Book Review

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

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.

Show Spoiler
(His uniform plays a role in a major twist at the end, too, one that I’m still thinking about.)

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.

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An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

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  1. 1
    Hazel says:


  2. 2
    Gigi says:

    This sounds amazing but the kindle edition is 9.99!

  3. 3
    Katty says:

    You mention a series – so does this book stand alone (though it provides sequel bait), or is it very obviously the start of a series?

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    @Katty: This book stands alone marvelously. No question.

  5. 5
    Katty says:

    Thank you, Sarah! I’ll check it out then!
    Though I am left wondering… why the minus in the A- grade? I would have thought a “marvelous, intelligent, respectful, breathtaking treat for your brain” should be a solid A? 😉

  6. 6
    Jacqueline says:

    *INSERT LOUD SCREAMY YELLING FEELS HERE* Oh I am buying the fuck out of this book because it sounds like ALLLLLLL my catnip!

    It’s so weird, though, how my brain is practically programmed to doubt an HEA when it comes to an historical OTP of difference races.

    Even knowing this is a romance my brain is like, “BUT WAIT DOES IT HAVE A HAPPILY EVER AFTER?” All because every time other media touches this, they always tear the couple apart. As though people of color couldn’t POSSIBLY be happy “back then.” *INSERT GRUMPY GROWLS HERE!*

    I’ve been reading romance for 14 years, I KNOW Alyssa Cole is a romance author and even still, for the briefest of moments I was like, “HEA???” That’s a sad ass commentary.

  7. 7
    LauraL says:

    Confederate spying is also a big part of The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. (Also pricy on Kindle!) There are romantic elements but the story is based on historical facts around a maid who worked in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate White House and Union spy Bet Van Lew. The author did well with her research and provides historical notes and pictures. Believe me, she takes you right there with the sense of place. I kept a copy of the book in my guest room when I lived in Richmond and replaced it a few times.

    I added an An Extraordinary Union to my Amazon Wish List when it first crossed my radar. I keep looking at the description, but the price also slowed me down. After reading this review, I may take the leap sooner rather than later. Thanks, SB Sarah!

  8. 8
    Jess says:


  9. 9
    Lozza says:


    It is expensive, but check your library- I don’t think mine carries Alyssa Cole’s other books (at least not in hard copy), but they pre-ordered three copies of this book, so I’ve got one of those on hold! And if your library doesn’t have it yet, try asking them to order it.

  10. 10
    chacha1 says:

    a little confused … is this an interracial romance? and if Elle is under cover as a slave, how is it that she is staying in a rented room?

    I’ve liked what I’ve read by Alyssa Cole very much, but tend to shy away from Civil War stories … too many years living in the deep south.

  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:

    @chacha1: it is interracial. And Elle’s living arrangements are explained in the story.

    Show Spoiler
    The short version is, as part of her cover, she’s “owned” by someone else who is loaning her to the senator, and the senator pays her “owner” for her work. But she lives outside their house in her own rented rooms.
  12. 12
    cbackson says:

    @Jacqueline: The recent SBTB podcast with Beverly Jenkins talks about reader concerns that a HEA couldn’t be possible for people of color back in the day. It’s worth a listen (the whole thing is worth a listen), because she totally gets that reaction and a lot of what she does is about showing you the richness of African American life in the 19th century. LOVE HER.

    Also: That is a beautiful cover and I want this book and I am OVER BOOK BUDGET for the month, so I have wishlisted it…

  13. 13
    JenM says:

    I enjoyed your review, but I’m a bit sad that you didn’t mention that the heroine is based at least somewhat on the real life Mary Bowser, or at least that’s my understanding (I’ve been told that the author mentioned this in her notes in the book). As Laurel mentioned above, for those readers who want more historical details, The Secrets of Mary Bowser was a fantastic book. It was a fascinating read, fast paced, and not at all a dry history. I think that many readers who otherwise wouldn’t read a “historical” book would benefit from knowing that there was a real person behind this romance.

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    @JenM: You’re right! I couldn’t figure out for a minute why I hadn’t until I remembered. Tomorrow’s podcast guest is Alyssa Cole, and she and I talk at length about Mary Bowser and the development of this story. I think in my brain I’d already mentioned it, except that part was recorded and edited before I wrote my review. (Sheesh, my brain.) I hope you enjoy the interview if you give it a listen!

  15. 15
    Megan M. says:

    This sounds amazeballs!

  16. 16

    @Jacqueline, I have the same issue. I actually was unable to finish Indigo by Beverley Jenkins because I was worried about the couple having a Happy-for-now ending because they were both involved in the Underground Railroad and I couldn’t imagine them living happily ever after when there was so much trouble waiting around the corner for them.

    I started reading this the other day and I keep finding myself wondering if it was even legal for an interracial couple to be together at that time, so I worry that they’re relationship will be really hard.

  17. 17
    Jacqueline says:

    @cbackson I’m a bit behind on the podcasts BUT MARATHONNING SHALL HAPPEN! Thanks for the heads up on that because now I’m super pumped!

    @scifigirl1986 I totally understand where you’re coming from. But the way I get my brain over the realistic barriers to historical POC happiness is the same way I deal with Regencyland. Realistically SO many women died in childbirth and from the smallest of infections that, if we’re gonna rock our Reality Hat…let’s face it, half our OTPs would be dead 1 year after the epilogue.

    So I deal with this by letting my imagination play with history’s reality. And by embracing the fact that love can thrive and grow in any environment. War? Disease? Famine? A Trump presidency? All throughout time people do the lusty pants and hearteyes thing…even when the shit gets shitty.

    I still suffer from the conditioning that happens from our media, though. I still catch myself thinking, “BUT THEY CANT BE HAPPY BECAUSE…” and then I remember that in 2017 people of color in America and around the world still suffer inequality and mistreatment and they’re still digging out their own happiness.

    Wow. This got wordy and deep as hell. *insert fart noise for comedic relief*

  18. 18

    Ooh, I’ve had my eye on this for a bit, and this just kicked me over into RIGHT THEN I’LL READ THIS. 😀

  19. 19
    CelineB says:

    I seriously looked up this book on my library’s website every day for the last two months to see if they had it on order (it’s way out of my price range). About a week ago they added it! I like to think my obsessive checking made them decide to order it.

  20. 20
    JenM says:

    Awesome, I will definitely listen to that podcast! I was so blown away by Mary’s story, and then mad that no one ever taught any of those types of stories in my high school history classes. Granted, it’s all speculation since there’s not much documented about her, but her story as it’s been presented is completely plausible, since the few facts that are known about her are that she had an eidetic memory, that she voluntarily left Philadelphia where she was a free woman, and went back to Richmond to pose as a slave in Jefferson Davis’ household, and that she had originally been owned and then freed by Bet Van Lew who was a known spy. There’s really nothing that would explain those actions other than that she was also a spy.

  21. 21
    HollyS says:

    What an amazing review Sarah. I’m a Black woman who has been reading romance for over 30 years I want to run down the block screaming finally, FINALLY. We have love stories too.

  22. 22
    Jacqueline says:

    @CelineB Gurl I feel ya on the price thing! I have this block that if an ebook is over three bucks, I CANNOT DO IT! Luckily I prefer to read dead trees, so it isn’t as hard to justify spending the 10 bucks for a tangible copy. I would check it out of my library, but I need the book for when I film my video romance novel script reviews on my YouTube channel.

    It can take my ass a while to cycle to that script sooooo…spending the money is my only option. The good thing is that if I have the IRL book I can put it into my massive end-of-the-year book give away on my channel. THERE BE A BRIGHT SIDE TO ALL OF THE THINGS haha. But your persistence deserves allllllllllllll the cookies because hell to the yeah for library patience, man! 🙂

  23. 23
    Kristina says:

    I’m a little late to this, but can anyone who’s read the book comment on the level of violence in the text?

    I am HUGELY sensitive to depictions of violence, especially the kind of intimate torture used as discipline and shows of power under slavery. I haven’t heard any specific trigger warnings about this, but I’d like to know if and how graphic the novel is in describing the everyday conditions of slavery, and if, in a person like me, that reality would create so much tension as to rob it of pleasure.

    It’s quite possible, even likely, that telling a story in this world necessitates exposing the violence inherent in the practice of slavery, and that a sanitized telling would be a disservice, but knowing would help.

  24. 24
    SB Sarah says:


    I totally understand! I’m pretty sensitive to the same, and while there were moments when the characters were in danger and there is some bleeding, there wasn’t a whole lot of violence.

    Show Spoiler
    There is a scene at the end where the hero is beaten which you should probably know about.

    That said, as you pointed out, it’s hard to portray slavery without acknowledging how bad it was. I’m sorry I can’t be more concrete in my recommendations of this book for you. I have similar reading sensitivities, and I made it with cringing, but I don’t know how mine compare to yours.

  25. 25
    Kristina says:

    Thanks, Sarah!
    I’m a pretty bad case; to the despair of my husband, I turn off the tv when the scary music and/or lighting starts (“You don’t even know for sure anything bad is going to happen!” “Are you kidding me? There are only ONE MILLION clues!” And then I prove it by finding a spoiler.) I gave up reading Longborne because of a graphic description early on, but I may give this a go.

    As a black woman I honestly didn’t know what a delight it was to read about someone who looked like me until I read Talk Sweetly To Me, and I really liked Cole’s Radio Silence, but I’ve avoided American Historicals because of the potential for racial violence. Maybe this is worth it!

  26. 26
    SB Sarah says:

    Oh, gosh, me too – scary TV is the end for me. I was joking with my husband last night that I’m still so bad at watching television!

    As for this book, I feel hesitant that it’s 100% for you – but it’s a wonderful book.

  27. 27
    Gwendolyn says:

    Note to audiophiles: This book is available on audio

  28. 28
    Gwen Osborne says:

    Note to audiophiles: This book is available on audio

  29. 29
    Anony Miss says:

    4 AM.

    That’s when I put this down, weeping happily, and went to bed.

    Thank you again for another drowsy day at work!

  30. 30
    Jacqueline says:


    I finished this Sunday night & spent 3 WHOLE HOURS just writing my script review for my YouTube channel. THE EMOTASTIC CRACK WAS SO REAL!

    And that 3rd arc climax. Like HOLY! SHIT! I was clutching my pearls nonstop to the finish line.

  31. 31
    SB Sarah says:

    I am so, so happy y’all have been enjoying this book! I cannot wait to hear all about it in the book club chat!

  32. 32
    Jacqueline says:

    @Sarah SB SAAAAAME!

    I live tweeted about it on Twitter, so the fangirl part of me wants to copy/paste all the fangirl word vomit from there to the chat post. BUT I SHALL RESIST because new fangirl feels will inevitably be felt!…er…said!

    I posted my Down & Dirty Review of it on Tumblr and 5 minutes later had a follower say they started reading it because of that. WE HAVE CONVERTED ANOTHER ONE!!!

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