Book Review: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Title: An Extraordinary Union
Author: Alyssa Cole
Year: 2017
Pages: 320
Dates Read: May 8-20, 2017
Format: Kindle
Genres: HR, W
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: A white man and a black woman spy for the Union during the American Civil War, not suspecting that their relationship with each other will be their most important puzzle to solve.
Favorite Quotes: 
  • “Elle lowered her face so she wouldn’t have to acknowledge the way Malcolm looked at her, like she was a tome that he wanted to curl up with for days on end, savoring every word.”
  • “Damn, she was impressive. If she didn’t kill him, he’d tell her so.”
  • “She wanted to join in his recitation. Not to one-up him or to prove anything, but for a reason that was new to her: for the enjoyment of it.”
  • “The words hung between them, leaving Elle feeling exposed. They were as intimate as any declaration of ardor, and maybe more so. She’d performed poetry for audiences before, but she’d always done so without feeling. She’d shared her body and her heart with another before, but never her mind. She’d thought those things must be kept separate.”

This was great.  A nice, believable, interracial (during the Civil War!!) romance?  Check.  A smart, strong female lead who realizes her weak points?  Check.  A hot male lead who is forever in awe of the heroine and will probably remain so even after he dies?  Check.  Oh, and a pretty nice espionage plotline?  Check.

Is it okay to fangirl when you see the names of places you live near and have visited on multiple occasions mentioned in novels?  Because I did that with this book.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Tredegar Iron Works even mentioned in a history textbook.

The relationship of Elle and Malcolm in this book is on fire.  I love their repartee, especially when Malcolm is in awe of how amazingly smart Elle is.  And when they bicker about Sir Walter Scott.  I couldn’t help but giggle every time Malcolm was offended by Elle’s criticisms of perhaps the most famous poet of his native Scotland.  Especially when Malcolm realizes that her actual name is Ellen, making them the “fated lovers in the midst of war,” like the Malcolm and Ellen of The Lady of the Lake by that particular Scottish poet.

Elle seemed to have an aversion to quality Scottish literature, but he was quite sure she knew The Lady in the Lake.

Another thing I love about their relationship is that Malcolm isn’t a white savior sent by the author to rescue Elle.  (He even wonders about this through free indirect discourse: “He’d always prided himself as a friend and ally to every man who sought equality, but was that true?  Or had he imagined himself a savior instead?”)  She’s already free, and, in fact, they’re pretty even when it comes to how many times they have to rescue each other.

Elle had already been with another man, a black man, before Malcolm, and he doesn’t care because he recognizes that men and women shouldn’t be judged differently for how many relationships they’ve had: “He didn’t care who or how many men she cavorted with—one thing he’d found in his travels was that women and men weren’t as different as the preacher would have you think when it came to appreciation of the opposite sex.”

I love this quote:

Was a few weeks all it took to start losing yourself, then?  To start rationalizing away the abomination of slavery so that she could think of people like the Caffreys as “not so bad”?  They were buying a child—likely breaking up a family.  They were beasts.

I appreciate that Cole digs into the convoluted relationships between slaves and owners because they weren’t always theoretically black and white, in that they were more complicated than they are typically thought to be and presented.  Such examples from her book are a slave’s caring about the reputation of their owner or whether they will need help with something.  There’s one character who doesn’t want to leave his owner and escape to the North for the latter reason.  She writes:

What twisted providence allowed people so subjugated to be so kind and thoughtful to the people who kept them under their boot?

 It seems illogical to us in America today, but this is something that actually happened quite a lot in the South, typically for slaves whose owners were rather kind to them.  In fact, my own mother knew of an old man who was born to slave parents in our area.  They had been freed but kept working on the property.  Their son even remained in the basement of the house after their deaths.  He was still alive when my mom was old enough to realize the gravity of this, around the ’60s and ’70s.  People, who weren’t related to the family that owned his parents, moved into the house, and he kept living in the basement.  He essentially came with the house.  They were aware of this and didn’t evict him because they couldn’t.  Not that they legally couldn’t, but that they morally felt that they couldn’t.  It was his home, he was old, and they couldn’t allow themselves to kick him out because he was born into a slave family–something that was the fault of their own ancestors.  Isn’t that fascinating?  Even a hundred years after the war ended, the effects of slavery and the convoluted relationship of slaves and owners could be seen.  It is as baffling as it is troubling.

Another place Cole excels is her attention to detail.  You can tell she actually did some thorough research for this novel just from the way she presents scenes like the Richmond slave auction and the goings-on around it.

The one problem I have with this book is the spying bits.  Sometimes things seemed to go a little too well.  I would have liked more conflict in the middle of the book to make their discoveries more difficult and less happenstance.  But, other than that, it did keep me on the edge of my seat at times.

I absolutely love that this is a historical romance set during the Civil War because I love historical romances, and my local area’s history was and is hugely affected by this conflict.  There should be more!  Yeah, there’s the romance, but there is so much more to tackle, so many issues to delve into.  Cole takes the issues of racism and slavery and sheds light on their current relevance.  Because this is set during one of America’s darkest times, it’s definitely not a light read–although it does read very easily.

This book was everything I hoped for and more.  Elle and Malcolm will stay in my memory for a long time, and they have earned a place in my list of favorite literary couples.

I can’t wait for the next book.  Why do I have to wait until November?!

The Book Depository | Amazon | Library | Goodreads

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