In An Extraordinary Union Alyssa Cole’s impressive research facilitates a phenomenal story of courage and love. MUSTREAD for all historical romance fans!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
Back in March, a retweet of Alyssa Cole sharing information about the release of An Extraordinary Union came across WSN’s timeline. For some reason I can’t name now, the book cover caught my attention. I quickly went to Goodreads, read the summary, and was instantly intrigued. As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m a huge history buff, and the American Civil War and Reconstruction are some of the time periods I most enjoy learning about. And if you’ve been reading my book reviews, you know that I live and breathe historical romance novels. So now you’re trying to tell me that Ms. Alyssa Cole wrote an historical romance set during the Civil War featuring an interracial romance between two Union spies, one of which is a Black woman?! BE STILL MY HEART! I immediately added An Extraordinary Union to my TBR list and retweeted by excitement about the book’s release. Well, I got caught up with the rest of the semester, but since school ended, I’ve been working my way through my TBR list. After a conversation with my homegirl Cosmo, AEU (and Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai, another 5+ Star read) shot up to the top of my list.
I started reading AEU and was immediately transported to 1862. Ms. Cole’s in-depth research was clear from the outset of the book. But what was even more impressive was how the history facilitates a phenomenal story of equally compelling characters. Yes, we observe the very real indignities and barbarism of American Slavery. Yet, even in this context, we were treated to the courage, shrewd intelligence, and hope that helped see this country through the appalling times. With that said, at it’s heart, AEU was a love story, and even in this unbearably difficult situation, love emerges in the most beautiful way.
We meet Elle Burns while she’s in a very precarious situation, one that’s partially of her own making. Elle is a Freedwoman, and has been so since she and her parents were granted freedom in her youth. From that time, she lives with her family in Massachusetts. But Elle has always wanted to do more or the abolitionist cause. You see, Elle has an eidetic (photographic) memory, and surely there is a way to put it to use. For awhile, she spends time with the Abolitionist Movement, who tout her intelligence as justification for ending slavery. Afterall, if a Black woman is capable of this high level of intelligence, surely Black people were equal to Whites. Elle’s time in this role becomes very tedious, especially when she’s reduced to nothing more than a sideshow. She flirts with the idea of relocating to Africa, even going as far as to travel to Liberia. But Elle is restless. America is her home, as much as any White person’s, so she’s going to stay here and work to make things better. By the time she returns to the U.S., the Civil War is underway, and Elle figures out how she can put her skills to work. She can be a spy for the Union cause! Elle joins the Loyal League, a society of Black Union loyalists who are gathering intelligence that can be used to break the South.
When we catch up with Elle, she’s “stationed” in Richmond, VA, undercover as a mute slave with the family of a newly elected Confederate Senator Caffrey. Elle grows increasingly frustrated with her assignment, no thanks to the insipid daughter of the family, Susie, who’s determined to make Elle’s life hell, and the Senator’s wife who takes pleasure in punishing Elle for the fact that her husband exhibits a “special interest” in Elle’s work (UGH).
Things take a turn when Malcolm McCall arrives in Richmond and ingratiates himself with Caffrey family. At first glance, Malcolm is just a Confederate soldier looking to climb the ranks in society. However, Malcolm is really a detective with Pinkerton’s Secret Service, also tasked with gathering intelligence for the Union. He has some experience with how oppression can break families (his own family emigrates from Scotland to flee the English’s post-Culloden decimation of the Scots culture). And Malcolm will do his damndest to make sure the Union prevails in the War.
Elle and Malcolm’s work brings them in close proximity as they share information and collaborate for the Cause. From first meeting, Malcolm feels a deep attraction to Elle and a strong desire to ensure her wellbeing. But, Secret Service or not, Elle is very distrustful of him. Malcolm’s just an adventure-seeking charmer who wouldn’t have a problem using her for his own purposes. However, when Malcolm helps Elle several times, preventing her cover from being blown, she starts to wonder if his claims to care for her could be true.
Elle and Malcolm are my everything!
Elle is brilliant, passionate, and unbelievably courageous. She knows her own mind is and what she wants in life. At the same time, she has a keen awareness of the reality of her situation. Yes, she’s willing to sacrifice herself for the hope of Emancipation for all Black people. But even if the Union wins this War tomorrow, she could never have a relationship with a White man. In all things, this society puts him above her. She could only ever be his plaything and that’s NOT something that’s about to happen.
We, the readers, recognize this too…surely, it’s an impossible situation, made more so by Susie’s scheming to have Malcolm for herself. But just as Malcolm works to open Elle’s heart, our hearts open too. Malcolm becomes an ally in a way he isn’t before meeting Elle. Yes, he’s for the Union cause, but falling in love with Elle, opens his eyes to his privilege and everything she stands to lose, even as a Freedwoman and detective:
“How can you stand it, Elle? How can you not be bursting with anger?”
“Where would that get me? This righteous anger you speak of?” She now looked him full in the face, challenge inscribed in the set of her mouth and the lift of her brow. He hated her calmness and restraint when he was feeling her injustice so keenly. But he knew the anger that pulsed through him wasn’t caused by her prim expression, or even the situation that caused it. Malcolm was upset with himself; it galled to think that although he fought against slavery he’d never so keenly understood it’s unfairness until he met the brilliant woman before him…
“The blood of my people permeates the very foundation of this country. Even if everything from the Eastern seaboard to the furthest territory out West was razed to the ground, it couldn’t make up for the injustice. And if you think that’s what I’m fighting for, what every Negro putting their life on the line to stop the Confederacy is fighting for, then you’ve misunderstood everything. You’ve misunderstood me…We don’t want revenge, Malcolm.”
She looked at him like he was the densest bastard to ever walk the earth.
“We want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just like any damned fool in these United States is entitled to so long as he isn’t Black or Red. So you can keep your outrage. All I can do is try to make a difference.”
Eventually, Elle feels that she can come to Malcolm for comfort in this very difficult time. And that comfort is unbelievably romantic and super sexy:
“You’re allowed whatever you want, as far as I’m concerned. What do you want, Ellen?”
“I want…comfort.” The words came out deep, rough. Elle was ashamed to discover that she was trembling, her duplicitous body plainly broadcasting the desire she wished she could hide from him, and especially from herself.
“Can you be more specific, love?”
She couldn’t. All the fancy words she had accumulated over the years were stuck in that logical portion of her brain, the part that knew what she was about to do next was madness. She kissed him…
“Is this comfort enough, Elle?” he asked. His palm massaged her through the rough fabric, each controlled twist of his wrist sending a burst of pleasure through her…
“Yes, it’s enough,” she said, although she hoped he wouldn’t stop. The way he looked down at her was dangerous. It was the look of a man who would not be deterred, not in war and not in making love. His fingers replaced his palm and she swallowed a cry, her head lolling against his shoulder as the increased pressure sent even stronger bolts of all-encompassing pleasure through her…
“You think I want you for a taste of something taboo,” he whispered. “But you’re any man’s dream: intelligent, brave, and so damn lovely I can’t tear my eyes from you. That’s why I want you.”
“I shouldn’t admit this, but I never felt so alone as when you walked away from me.”
Malcolm felt hope flood through him like the Mississippi topping her banks. She wasn’t only speaking of their work—it wasn’t just him caught up in this storm of emotion. He wasn’t alone in sensing the connection between them that defied society and common sense.
“I won’t,” he said, and he meant it. “I won’t ever leave you again, I promise.”
His lips pressed to her forehead, a chaste kiss that shook him as much as their more heated moments because she returned it after a beat, dropping a soft kiss on his chin in return. He wasn’t sure that she believed his words, but he believed them and that would have to do for the both of them…
He resisted the impulse to move quickly—Elle was far too important to ever be something he possessed by brute strength. Instead, he reached his hands out and caressed her, dragging his hands over the thin fabric and then pulling that up over her head, too. Her smooth skin was warm to the touch, soft as silk…
She moaned, her fingers moving to his chest to scrape up over his nipples as she pulled at him. “I need more, Malcolm.”
His eyes flew to hers in question, the brown depths fathomless in the candlelight. She hesitated and then nodded. Malcolm felt a sweet relief at her signal; not because he would claim her, but because she’d asked him to. He slid up the bed, leaving his cock perfectly positioned at her entrance and, as he kissed her like she was his dearest treasure, he nudged his manhood between her folds and into the heated core of her. She was tight, and the entry was slow going, but when he filled her completely she fit him like a silken glove.
“Oh, my Ellen,” he breathed into her mouth.
She wrapped her legs around his waist, thrusting her hips up and squeezing his cock even more tightly within her, and he was lost to sensation.
So, I LOVE taboo romances, but as I started reading AEU, consent was an issue for me. In this time period where the institution of slavery is so insidiously entrenched, can a Black woman, even a Freedwoman, truly consent to a relationship with a White man? This isn’t necessarily the place where I want to get into the legal and social-psychological foundations/ramifications of that question. But what I can say is that having Elle as the main character, being afforded the ability to inhabit her mind, is a very good thing. We witness her thought-processes and reasonings, her internal battles and doubts, and eventually her very real love for Malcolm. Similarly, we observe the authenticity of Malcolm’s feelings.
With that said, it’s refreshing to see another type of story emerge from this genre, one that places a woman of color in a central role by acknowledging her agency, as well as the limits dictated by American society of the time. Besides, I’m still in my Outlander/James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser feels, so give me all Malcolm’s declarations of love and lust in Scottish brogue!
Ms. Cole guides the story into an HEA that’s all the more joyful and fulfilling because of the perilous path Elle and Malcolm must navigate in order to get there. There were times that I had to put down my kindle and take a break to calm my heart that was racing from all the action and plotting and fear. There were other times where I had to stop to physically flail because I was overwhelmed with swoons.
An Extraordinary Union is MUSTREAD for all historical romance fans. It has all the things we love in the genre. The story is very well written, the characters are strong, plus the intrigue and swoony romance draw you all the way in.
With the way AEU ends, you better believe I’m counting down until when I can get my hands on the second book in the series, A Hope Divided (following Malcolm’s brother Ewan, a Union counterintelligence officer and Marlie, a Black scientist and Loyal League spy).