The first book I ever read by Alyssa Cole was BE NOT AFRAID. Like AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION, BE NOT AFRAID is a Civil War-era historical romance told from an African American perspective. Unlike EXTRAORDINARY, BE NOT is short & wasn't able to utilize its length well. As much as I appreciated reading a fictional account of history from a perspective we need more of, I ended up being disappointed, although I did say that if the author wrote a full length novel, I would be back.
Well, she did, so here I am!
And I am glad to be back, because AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION was everything I had been hoping to get out of BE NOT AFRAID. EXTRAORDINARY features a strong, female protagonist in the form of Elle Burns, a young African American woman with an eidetic memory who is a spy for the North. The hero, Malcolm McCall, is also a spy. He's Scottish, but is in a better position than most white people at this time to understand what it's like to be used and dehumanized because of the horrible things he experienced during the Jacobite Rebellion.
Their paths cross at the house of an odious Southern family, the Caffreys. Elle is posing as a mute slave. Malcolm is posing as a Confederate soldier, come home to bask in the glory while secretly gathering information and exchanging it with other spies. He falls for Elle pretty much on sight, and his admiration of her only grows as he learns more about the role she's playing in the house and the secret brilliance of her mind. Getting her to trust him is another thing entirely, though.
EXTRAORDINARY UNION is a roller coaster of a read. There is so much action, so much danger, and the main characters are both so likable that you desperately want them to survive and find happiness. Elle is such an amazing heroine, she's so brave and smart. And Malcolm is a dashing hero who is so ahead of his time. I shipped them immediately, and spent the rest of the book gnawing at my fingernails the way hardcore Game of Thrones fans do whenever they start the new season. Cole manages to capture the sheer awfulness of the time period and the inherently racist societal structures that helped perpetuate slavery and racism with the ease that Octavia Butler did in KINDRED (although far less graphically!), while also showing the complex nuances that relationships at this time period could have, whether it's the kindness a slaveholder might bestow upon a slave (and how disturbing it is, that treating someone as a human being might be regarded as a mere courtesy), or the hypocrisy some Union soldiers had, seeing the people whose rights they were allegedly seeking as nothing more than a means to an end. The result? A romance that lays out the facts and makes you think.
I saw that this book was the first in a series, and I am so excited because it's been a while since I found a historical romance series that captured my fancy like this one. Her style is reminiscent of Beverly Jenkins's (and you can imagine the shrill fangirl squeal I emitted when I saw her thank Jenkins in her acknowledgements section), with a dash of Elizabeth Hoyt. Somehow, she manages to combine Jenkins's broad scope with Hoyt's steamy romance.
P.S. Eff you, Susie. You're officially the Joffrey of this book universe.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars