This review could easily end up being 6500 words long. I don’t think it will, but holy smokes is there SO MUCH TO SAY.
First, yes, you should absolutely read this book immediately, if you haven’t already. There is so much happening in the conflict within each of the protagonists, between the protagonists, and around them and their allies and enemies, I can’t possibly discuss all of it, but please know: if you are a reader (and why else would you be here, right?) this book is a marvelous, intelligent, respectful, breathtaking treat for your brain.
Of course, the sequence of reading it might go like this:
Your brain at the end of a chapter: Moar pls now.
Book: Ok! Here’s another!
Your pulse: NOT FAIR.
Your alarm clock: I give up.
Elle Burns is a free Black woman with a photographic memory who is deep undercover for the Loyal League as a spy in a Confederate leader’s household. Her memory is uncanny: she cannot forget anything – not what’s been said to her or around her, what she’s read or seen, anything. Her brain is full of information, information that’s vital to the Union. It’s a very big deal to her, too, to choose to use her skills to help her country, and to help people like herself, instead of feeling as if her unique memory makes her an anomaly or a talent to be exploited.
Malcolm McCall is also a Union spy and a Pinkerton detective. He’s concocted an identity as a Confederate soldier and is committed to the Union side in part because of his own family’s story before they emigrated to the United States from Scotland. He meets the senator in whose house Elle is also working, and after being invited to visit becomes the object of desire for the senator’s rather spoiled daughter, Susie. Eventually he learns that Elle is undercover in that household, and recognizes her from a prior encounter years before.
From then on, they have a difficult time avoiding each other. Malcolm is immediately taken with Elle, and Elle is not at all sure of him, or if she can trust him, because Malcolm’s identity rests on his skills as a charmer. Malcolm also has a great deal to learn about the different threat levels under which each of them live their public and secret lives.
There’s a lot to examine in terms of cover and subterfuge, and so much subtlety in how characters can or cannot add and remove disguises. Elle is assigned a role and treatment she can’t escape because of the color of her skin. And she adds on to the other position she’s chosen, an active, dangerous one which uses that same prejudice to hide in plain sight. The Confederates around her talk openly in front of her because she’s a slave, so they don’t see her as a person (if they see her at all). Plus, because part of her character disguise is that she’s mute, they assume she’s stupid, or deaf, or both.
Meanwhile, Malcolm is very accustomed to being treated a certain way because he’s good looking and very charming, and he deploys that charm in order to gain confidences and secrets from the people around him. He’s also treated with welcome and respect because he’s wearing a Confederate uniform — which he can remove, of course — and he’s a quick and accurate judge of character. He knows when to tell a story that highlights his heroism just enough, and when to ask questions or make someone feel important, all with the visible, prominent “cover” of his grey wool uniform.
Both Elle and Malcolm assume risks in their daily tasks amid the assignments they are given, but there is constant imbalance. Elle’s is always the more dangerous role: her safety can be compromised and eliminated at any moment, whereas Malcolm can talk his way out of many situations. (He does, too.) Malcolm’s presence also adds to the danger for Elle, and doesn’t alleviate any of it, much as he’d like to be able to protect her. That imbalance adds to the tension that increases slowly and expertly through the story, both within their romance and within their roles in the war. The stakes of their relationship are already high; the stakes of their jobs and how well they do them because of or in spite of their relationship are even higher.
The major moments of the plot pivot partially on moving through the different elements of the imbalance between them, scenes that are wrenching and incredibly intimate. As Malcolm acknowledges his inclination to be a savior, to distinguish himself as “different,” he reaches the understanding that his apologies serve only to make himself feel better, and he slowly becomes a hero worthy of Elle.
To put it plainly, Malcolm doesn’t fully grasp what it’s like to be Elle, and when he learns a small part of it, he learns how much he really, really does not know:
“I so miss Martha,” Susie sighed. “Now there was a darkie who knew how to serve. I never wanted for anything…. Now I have no proper servant and I’m forced to bring this sullen fool about with me.”
Malcolm glanced at Elle, who showed no sign of hearing or understanding the conversation. Anger poked at his ribs and made the carriage seem too small for all of them and Susie’s animosity. He’d had some close calls during his detective work, but such blatant disrespect was one thing he’d never had to tolerate. Even when he’d posed as a lowly dock worker he’d been treated well for the most part. Was this what Elle had endured for weeks upon weeks?
Meanwhile, Elle is not waiting or hoping for him to change in any way; she doesn’t want to like him, and doesn’t believe she can trust him. She’s fueled by a slow-burning ire, constantly frustrated by her own limitations and the limitations of those for whom she works as a spy in not fully appreciating her talents. She has no energy or time for any fool who gets in her way.
“Do you carry a pencil and paper for taking notes?” she asked in a tone that insinuated she doubted he would do anything so sensible. His apology she ignored. She wouldn’t give him the pleasure of forgiveness when she was still so piqued, at him and herself.
“I do,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “Not all of us are blessed with a memory like yours.”
Elle rolled her eyes. “You get to walk the streets unaccosted, flirt as you please with whomever you please, and generally carry yourself with an air of omnipotence even if what you know could fit in a thimble. I, on the other hand, can remember every chamber pot I’ve scrubbed at the Caffrey household. What a blessing.”
And amid all that interpersonal tension, there’s a war on, Richmond is behind a blockade, people are starving with an increasingly limited supply of food and provisions, and tensions grow higher every day. Characters are treated terribly, especially Elle, but they, and the story, continue to push forward. The painful scenes filled with hate and cruelty are balanced and tempered by each scene of Elle and Malcolm’s incredibly sweet romance, one that grows so quickly, I think, because of the horror that surrounds them. They are both very intelligent people. They know that, even with the collective boundaries placed by their hesitations, their experiences, and their understanding of how dire the situation around them is, the chance for the happiness, joy, comfort, pleasure, and safety they find with each other is worth every risk they take. And they take some massive risks, especially as they each learn about Confederate plans in Richmond.
I was left wanting a little more, and am fully aware I’m being greedy. In the beginning, I struggled to catch up to the attraction Elle and Malcolm were demonstrating toward one another. At times they acted on that attraction and temptation with more alacrity than I thought they might have done. It was almost like they were ahead of me in my understanding of their relationship at the early parts, but once they began to rely on each other romantically and professionally, I was caught wanting them to find more time alone together, and worrying for them when they did. And at the end of the book, I wanted still more, more of them together, more of them talking, more of how they were learning to live together and work together.
As with all of Cole’s writing, the prose is so lyrical: it is elegant, spare and deadly in accuracy, whether describing violence and poverty of ethics, or the decision of whether to trust a perennially drunken grocer. It’s also very clever, such as when Malcolm muses that he needs to focus on “pulling the wool over Susie’s eyes when she expected him to pull it down her thighs.” The end of the book includes a very large hint of what might come next, and I’m entirely here for book two in however long this series will be.
I also want to say that I was fortunate to read this book and The Unyielding very close to one another. I’ve talked a lot recently on the podcast and in reviews about rage, especially female rage, and how that fury is finding an outlet and an expression in romance. With the Crows series, that rage guides a group of super powered women in violent battle on behalf of gods.
With An Extraordinary Union, there is also outrage and fury, but within Elle, it’s honed and sharpened into a deadly intellect and a stealthy, fierce, cold determination. For Elle, anger is an emotional luxury, something inaccessible to her. Malcolm asks her how she’s not “bursting with anger,” and she replies:
“Where would that get me? This righteous anger you speak of?”
Elle doesn’t go into battle with wings and a weapon, but she does go into battle every time she leaves her rented room to go to the Caffrey’s house, every time she walks from the kitchen into a room where people around her are talking and plotting to subjugate and maintain the enslavement of her, and of people like her. She’s a free woman; she can go live her life in an entirely different place than the job she’s chosen. But she doesn’t. Because of that choice, the joy and contentment she finds with Malcolm is as potent and formidable as her intelligence and her resolve, and the way her story is told should not be missed.
Sometimes, very rarely, I find myself thinking while I read with my heart racing, hoping my phone doesn’t run out of battery, “I didn’t know romance could do this.”
This is one of those books.