An Extraordinary Union (The Loyal League #1)
Kensington / March 28, 2017 / $15.00 print, $9.99 digital
“They risked their hearts and their lives. For freedom. For justice. For love…”
Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union is the first in what promises to be a riveting series. In this novel, Elle Burns is a former slave turned spy for the Union during the Civil War. The year is 1862, the setting Virginia. Elle meets Malcolm McCall, a Scotsman turned Pinkerton detective. I read the first few chapters in small bites, absorbing details as Alyssa painted a scene rich with details of time, place, and societal norms. Once I hit the main spy story, however, there was no stopping.
Setting an interracial romance during the Civil War is a risky undertaking, but Alyssa has handled it with aplomb. Drawing on her experience writing about the Revolutionary War and the Civil Rights movement, she’s given us a story that reflects the complexities of being both a patriot and an agitator for change. Despite the government- and society-sanctioned abuses suffered by her race (and her own family) Elle is a woman who loves her country and is willing to give her life in service to making it a better place. I cannot think of a person more patriotic than she, and knowing that the character is based on a real woman made me read parts of the story with tears in my eyes. (I cheated and read the Author’s Note before the rest of the book.) Elle is my new favorite heroine. She has an eidetic memory, but she’s also capable of making connections and acting in roles that others wouldn’t stand.
“She was no simpering miss. She was Ellen Burns, and she was going to help destroy the Confederacy.”
Malcolm is a white man wearing Rebel gray when he first meets Elle. She has every reason to dislike and mistrust him. When she discovers that he is also working for the Union, they develop a professional relationship plagued by attraction. Neither of them wants to be attracted to the other, but Malcolm’s reasons aren’t what you might expect. He is truly afraid of using his privilege in a way that might hurt Elle—his mother was brutally used by the English in an event that caused his family to unwillingly emigrate to the United States from Scotland and destroyed his family slowly. He, too, is a patriot who has reason to hate the country but has found love and home here.
“I fight for the Union because America is supposed to be a land where people can be free from tyranny, where families aren’t ripped apart to make a profit, where men aren’t whipped for speaking their mind and women aren’t abused worse than brood mares.”
Malcolm spends the early part of the book afraid of his feelings for Elle and the latter part terrified that he can’t protect her despite them. Elle spends most of the book alternately trying to trust Malcolm and fight her feelings for him. She calls herself any number of names, including “race-traitor” and “fool.” She knows that judgment of their relationship will come from all sides, and doesn’t have the white male privilege of telling the world to get stuffed. Their relationship is fascinating, full of angst and challenges both internal and external. It’s also full of sweet moments and Elle’s sharp-tongued zingers that make Malcolm and readers fall in love with her.
Alyssa has an admirable talent for seamlessly dropping huge amounts of historical detail into a story in a way that enhances her characterizations. Elle and Malcolm wouldn’t be who they are without their backstories, but Alyssa isn’t hitting her readers over the head with a history textbook. Instead, her characters walk through the world, experiencing the setting and showing you their value system through their interactions. By focusing on individuals, she’s telling us our own history in a way that makes it both relatable and fascinating. I am both awed by Elle and can see her reflected in the words and actions of black women throughout our country’s history. Her bravery and intelligence have not been lost to the ages, but carried forward by women who are still fighting today for justice and a better Union.
This is a novel in which the setting is a character—a dangerous character who might lie to you or kill you when you least expect it. Elle and Malcolm face larger obstacles than most couples, and it’s their incredible strength of will and love of country and each other that pulls them through. It’s a rare book that can make you believe in love and the United States at the same time. I cannot wait for the next in the series.
Learn more about or pre-order a copy of An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, available March 28, 2017:
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When not reading All of the Things, Suzanne is raising two small valkyries and trying to open a bookstore. Book, comic, and assorted other tweets at @cerestheories.