Alyssa Cole has always been one of the writers that makes me want to throw up my hands and despair at ever writing my own books ever again, because I’ll never be as good as her. And she does it while having one of her characters refer to another as “sexy Pikachu.” HOW. None of us will ever be as good as Alyssa Cole. All we can do is absorb everything she writes, grateful for every inch of story she’s willing to produce for us.
I read the Reluctant Royals series last summer with a broken foot that left me stuck in a chair in my living room for six weeks. I tore through all five books in the series and marvelled that they just kept getting better as I went – by the fifth book, Cole had managed to combine all of the hints of things that had been promised in the beginnings of the series into a truly exceptional storyline featuring pretty much everything I could want. And now she’s created a spinoff series, Runaway Royals, and it’s EVEN BETTER. Which isn’t to say you have to read the Reluctant Royals series to read this book – all of the characters who make cameos have their stories deftly and quickly explained – but if you haven’t read them, what are you even doing with your life?
If you have read A Prince On Paper, you’ll recognize Sanyu as the king of Njaza and Shanti as his queen, the couple that Nya and Johan visited briefly on their own journey towards happily ever after. In that brief interlude, we got a hint that things were not quite as they should be within the royal marriage, and I got really excited when I learned they would be the focus of this book. My excitement paid off. Sanyu and Shanti are, separately, absolutely fantastic characters. Cole manages to make the improbable parts of their story seem entirely real by grounding them in real people, with real feelings and real fears. As individuals, they’re compelling; as a couple, they’re absolutely intriguing (and yes: the sex scenes are EXTREMELY GOOD).
We all know there’s nothing I love more than therapy in books. Especially for men! Working on yourself seems like it should be absolutely crucial to having a successful romance arc, and Alyssa Cole knows it. Sanyu is resistant to a LOT of stuff, held prisoner by his childhood, and therapy is one of those things. But his resistance is so carefully written that as a reader, you understand that he needs the therapy, and he’s going to get it eventually. It’s so well done – almost a masterclass in how to write powerful men getting the help they need.
There’s a lot of stuff in here about the complicated way that parenthood intersects with culture, and how we realize as adults that the norms we accepted as children may not in fact be normal. It hits hard, and it’s simultaneously unforgiving and full of grace. The key plot twist is so incredibly central to all of the intertwined storylines here that I can barely talk about any of what I want to talk about except to wax rhapsodic YET AGAIN over how incredibly talented a writer Alyssa Cole is. There is so much STRUCTURE here to be analyzed as a reader and a writer, but it’s all so beautifully bound up in perfectly crafted story, characters, and prose that you don’t even realize it unless you want to think about it.
Readers with an eye for detail will discover a masterful setup for at least two more books in the series – a quick check on upcoming projects shows me that the second book in the series is a F/F story featuring the absolutely delighful inspector from the improbably monarchical society that runs the royal match dating app that got Shanti and Sanyu together. She was only around for a short few scenes in this book, but she’s such a wonderful chaos agent that she changed the entire direction of Sanyu and Shanti’s lives, and I’m deeply looking forward to her story. I’m hoping that the third will feature his friend the sun prince, briefly mentioned in a few places that are cleverly tied into the story here so we know he exists and has his own interesting backstory.
As usual, I could keep writing about this book until I’d written an entire novel about how good it is. Instead, I’ll just say what I always say: it’s Alyssa Cole. Read it. You’ll love it.