Alyssa Cole has done it again: written a historical IR romance set in a tricky time period and done so with amazing aplomb! I am usually skeptical about IR romances set during the American Civil War. This is due to too many of them romanticising the master-slave relationship in a way that, for me, feels disingenuous. In An Extraordinary Union, Cole takes the completely different angle to her story.
Instead of giving us the stereotypical master and slave who fall in love trope, we get something far more exciting–two Union spies in the Loyal League infiltrating the household of a Confederate senator. One of the spies is Elle, a free Black woman with the gift of being able to remember *everything*; as a spy, she puts her life on the line by going to Richmond, Virginia to pretend to be a mute house slave to get information that will help foil the Confederacy. The other spy is Malcolm, a Scottish immigrant pretending to be a Confederate soldier who manages to get close to the senator for the very same purpose–to get whatever information he can about the Confederates’ plans in order to bring them down.
Of course their paths cross in a not-so-meet-cute, but it’s exciting and it sets up the story well. We are reminded constantly of the dangerous situation that Elle and Malcolm are in–if they are found out, they will be tortured and/or killed. And for Elle, who has seen the horrors of slavery as a child and has willingly put herself back in the same situation for the sake of the Union, she is not willing to give in to the attraction she feels for Malcolm–initially she does not know he is also a spy, but also because she has seen the reality of her situation face to face–she and other slaves are property, they are seen as breeders, less than human, disposable. And she’s seen it from the side of slavery and from the abolitionists, some of whom view abolishing slavery as a mission while not caring about or even respecting the very people they claim to want to help. Malcolm’s own experiences in Scotland at the hands of English tyranny have left an indelible mark on his life and that of his family. And while he knows it cannot compare to what Elle has seen and experienced, it does make him more aware of the reality they face and it strengthens his conviction that this is not the sort of world–where men can deem other men as being less than human, buy and sell other men, rip apart families, even kill other men with no fear of the law–he wants to live in.
Cole has woven an exciting story that hooked me from the first page. And my skepticism was completely blown away thanks to her writing a story that does not shy away from the harsh realities of slavery and racism. I used to live in Richmond, Virginia–the capital of the Confederacy–so it was nice being able to picture the story taking place there.
Highly recommended! I am definitely looking forward to the next instalment of this series.