Review: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Format: ebook, paperback
Pub Date: March 28, 2017
Publisher: Kensington
Length: 320 pages
POV: 3rd, past
FTC: Borrowed from the library

I heard about this book all of last year. All. Year. Long. From everyone. And because everyone loved it, I steered clear. I just don't seem to do well with buzzy books.

I also don't do well with American-set romances, so the chances of me totally adoring it were pretty slim.

While I DIDN'T love this book, I did like it. It's an ambitious, well researched book that doesn't sugarcoat anything about the history it portrays, which can be jarring when you're writing/reading in a subgenre that's usually based on fantasy. This is not a light read by any means, but it is a believable and deeply moving story about two people who find each other in the middle of the worst possible circumstances.

I may not like American set historical romances, but I adore spy romance novels, especially historical spy novels. The main problem with spy novels is how do you trust someone who lies as a means of survival? Cole solves that problem here by the fact that a) they're both spies and b) their lives depend on trusting each other. They also never lie to each other. About anything.

Elle is a fantastic character. We see her struggling against her normally outspoken nature as she pretends to be a mute enslaved woman instead of a free black woman with a fabulous mind and adventurous spirit. In that way, we get to experience the indignity of slavery from someone raised outside of it. She's able to let the reader see and feel each attack on her dignity as fresh assaults instead of seeing it as "normal" like someone raised in slavery may have.

I also really liked how Cole chose to have Malcolm McCall be just completely smitten at first sight. He falls in love with Elle far more quickly than she does him. McCall is a charming Scotsman masquerading as a Rebel soldier, and he has a strong, decent core that you see early on. Just solidly good. The reader sees it far earlier than Elle does, who remains wary of him and his motives.

Their romance is far sweeter than I'd imagined considering the dynamics and time period. The fact that it's an interracial romance is not a huge impediment for him at all. Not really. His experiences in Scotland with the clearances gives him a unique perspective on injustice and the fact that he's not US born means he isn't steeped in centuries of the brand of white supremacy that was woven into US culture. He admires her brain, her spirit, her fire. He's not threatened by her eidetic memory. He's far more afraid of what she makes him feel, especially his spurts of jealousy.

My only issue (besides the aforementioned apathy for US hist-roms) was that some of Elle's thoughts felt a little too modern. A little too didactic. It's clear the author was trying to make several points about what history REALLY says versus what most people believe it to say. I appreciated the effort, but it caused me to be yanked out of the story repeatedly. It wasn't organic. I wanted that information to be there without the (metaphorical) giant pointing arrows and flashing neon signs that A POINT IS BEING MADE.

The worst example of this is when an enslaved man who was part of a plot to escape backs out because "his master needs him."

"Elle wanted to scream at this fresh evidence of how complex and insidious the institution of slavery was, but their personal situation had just grown much more complicated."

The author is making an important point that the relationships between enslaved people and their owners is complex and filled with nuance, but she does it by having Elle think about that complexity in a way that feels too modern and obvious. No dialogue with others about why he would stay behind. No emotional reactions to it. Just a clinical thought about how slavery is complex. It was weird.  It could very well be that I'm just too attuned to these kinds of discussions, and that's why it jumped out at me.

Reading this book is not easy. I'm sure writing it wasn't either. We don't have a lot of deeply researched, difficult books in the romance genre anymore, which is a shame. This book should appeal to readers of historical fiction as well as romance, and I was surprised to find I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. If you like American set historical romance, you'll probably adore this book.

 My Grade: B+
The Blurb:
As the Civil War rages between the states, a courageous pair of spies plunge fearlessly into a maelstrom of ignorance, deceit, and danger, combining their unique skills to alter the course of history and break the chains of the past . . .

Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South—to spy for the Union Army.

Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he’s facing his deadliest mission yet—risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia.

Two undercover agents who share a common cause—and an undeniable attraction—Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of the war in the Confederacy's favor. Caught in a tightening web of wartime intrigue, and fighting a fiery and forbidden love, Malcolm and Elle must make their boldest move to preserve the Union at any cost—even if it means losing each other . . .


  1. I'm just getting back to the blogging world. This is a good review and makes me go hmmmmmm :-)

  2. I just don't seem to do well with buzzy books.

    Oh thank the Lord, it's not just me. The more people talk about a book, the more I seem to dig in my heels. Call it fear of letdown. "Well everybody loved it and if I don't..." Sigh. Anyway, I really do need to read this soon because I LOVE American-set historicals and I think listening to the 7000-hour Grant biography by Ron Chernow is priming the pump for me.

    1. You’ll probably like this one. I just cannot get psyched about US historical romance. And yes, the buzz just rarely works for me. I try to keep expectations low, but it still sucks to feel like the odd one out.

  3. I’m still trying to get back to blogging with any kind of regularity. Life keeps getting in the way. It was a difficult book to review, trying to separate out my reading preferences from the book itself.