Love stories are going to get me through this crazy year. Outside, the country may be losing its collective mind, but in here it’s warm and cozy and imperfect people still get happily ever afters. Courtney Milan’s books have become my new favorites because of how she incorporates real issues from history. It makes me feel like I’m getting an escape, without a guilt hangover afterward for wanting to disengage. Social class struggles, women’s suffrage, lady scientists, evolution—it’s all in there and it’s all awesome. And unlike a lot of series I’ve read, each book is better than the last. (Needless to say, I have high hopes for the fourth and final installment I just bought in audio!)

If too-good-to-be-true, perfectly beautiful, socially demure ladies are your jam, these books might not be for you. Milan’s characters buck stereotypes and challenge their men and the world around them at every turn. In The Heiress Effect, Jane is a big, curvy girl with ostentatious taste in fashion and a sizeable dowry that makes her a target of all manner of unsavory individuals. A relationship with an up-and-comer in government who is also the bastard son of nobility seems impossible, but…well, you know in Romance World, nothing is impossible.

In The Countess Conspiracy, Violet is a botanist and an expert on reproduction and inheritance, but as a woman she isn’t allowed to present her theories herself. For years, her best friend Sebastian has published her work as his own (and since evolution is such a scandalous idea in 1867, his speeches often result in vegetables being thrown at his head by crowds of angry skeptics). Will Violet ever be able to take credit for her groundbreaking work—and will she be able to overcome the painful baggage in her past and admit her true feelings for Sebastian? Swoon!

In both books, the male leads love their ladies because of their oddness, not in spite of it. Neither Jane nor Violet fits easily into polite society, but both are fiercely intelligent and loyal. Finding someone who loves you for you and doesn’t want to file off your rough edges, that’s the dream, isn’t it? Well, that, and discovering the chromosome.

Find it at your library!

You know how some romance novelists try to convince you their heroine is strong, when all she really is is loud and opinionated? Well, Alyssa Cole knows what real strength is, and her character Elle Burns is way more than outspoken when it comes to her fight against slavery. She’s a spy for the Loyal League, posing as a slave in a Southern household and making use of her preternatural memory to glean information to help the Union cause.

When she first meets Malcolm McCall, he’s in disguise as a Southern gentleman and Confederate soldier, but as a detective with Pinkerton’s Secret Service, his true purpose aligns with hers. Soon they’re working together and sharing information, and Malcolm makes it clear he wants to share a whole lot more. But Elle is understandably standoffish—getting involved with anyone could jeopardize her mission, and getting involved with a white man could mean her death.

The danger and romance of Elle and Malcolm’s situation is a winning combination. One of my pet peeves in romantic fiction is manufactured conflict, but Cole doesn’t have to contrive anything here. The Civil War was a volatile time in our history, and the risk to both Elle and Malcolm is very real. It also doesn’t hurt that Cole is a sophisticated and polished writer.

I loved Elle’s independence and poise. She doesn’t “need” Malcolm in the way romantic heroines often need their men—in fact, his presence in her life complicates everything exponentially. She is the consummate professional and perfectly capable of handling herself when she gets into a tight spot. She isn’t ever waiting for Malcolm to swoop in and save the day. I’ve read some great feministy romance this year, and An Extraordinary Union belongs at the top of that list.