Task: Read a romance novel by or about a person of color.
In some ways, romance really is the other side of the horror coin. A novel basically consists of bad things happening to
good interesting people who are desperately trying to get something they want. Horror beds down in the “bad things” part of that equation, while romance concerns itself with the “want” bit. Horror, like romance, is also a rather maligned genre, though I’d argue that the criticism of romance has a much more sexist tone (which is maddeningly unsurprising, considering most romance is written by and for women), and so I’m always ready to take up for it.
I was especially interested in this task because of the controversy surrounding the Rita Awards and the significant barriers thrown up for romance writers of color. An Extraordinary Union was a blockbuster title last summer, and for very good reason. I tore through it in a couple of days earlier in the summer. The heroine Elle is a Union spy posing as a slave in order to uncover a Confederate plot. The hero is also a Union spy posing as a Confederate war hero. That all makes for a short, explosive fuse, and both characters are smart, grounded, and easy to root for. And sure, in the hands of a lesser writer, this interracial Civil War era relationship (with a happy ending, no less!) could have gotten into Capital P Problematic territory faster than you can say power differential. That amazingly doesn’t happen, and there’s a rich and well-researched backdrop to the proceedings to boot.
The first book that came to mind reading this wasn’t any other romance novel I’ve read (I haven’t read many though) – it was Kindred, which I read earlier this year. Like Kindred, An Extraordinary Union approaches slavery through the eyes of someone forced to pretend to be a slave. It’s a device that does an incredible job of getting across the absolutely disgusting humiliation of slavery in addition to its physical horror. An Extraordinary Union manages to give its characters the happy ending that’s pretty much a requirement of the genre, but man do they have to fight for it. Kindred’s ending makes a very vivid statement about the continued impact of slavery on the present, but An Extraordinary Union’s concluding scenes actually express a little hope. Frankly, here and now, it’s hard to resist that kind of catnip.