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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Review: An Extraordinary Union

Yes, I just now read An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole.  Yes, I know y'all told me it was amazing, but that was the problem.  Unless I'm in on the ground floor, hype has a way of making me dig in my heels.  I've been burned before by the ol' Everybody Loved It, I Didn't So It Must Be I'm Being Difficult (Again!).  So this sat.  And sat.  Until finally a Day Job related "thing" had me digging this up from the depths of my Kindle.  And seriously, I could just kick myself into next Tuesday.  This is easily the strongest historical romance I've read in a dog's age.

Elle Burns is a former slave living a fairly quiet life when the powder keg finally blows hurtling the country into Civil War.  Elle will do anything to ensure a Northern victory, and with her amazing talent (she has a photographic memory), she is recruited by The Loyal League, a network of spies aiding the Union cause.  Elle's current assignment is to pose as a slave in the household of a Confederate Senator in Richmond, Virginia.

That's where she meets up with a new contact, Scottish immigrant Malcolm McCall.  A detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service, Malcolm is posing as a Confederate soldier and plays the part so well that Elle, at first, fears for her safety around him.  He's immediately intrigued, not to mention smitten.  She's, quite naturally, wary as hell.  But they both have a common goal and that means working together - even if their mutual and undeniable attraction for each other puts a serious wrench in the works.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons - but let me tell you why I read it: I'm in it for the emotional response.  I want to be juiced in.  I want to be swept away by a story.  Regardless of genre, regardless of the writer, I want to FEEL something when I read a novel.  Which helps explain why I love romance so much.  All fiction plays on reader emotions in some form or another but romance lives and dies by it.  Romance is all about emotion.  It doesn't work otherwise.  The author has to make you feel for their fictional characters, otherwise what's the point?  And that's what makes this book so remarkable - Cole, simply put, nails the emotion.

The stakes in this book are so incredibly high for all the characters, but most especially Elle who has absolutely everything to lose (her freedom, her dignity, her right to exist!).  This is life or death conflict.  Failure is unthinkable and unfathomable.  Sure, are the stakes high for Malcolm?  Yes. But he's a man and he's white. Yes, he is playing a dangerous game but at the end of the day he has some measure of power.  Elle, while a more confident, self-assured heroine you'll ever meet, doesn't even have the illusion of power.  She's working undercover as a slave and, for all intents and purposes, is completely on her own - even after Malcolm shows up as a partner, of sorts.  She has to trust him, but that doesn't mean it comes easy - and really, you can't blame her.

Cole has a way of writing with such empathy, that you immediately feel everything these characters are feeling and why they're feeling it.  The author made me feel like I was there - witnessing what Ellen was witnessing, the indignities, the depression, the fear, the complete sense of helplessness that she cannot allow to take over because she MUST succeed.  The South winning is unthinkable and not an option.

Malcolm's a compelling hero, the spy plot is interesting, but this is Elle's book y'all.  It just is.  This story lives and dies at her feet.  The richness of her character, the depth of emotion that Cole wrings out through her character, it's remarkable.  Add to this a compelling romantic arc with high stakes, a well-drawn historical backdrop, it's easy to see why so many readers loved this book to the hills and back when it was published in 2017.  I'm late to the party, but as they say...better late than never.

Final Grade = A


Jill said...

I feel like Elle trusted Malcolm and acknowledged her attraction way too early (considering the circumstances), but I've loved everything Alyssa Cole writes *except* this series. I am an anomaly, I think. 🤷‍♀️ Maybe the Civil War just stresses me out too much.

Wendy said...

Jill: I have another romance friend who says she really likes the historicals, but cannot seem to get into Cole's contemporaries. It's funny how that works.

The Civil War is tricky setting in fictoin and Cole wrote the tension and danger so well - I WAS stressed out! But that's also why I liked it.

One thing I didn't mention in my review, I finally got through Ron Chernow's excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant this year (it's amazing, but a time commitment at 900+ pages) - and this book felt a bit like a companion piece with how well Cole handled the historical aspects to the story.

Rowena said...

I read to be swept away in a story, too. Another great review, Wendy. Haha, it must be you being difficult if you didn't love all of the books we love and talk about at So Cal Meet Ups. LOL.

Dorine said...

Glad to hear you loved this one as much as I did, Wendy. I think the Civil War is so hard to write/read about that I have great admiration for the author getting it right. I'd read more like this one if I could. Great review as always.

Wendy said...

Rowena: I think it's a matter of our tastes evolving over all these years! You all have done a much better job of branching out, while I've largely kept reading what I've always liked to read...and telling the damn kids to get off my lawn LOL

Dorine: I loved the high stakes conflict in this one - it actually meant something for lack of a better description. We've all read books where the conflict felt silly or manufactured or would have been cleared up in a 2 page conversation. Not the case in this book AT ALL!