An Extraordinary Union is a historical romance set during the turbulent American Civil War. The heroine is spunky Elle Burns, a former slave with an eidetic memory who becomes a detective for the Union through the Loyal League, a society of freed and enslaved blacks with networks across the country to funnel intelligence to the North. Her latest assignment is to pose as a mute slave in Richmond, Virginia in the household of Confederate Senator Caffrey. The hero is Malcolm McCall, a Scottish born detective for Pinkerton, also assigned to gather intelligence from the Caffrey household, posing as a rebel solider. Both use their greatest weapons to their advantage to fulfill their mission and remain undetected: Malcolm’s charm and people skills while Elle plays up her lowly slave status and is able to hear secrets that her white “betters,” think she’s too stupid to understand. The two normally operate alone, but are forced to work together and inevitably fall in love while discovering a Confederate plot to take down the Union. They risk their lives to help the Union persevere and nearly lose each other.
At first, I was skeptical of their romance. Being in an interracial relationship is a challenge in modern times, but I couldn't imagine a plausible, consensual one taking place in the 1800's with miscegenation (interracial marriage or sex) laws, slavery, and the general consensus that black people were inferior, property, and akin to animals. I shared Elle’s initial distrust of Malcolm as her espionage and romantic partner, despite their mutual attraction. In the 1800's, white men sexually exploited black women without impunity, but Malcolm proves to both of us that he respects and admires her and wants to aid and protect her. Both characters are equally matched and the taboo quality of their romance and all the obstacles they face to be together made me root for their extraordinary union.
Elle is a fascinating and dynamic character. She’s quick-witted and brave. Elle makes Mr. McCall work very hard for her affections, since she has a reluctance to trust easily, especially men. Malcolm rejects many of the white patriarchal societal norms while Elle’s reasons for wanting to aid the Union are a no-brainer. So what, I asked myself, does a Scottish immigrant with nothing to gain get out of risking his kilt? There’s more to Malcolm than meets the eye. Alyssa Cole adds a twist about a traumatic event in Malcolm’s childhood that propelled him to help the Union; not only showing his vulnerability and experience with being an ”other,” but also a glimpse into Scotland’s history.
Cole is very clever with the way she depicts slavery in her novel. She educates the reader on the dehumanizing atrocities committed by the ruling class, but not in a graphic or explicit way. The book doesn't sugarcoat slavery, but it doesn't get so heavy that it overshadows the romance and adventure. Since this is a romance, there’s plenty of physical loving and witty banter, but Cole devotes most of the plot to the espionage, the danger to our capable leads, and talking about the black experience during a dark time in American history. If you like clever historical romance with dynamic characters of color, civil war espionage, Scottish rogues with a heart of gold, and interracial romance, this is the book for you.