The night I came across the Justice Hustlers series in the romance section of an independent D.C. bookstore, I knew by the glossy cover, I found a story, unlike any other romance novel I’ve read before. Aya De León’s work delivers a unique combination of feminism, romance, and heist fiction in a flawless fashion.
While the series can be read out of its written order, I started with the first novel, Uptown Thief. The heroine, who keeps the series together, is Marisol Rivera. She is a former sex worker in New York City who opened her own health clinic, dedicated to taking care of the physical and mental health of other sex workers. The clinic soon becomes more than just a place to get a check-up, but a safe haven where women in sex work can come and unashamedly feel taken care of. Running the nonprofit is going well until Marisol needs more money to keep the doors open. The reader then finds out she also robs corrupt rich men and gives back to the communities they insist on exploiting, while also using the stolen funds to pay for the clinic.
Each book flows into the next, and many of the main characters in the following books were introduced within Uptown Thief. Tyesha is the heroine of The Boss, where she becomes the new Executive Director of the María de la Vega Health Clinic after she gets her masters degree in public health – a degree she was only able to afford due to sex work. The reader is also introduced to the women working for The One Eyed King strip club where they come up with the great idea of creating a union, after being pushed to do more than strip for the folks walking through the doors of the club.
The One Eyed King remains the setting in the third book, Accidental Mistress, where Violet is mistaken as the mistress of the owner of The One Eyed King. He runs off with the pensions of his staff, and it is Violet’s sister Lily, a stripper who works for the club, who offers Violet help by leading her to Marisol. Marisol and her crew facilitate the heist that is to return the pension funds to the rightful workers of the club, while also clearing Violet’s name as suspect in the case against the One Eyed King owner. Although Violet is not a sex worker, her Harvard education and career as a makeup artist is juxtaposed with that of Lily’s to show what happens when women are given opportunities versus the lack thereof.
The core theme of the series is clear in each novel. Sex work is real work, and those partaking deserve justice within their occupation and the communities they come from. Each heroine performs some form of sex work in order to survive. Despite the way they may have entered their field, it is how each finds a way to take care of not just themselves, but likewise their families and the communities they are a part of, that rings most powerfully.
De León excellently blends feminism with the excitement of romantic suspense. I was able to learn about the reality of the high costs of nonprofits, the necessity of worker’s unions, and the benefits of cooperation, all while enjoying the thrills of reading about women stealing from corrupt men.
In the fourth novel, Side Chick Nation, we see the long-term effects of what happens when people take advantage of their power and privilege. The heroine, Dulce, thinks she’s going to play the perfect sugar baby role in Puerto Rico with a sugar daddy but finds herself trapped during Hurricane Maria. What was supposed to be a way for her to make money and be spoiled by a rich man turns into a literal disaster zone? Not only does she have to survive the storm, but she also has to figure out how she is going to get back to the mainland of the United States. Her journey highlights the real repercussions of what happens when those profiting from oppression cheat people out of their rightful land and homes.
Of course I cannot forget to mention the importance of romance in the series. Each of our heroines have a hero who is able to see the profession of sex work as just that, a profession, and not as a judgment on their character as a person. The women in this series are all worthy of love just like real sex workers. Aya De León has truly created her own lane in the literary world, and I will continue to read and recommend her work.
This feature was submitted by Morgan Harding
Morgan Harding is, of course, a booklover at her core. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from The University of Mary Washington and a master’s in literature from American University. She is currently a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.
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