The Heart of a Story: ‘Can’t Escape Love’ and ‘Desire Lines’

Heart of the Story
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This book is all about happiness — happiness in love, happiness in work, happiness with life as it comes at you. Cole is a highly skilled writer, who can convey a wealth of emotion and meaning with a few well-chosen words. And yet, her books are not self-conscious and cautious, but rather, filled with a joie de vivre that is enchanting. If you are a fan of comics, anime, superheroes, and puzzles, this novella will be a delight.  

Regina “Reggie” Hobbs is a super fan of Reject Squad Ultra and she knows everything that is to be known about the anime show — even her house is filled with reminders of the show. Reggie is a strong, independent woman who uses quirkily-designed wheelchairs to get around because of her ataxia. She is the founder of GirlsWithGlasses, and through talent and sheer hard work, she has made her fledgling pop culture and social media enterprise into a hugely popular site.

She really wants to take her business to the next level, but her old nemesis, insomnia, is dogging her heels and is interfering with her ability to concentrate — which is already a struggle with her ADHD. The only way she can beat insomnia is with the voice of Kakuro Kendoku in her ear. His had been a disembodied voice on an online live stream, where he talked about all kinds of things while his brain and hands focused on solving puzzles. In recent months, he’d wiped his video archives, and Reggie now has no support system when she starts to struggle with sleep.  What is she to do?

Gustave “Gus” Nguyen is a neurodivergent, gifted puzzle master who loves solving complex problems. His day job is being an architect, but in his spare time, he designs escape rooms. He has recently been hired for a dream project: designing a multi-room escape experience for Reject Squad Ultra. Unfortunately, he knows next to nothing about anime, romance, or the show. Not only that, but he has a tight deadline for the project, and the disparate parts of the project that he has designed are just not coming together as a whole. What is he to do?

When the puzzle piece Kendoku=Gus falls into place, Reggie and Gus’ in-real-life relationship takes off. Discovering that they live within minutes of each other in Queens, NYC is a coincidence written by fate.

I liked how when they meet, their instant connection comes from all those hours of online conversations between them. So their first meeting really happens in the middle of their relationship, not at the beginning, where all the awkward getting-to-know-you has already happened, making for an easy camaraderie right off the bat with attraction snapping between them. It was lovely to see them grapple with transforming their tenuous online association into a robust in-person companionship. 

By contrasting how demanding her parents’ expectations of Reggie are and how easy Gus’ acceptance of her is, Cole deftly shows why Gus is the perfect person for Reggie. Likewise, Reggie’s complete acceptance of Gus, quirks and all, is such a contrast to his Vietnamese-American family’s suffocating care and concern.

What I really liked about Can’t Escape Love is that Reggie and Gus choose to be in this relationship, because they’re drawn to each other in a variety of ways. They are not in the relationship to satisfy some emotional lack in their lives, but rather, as two individuals on an equally strong footing with each other who’re inherently happy with their lives. Thus their connection is intentional — a decision that is mutually desirable. This sense of purpose allows them to handle the highs and lows of their relationship with clear-sighted maturity and compassion for themselves and each other.

I have followed Cole’s Reluctant Royals series from its first book, and I’ve loved every single one of them. This book is one of two novellas between books two and three. They’re all standalone books, but you don’t want to miss a single one of them. I rarely recommend an entire series of books, but this is one of those times.

No one does medieval romance as superbly as Elizabeth Kingston. Desire Lines is a thing of beauty: complex in essence, rich in detail and characterization, with every word indispensable to the story. This is the third book in her Welsh Blades series, and every book is a treasure.   

Told in crisscrossing storylines, this novel displays the intricacy of the history and personality of the protagonists by turns revealing and concealing details, always teasing the reader with glimpses of this or that. Kingston is remarkably skilled in keeping the reader always on tenterhooks as her story wends its way through circumstances, events, and people.

The Welsh word hiraeth is what this book is all about. It is a deep abiding hunger for what one has lost and that means everything to who they are. Both protagonists are searching for a return to the days of their youth, when they were safe and protected, when life was simpler and wants were more commonplace. While he yearns for the home he left behind in Wales, she yearns to be reunited with her younger sister. Their journey together towards their destiny is one strewn with love and heartbreak.

Nan, lately of Morency, is an uncommon girl. Unearthly beautiful, resolute, and extremely talented in the fighting arts, she is journeying to Lincoln in search of her younger sister, whom she had promised on her mother’s deathbed to look after. Circumstances had separated them, but Nan is determined to be with Bea again. She rarely speaks, because she discovered early on, that as a serving girl, she was more eloquent with her silences than her words. She feels very fortunate that she has had two highborn ladies who intervened to save her life when she was in danger of losing her way.

Gruffydd ab Iorwerth ap Cynan Goch is a Welsh prince in exile who has sworn fealty to King Edward of England. He was taken hostage by the king as punishment for his father’s rebellion. Luckily, Gryff was raised in the tolerant home of Lancaster, a Norman baron and apprenticed to the falconer. Being of naturally patient and calm temperament, he was ideally suited to make a success in falconry. Unfortunately, his father’s further rebellion puts his life in danger and he escapes to a monastery.  

Nan and Gryff meet with him chained to a post while she is surrounded by blood, not her own, as she saves his life and hers from a band of marauders. Noting how close to death he is, she takes him under her wing on the journey to Lincoln, where he goes to find a dear friend from his fostering years and she goes to find her sister.

The most attractive thing about Nan is her competence. No matter what she does, fighting with her daggers, roasting birds, or discovering byways to her destination, she is wholly self-sufficient and confident. She has no need of other people, so the only reason she chooses to have Gryff accompany her on her journey to Lincoln and thence to Wales is for companionship, and perhaps, because she can be of help to him. She likes being useful, and assuming the role of protector suits her inclination.

Both Nan and Gryff are both strong, and yet, when one is vulnerable, the other is stalwart. When one of them is disturbed, they draw comfort and strength from the other’s calm patience. When one is slow to trust, the other shores up their courage. They each help ground the other into the moment. That it is done unconsciously makes the bone-deep trust they have for each other all the more precious. Their relationship is not one where they try hard to come together or make it work. Their connection comes of its own accord, as unrelenting as it is inevitable. Their bond is at once steadfast and unshakable — their belonging to each other has no beginning and no end.

How Gryff manages to defy the king while keeping his head and how he foregrounds his love for his people, his lands, and Nan above all else is a tale worth savoring.

I could rhapsodize about this book for eons, but instead of reading my words, I urge you to read the author’s. It will be an experience quite out of the ordinary.

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