribute to the Union cause. Ewan is actually a counterintelligence officer, collecting information that can be used to bring down the Confederacy. And Marlie is a member of the Loyal League, a society of Black Union loyalists who are gathering intelligence that can be used to break the South. Her position in the Lynch plantation is pretty complex–she’s half-sister to the current owners of Lynchwood and is able to access some privileges. Marlie’s talent for herbs and healing, which she attains in her youth from her mother, is tutored into accomplishment with botany, medical science, and chemistry. Marlie’s skills and position afford her opportunities to gather intelligence for the North, along with providing help to slaves and Union soldiers escaping on the Underground Railroad.
In fact, when Ewan decides to make a break from prison, it’s Lynchwood’s status as a station on the Railroad that brings Marlie’s and Ewan’s paths into collision. Ewan is hurt during his escape and has no choice but to hide with Marlie in her rooms. In this close proximity, the two get to know each other beyond their mutual love for logic and science. They share their lingering hurts and insecurities regarding their families. When Marlie’s half-brother (Stephen) and his Confederacy-loving wife (Melody) come to Lynchwood, Marlie realizes her bubble is no longer safe. When Ewan runs, she may not have any choice but to run with him.
Alyssa Cole has done it again with giving us a fierce leading lady in Marlie. I adore her so much. Sure, Marlie is brilliant, but what makes her even more compelling is how she recognizes her (limited) privilege and uses it, to the best of her ability, to help others. This includes treating people, one-on-one, in her community. This includes her larger contribution to abolitionist cause. At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to watch Marlie struggle with her own identity and what she sometimes sees as her mother’s abandonment. Marlie is definitely in an in-between place–both Black and White; not a full daughter of Lynchwood, but neither a slave/servant; a scientist who, at her heart, believes in the spiritual power and magic of her ancestors. Marlie has so many questions and it seems like no one is left who is able or willing to provide answers…
…but then Ewan! *SWOONY SIGH* Ewan is a one-of-a-kind type of romantic hero. He’s a really smart guy, which makes him a great partner to Marlie. (Incidentally, Ewan exhibits characteristics of someone on the autism spectrum, but it’s never made explicit.) Ewan is supremely dedicated to doing what’s right, and that includes using his skills for the Union/abolitionist cause. And, like Marlie, at his heart, Ewan is a caretaker. He shows his love and regard by doing things for those he cares about… like acting as a assistant to Marlie in her work, organizing Marlie’s drying room, and even helping Marlie to translate her mother’s journals. Ewan has also dealt with parental issues in the past, mostly in terms of defending his mother against his father’s abuse. Ancient Greek philosophy of the Stoics–hyper-logic, accepting each situation for what it is, and disabusing ourselves of emotion–has guided Ewan into adulthood. Yet, from their first meeting, Marlie has shaken Ewan all up and their feelings grow leaps and bounds:
“I admit I’m surprised that someone so committed to the Stoics would be a fan of Shakespeare.”
Something resembling a smile, but not quite, pushed up at the corners of his mouth.
“I was a child with a limited library who spent all my time reading and rereading what was available,” he said, then gingerly lowered himself to a kneeling position to look up at the still from below. “My father was rather fond of the tragedies.”
The words were delivered without inflection, but there was something in his grip on the edge of the table that belied his measured delivery.
“You didn’t find it romantic, then? Star-crossed lovers and such?” she asked. She felt foolish as soon as the words were out of her mouth, could taste the residue of an implication she hadn’t intended. She squeezed her eyes shut and when she opened them he sat with his head tilted, as if actually giving the question thought.
“I’m not very well-versed in the topic, but I’d have to argue against two dead adolescents being romantic,” he said. “I did find many of the passages to be quite moving, though, before the poison and suicide and such. ‘Did my heart love till now?’”
The question hung in the air between them, resonating between the motes of dust caught in the late afternoon sun that streamed through the window. He looked up at her, his eyes wide and searching, and for a moment Marlie could scarcely breathe. There was warmth in the depths of those eyes, she could see now. Warmth in the flush that spread over his broad cheekbones.
Talking to him was easy. Too easy. Because you’re living in a fantasy world. Marlie couldn’t deny that they were living apart from reality. In the shared space of her rooms, they laughed. They spoke of family and favorite books and the best kind of pie. They debated scientific theories, and Greek, and Latin. They didn’t speak of war and the possibility that the Union would be forever rent asunder. They didn’t speak of the way people would look at them, a Negro woman and a white man laughing intimately, if they were on the street instead of in her rooms. They brushed hands and knees and shoulders—accidentally, of course. The room was small after all, and translating quietly required their sitting close and speaking in whispers…
“I must admit, I haven’t quite been myself since I met you.”
“Likewise,” Marlie said, and was surprised to find herself smiling. “To be certain, I hadn’t made a habit of kissing strange men, no matter how handsome I found them.”
Now Ewan was smiling, too, a harsh upturn of the corners of his mouth that spoke to something more than amusement. “And I’m not in the habit of taking liberties with beautiful women, no matter how competent I find them.”
Ewan’s only answer was to take a step forward, cup her face in his calloused hands, and press his mouth against hers. Marlie made a noise of surprise, Ewan groaned, and the sound of both noises together thoroughly scandalized her. Marlie already knew he was more than proficient at kissing, but when his tongue curled into her mouth it sent a stab of pleasure through her core. His knee bumped against hers and she realized he was walking her back across the small space.
“What are you doing, Ewan?”
“Straying far, far from my ship,” he replied as the hard-packed earth hit her back.
His hands moved down from her face, his thumbs leaving trails of sensation on her neck as they traveled down to brush over her nipples as he cupped her breasts.
Marlie had touched herself before—had even imagined Ewan touching her while doing so—but perhaps her creativity only lent itself to matters of science. She could never have imagined the brazen insistence of his calloused thumb against the taut tips of her breasts, nor the way the friction of his fingertip and the fabric of her chemise against her sensitive skin would multiply by a hundredfold, a thousandfold, the pleasure that trembled between her legs and in her womb and then spread everywhere in her body. His tongue lashed hers as his hands worked her breasts, and she moaned and sighed like a wanton woman. One hand slid down and squeezed her at her hip as something hard and hot pressed against her belly. That was Ewan. All of that.
“May I touch you?” he asked.
“You are touching me,” she said through the haze of pleasure.
“May I touch you between your legs? Please?”
Marlie let out a shocked laugh into his mouth. Trust it to Ewan to manage to be both polite and forward in the same sentence.
“Yes, you may,” she whispered.
*FLAILS* These two make me so happy! But goodness, you know that things cannot be easy for them. Both Ewan and Marlie have very serious concerns about pursuing one another. Ewan fears that his tendency to suspend emotions and carry out violence makes him ill-suited for a relationship with Marlie. And for Marlie, warnings from her mother about White men…
He was white. She’d been immersed in white society for the past ten years, had white blood in her veins, but she was a Negro woman in a country that was fighting a war to keep people like her enslaved. It didn’t matter that Socrates was for the Union. She wasn’t a fan of his devotion to logic, but it didn’t require much to see that her fascination was an unwise one.
“They take what they want because nothing is denied to them, Marlie. But taking is different from loving. Problem is, it feels a lot like loving ’til you find out otherwise.”
Her mother’s words surged up from the recesses of her mind. What had they been discussing—perhaps the white boy at the general store who always paid her too much attention when they went into town? She didn’t remember, but at the time she’d thought her mother overly careful; now she understood she’d been giving her a warning.
Like with An Extraordinary Union, the reader can’t help but consider the complications of an interracial relationship between a Freedwoman and a White man…during the Civil War! Surely, issues of consent, as well as the legal, social-psychological ramifications, complicate the matter. At the same time, there are villains in this story who are actively threatening Ewan’s and Marlie’s lives.
But, once again, Alyssa Cole tells an incredibly compelling story, with thoughtful characters who convince us that love can and does conquer all, even in an era marked with the barbarism of slavery. It certainly gives me hope for our world today.
P.S. Can we talk about getting Daniel a romantic interest?!
A Hope Divided is MUSTREAD for every single fan of historical romance. I can’t recommend this book (this series!) enough. Add it to your TBR list on Goodreads and download your copy today!
*Many thanks to the publisher for an advanced review copy.