Review: Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole

Courtney Milan 🦖 on Twitter: "We have a final cover! TA DA.… "

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I said I was back to SFF, but sorry, this is going to be another historical romance review. I tried to keep it too short to post but it, er, got away from me. By a lot.

So, by now pretty much everyone who knows me is aware that I’ve falled madly in love with a certain rap musical (in fact, I’m having the soundtrack on as I write this). Completely, head over heels, talking about it non-stop obsessed. It took me only a few minutes from learning this book exists to starting it. Initially, I felt a little bit silly since I still haven’t quite internalised that being a huge fan of something is nothing to be ashamed of but like…dude, you went on a “fun historical facts” screenshotting spree at 2 am several days in a row and can barely stop quoting lyrics, reading a themed romance book is hardly the most excessive thing you’ve done.

(It’s also pretty funny that in a weird circlerec, I somehow managed to successfully rec this book back to the very same person who brought it to my attention in the first place. But I digress.)

Anyway. It’s an utterly delightful novella collection, and I greatly enjoyed them all. All of them are tangentially related, bound together by a framing story of Eliza Hamilton putting herself back in the narrative and interviewing people after her husband’s death, but they all mostly focus on original characters. In order, the romances are m/f, m/m, and f/f, so there should be something for everyone. And except for the last one, they mostly make sense even if you haven’t listened to/watched the musical or don’t know much about US history (though it, of course, helps).

***

Promised Land by Rose Lerner

He had ascribed to her any number of wonderful qualities, but he had never particularly thought of her as kind. He’d even had a sneaking admiration for her hard-heartedness, had fancied himself the rose twining round her briar, like in the song. But now he thought it over, the song was nonsense: roses had thorns and briars flowered. He had deluded himself that kindness came in one guise, and that was a sweet voice and never saying anything that might wound his own delicate feelings.

Okay, I’ll get this out of the way first: I tend to avoid m/f romance because I find they often fall in the same old, tired gender dynamics. But this…this was a breath of fresh air from that standpoint, I adored it. Rachel faked her death and joined the army dressed as a man to escape her marriage. Until she runs into her husband. And it’s Rachel who is the brave, assertive one – Nathan is more of a follower (one of the reasons she left him, aside from him being disrespectful of boundaries, was his refusal to stand up to his mother when she was abusive towards her – not realising his “pretend to listen to her and do what you want anyway” startegy would not work for Rachel), nervous, unprepossessing, and shorter than her. At the first glance, anyway. There’s a lot of nuance to both of them I can’t put to words.

Yes, it’s a second chance romance, and I didn’t think those would ever work for me either, but this one did. Wonderfully. The character growth was great and believable. And since it takes place directly during the war, there are battle scenes! Awesome. Another aspect I loved is the big role them both being Jewish played in the story, and the discussion around that.

(I’d also highly recommend looking at the extras page on her website and scrolling though her tumblr for fun historical facts. Burr’s life after the duel was…something.)

The Pursuit of… by Courtney Milan

The Pursuit of… is a romance between John, a Black soldier who joined the war to protect his siblings and Henry, a deserted British officer. One is serious and cynical, the other chatty, idealistic, with an unshakably sunny disposition (and of course, a secret tragic past). Where the first novella was serious all the way through, this one has a lot more comedic elements thanks to Henry’s inability to shut up and the funny-yet-serious tone was the biggest draw for me. I happened to read some of it at work during downtime and it was not a good decision, I could barely stop myself from giggling. I’ll let a quote speak for itself:

“I am a cheesemonger,” Henry said. It was a complete lie, but the story almost didn’t matter. “Cheese is my livelihood. I am here for the purpose of purveying cheese.”
The men exchanged confused glances and Henry made a mental note: Next time, less emphasis on cheese.
“We don’t want any cheese,” one finally said. “Move along.”
“Oh, ha! I’m not here to mong my cheese at you.”
Blank stares met this.
Was mong even a verb? It had to be; what else did a monger do, if not mong?
“I encountered a soldier of your company in town,” Henry said. “He coveted my cheese—my delicious, crumbly, fragrant cheese.”

And the horrible alleged cheese keeps popping up. Again and again. I was in tears.

This is not saying it doesn’t have serious elements at all, however. As an interracial romance set in the era where slavery was still widespread, it can’t, hell, couldn’t avoid directly addressing the issues of race and privilege and the ideals of the revolution vs the reality. Henry fucks up on occasion, of course, but he is called out and he learns.

“All you idealists have a bit of Thomas Jefferson in you,” John continued. “You fall short of your professed ideals and seek to make up the difference by condescending to those you see as beneath you. But your condescension does not make me feel equal.”
[…]
“It’s a fair criticism,” he said quietly. “Very fair. In my defense, it’s a new ideal for me. I’m still trying to make everything fit.”
“That’s a terrible defense,” John replied. “Am I supposed to excuse you because it has only recently occurred to you that I could be on your level?”
“Also…a fair criticism.” Latham frowned. “I’ve got these horribly awkward bits of elitist thought poking out everywhere, and I’m doing my damnedest to uncover them. It hurts my head, but clearly the situation has been, um, rather more personal to you than a little intellectual discomfort.”

But seriously. If nothing else, read it for the cheese.

That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

They tended to their love like keepers of the flame, nourishing it with ridiculous hope and hoarded memories. Mercy didn’t understand them; she’d smothered her own flames, drowned them in tears and stirred the ashes until she was sure no embers remained.

That Could Be Enough has been on my radar for being historical and f/f since way before I watched Hamilton, unaware that it’s part of a collection or related to anything or that the title references a song. Funnily enough, it’s also the one that relies the most on having some knowledge of history and ties all three novellas together. So in a way, I’m glad I haven’t read it until now because I doubt I would have caught half the references before I watched the musical and did all the damn research after – and hell, I’m still sure I missed things. It wouldn’t impact enjoyment that much if you went in blind, I suppose, and there is always wikipedia, but I like to know. (The nod to Hamilton’s letters to Laurens, for one, that was great.)

Either way. This is the story of prickly, closed-off Mercy, who works as a maid, helping Eliza Hamilton interview people who knew her husband, and Andromeda, a bold, flirty dressmaker. Mercy has been hurt badly in the past and wants nothing more than to live a quiet life until Andromeda comes crashing in. And while something about the writing style didn’t quite connect with me, I loved seeing Mercy slowly open up, loved the way it showed how two queer, Black women could be happy together in an era that wasn’t kind to either. And I have a mighty need for historical f/f besides.

***

If there was one complaint I have about the whole collection is that the vaguely patriotic undertone felt very…odd as a rather America-critical European reading this in the rather disastrous year of 2020. It kind of makes sense for the characters given the setting and era, and it doesn’t go uncriticised (the second novella calls out the hypocrisy quite well), which helped, but it was still, overall, rather positive about America, its founding, and a certain degree of patriotism and hope that it could be a place where anyone can make it. I am willing to handwave it all aside since all the rest was quite delightful and I have very similar issues with the musical (which I love to death! I just criticise it a lot too 😂), but it was a little strange and uncomfortable. Especially since I haven’t noticed a similar undertone in any historical books set in other countries I read so far.

Overall though? I’d wholly recommend it. It was heaps of fun. And what I loved the most is that they were all the exact length they needed to be. I am never satisfied with novellas, I often complain about them not being quite enough, or having odd pacing, and there was none of that here.

Enjoyment: 4/5 to 4.5/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: fellow fans of Hamilton and romance, those looking for books with PoC characters and LGBTQ+ representation
Not recommended to: those annoyed by vaguely patriotic undertones

 

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