Alyssa Cole is the most agile writer I’ve read, and I will follow her into genres I typically steer away from because she is that good. I’ll admit it: I’m an Alyssa Cole fan girl. Her latest releases, the contemporary romance novel How to Catch a Queen (2020) and the thriller When No One is Watching (2020) demonstrate her versatility and commitment to social justice in popular genre fiction.
How to Catch a Queen is the first book in a new series, Runaway Royals. This series continues the project started in her Reluctant Royals series, which showcased a variety of African, American, and European characters transforming staid and oppressive systems to recognize illegitimate heirs, non-binary royals, and more. In both series, Cole brilliantly uses the beloved royal trope to imagine how royal leaders can transform harmful political systems. Indeed, several characters from that series appear in How to Catch a Queen, showing the importance of community and the possibility of changing multiple political systems. At the same time, in How to Catch a Queen, Cole sensitively explores generational trauma, toxic masculinity, and debilitating anxiety. In true feminist fashion, she illustrates how patriarchal values harm people of all genders, and how romantic relationships can be a catalyst for dismantling those values on both micro and macro levels.
Shanti Mohapti has been training to be a queen her whole life, motivated by a desire to enact social change to benefit as many lives as possible. Sanyu II has dreaded becoming king of Njaza his whole life, fearful that he can’t fulfill the legacy of his father, Sanyu I, and his trusted advisor Musoke. The fate of Njaza hangs in the balance as Sanyu II assumes the throne and weds Shanti, and the country grapples with its post-colonial identity and patriarchal legacy. Njaza, an African country and former colony of European country Liechtienbourg, overcame post-colonial civil wars through the isolationist and coercive leadership on Sanyu I. Now, the country is economically devasted, led by a reluctant heir and strong armed by an advisor resistant to change. Unrest is growing and rumbles of protest and insurrection clamor outside the palace walls. Integral to these protests is a group of underground feminists, aided by Shanti herself, who, disguised, sneaks out at night to advocate for change where she can.
This novel is more explicitly political that Cole’s other novels, and can be read as a commentary on so many real-world political systems that rely on tradition and force to cover up inconvenient truths about the past in order to maintain the status quo. Cole shows that the path to peace and prosperity is through international collaboration and dismantling systems that relegate women and other marginalized people to the shadows. She also incorporates a richly developed spiritual tradition that guides Njaza’s leaders, and shows how that, too, has suffered from patriarchal control. The recovery of feminist spirituality is an uncommon and lovely addition to this complex novel.
I read How to Catch a Queen at the start of the new year, finishing on January 3rd. A friend began reading it after January 6th and admitted that it all felt a little too real at our current moment. However, if you’re looking for signs of hope and possibility for transforming institutions to make them more equitable, then this is definitely the right novel to read now. While some readers bristled at the overt politics, I enjoyed that Cole leaned into our politically challenging moment and provided a happy ending, not only for our lovers, but for anyone who needs hope that our political systems can be bent toward justice.
Although I don’t usually read thrillers, I knew I had to read Alyssa Cole’s contribution to the genre—When No One is Watching. The novel chronicles Sydney Brown’s struggles to keep her mother’s Brooklyn home in the face of gentrification, and shows the ways that long-standing communities of color are decimated by multiple institutions invested in gentrification. Because Cole comes from a romance background, she weaves in a partnership between Sydney, a Black woman, and Theo, a White man who is a reluctant gentrifier. Sydney and Theo begin to question everything they see happening in the community, and form a romantic alliance, though their relationship is minimized because of the genre conventions. Their partnership involves digging beneath the surface of the companies and individuals involved in the gentrification process, and connecting the threads to a sinister core. The novel shifts between Sydney and Theo’s first-person points of view, offering insight into the unfolding story across racial identities. While some readers have critiqued the never-ending plot twists and turns that drive the story, the unrelenting chaos, loss, and horror bring to life systemic racism and its impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. It highlights the ways that White people are knowing, and in some cases unwitting, accomplices, as well as the few like Theo who become true allies in the cause of racial justice. Since I’ve only read a handful of thrillers, I can’t attest to When No One is Watching as an exemplar of the genre. I can, however, tell you that the novel is compulsively readable. I sped through the pages, locked into a grim ride I couldn’t escape. When No One is Watching is thought provoking and necessary.
By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten
Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.