An Extraordinary Union
AAR reviewers Shannon Dyer and Em Wittmann are here to share their thoughts about An Extraordinary Union, book one in Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series. The book is an historical romance set during the American Civil War which tells the story of two unlikely Union sympathizers who team up to help bring the Confederacy to its knees. Elle is a free black woman who agrees to return to the south to work undercover as a slave. She has an eidetic memory, something which makes her incredibly valuable to the Union army. Our hero, Malcolm, is a Scottish man who works for the Pinkerton Agency. Together, they risk their lives and fight for freedom, while falling in love.
SD: Over the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to expand the scope of my reading with more of an eye toward diversity. This book seemed like something I’d really enjoy, since I love books where people go undercover, and this is a period of history I’ve always enjoyed reading about. When I first finished it, I counted it a success, but after taking some time to think about it critically, I’m a bit less inclined to be forgiving of its flaws. What about you, Em? Did you enjoy the book? Are you glad you read it?
EBW: Everything about the description of this book appealed to me, and I’m glad I read it, but I was disappointed in the execution. This is the first romance I’ve read that’s set in this time period or which uses the Civil War as its background, and I had high hopes going in. But although the premise was very intriguing, the execution was clunky, the characters lacked depth and the story trivialized many of the real risks Elle faced as a slave to the Caffrey family. I also disliked how Ms. Cole developed secondary characters and invested the reader in their stories only to abandon them and provide no resolution to their storylines.
SD: Let’s talk about Elle. She was the main reason I picked this book up, but was she really all that convincing in her role of undercover slave and Union spy?
EBW: I really fell for her at the start of the novel and felt the prologue was an exciting set-up for her as both spy and as a romantic match for the enigmatic Malcolm. I loved her intensity and focus, and how she turned her eidetic memory from a weakness into a weapon. She’s a great and ferocious black woman fighting for what she believes in. But her appeal is what made her story arc so disappointing by the end.
SD: Like you, I found Elle convincing as an undercover slave to start with. I was able to believe in the passion she felt to free all slaves, and I found her mission both credible and courageous. However, once I reached the middle of the story, alarm bells started to ring. Elle seemed to have an awful lot of freedom. She didn’t live on the plantation and decided when she would and wouldn’t work there. I was especially puzzled by the scenes when she and Malcolm had gone away for the day in hopes of uncovering a lead. Surely, her absence would have been noticed and remarked upon?
EBW: I agree – Elle’s life as a slave in the Caffrey household did not ring true. When she wants to slip away, she does. When she wants to call in sick, she does. When she’s ready to escape, she does. When she wants to spend the night with Malcolm, she does – and there are other examples, too. I’m not saying any of this couldn’t have happened, but is it a realistic depiction of the slave experience? I realize this is romantic fiction but I found this depiction of slave life trivialized the very real lack of independence experienced by slaves in the South.
SD: I, too, questioned the historical accuracy of Elle’s position. And, to be very honest, I felt like her freedoms just made things too convenient for her and Malcolm.
EBW: YES Shannon! That’s it – almost every conflict and/or dangerous situation, conveniently sorts itself out in either Elle or Malcolm’s favor with little effort on their part. What did you think of their romance? Did you find it believable?
SD: I loved them as a couple. I loved the way they worked together, each complementing the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Malcolm gets extra points in my book for treating Elle like his equal in a time when so many people would have treated her as less than a real, functioning human being. I wondered how they would be able to really be together, given the way interracial relationships were frowned upon during that period in history, but I felt like Ms. Cole addressed those issues well in the story.
EBW: Perhaps this is where I was most disappointed. Tension, chemistry, attraction – they’re all there in abundance when they first glimpse each other in the prologue and then later in the Caffrey household. But – after two brief meetings, Malcolm knows Elle is his true love? And Elle falls for him based on a few brief conversations and observations? She goes against everything she’s ever believed about herself and risks everything she’s worked for to be with him based on little more than his handsome face and charming manner? I still don’t feel like I have a good sense of Malcolm and I don’t think Ms. Cole took enough time developing his character. Sure, he’s attractive and says all the right things to Elle, but I just didn’t believe this powerful and intelligent woman would fall instantly in love with him.
SD: You make some really valid points here. This isn’t a terribly long book, so the romance definitely did feel a bit rushed. Insta-love is a problem for me normally, and I guess, in this case, I kind of let it slide because of the very difficult circumstances under which they were working. Still, now that I look back, I would have liked to see Malcolm woo Elle a bit, which would have made their relationship more believable.
Were there plot elements you would have liked to have seen more or less of? I found there were times when things got a little melodramatic for my tastes, especially toward the end of the story. I would have liked there to have been a little less of that, and more emphasis placed on the spy portions of the story and more focus on Elle’s change of heart where Malcolm is concerned.
EBW: You know, reading this book felt like a never ending cycle of history lecture – quote from some historically significant figure or piece of poetry – tense confrontation between Elle and Malcolm, followed by an apology from one or both of them and then an intimate moment. Repeat. Repeat again. And again.
I can appreciate that readers may be unfamiliar with this part of American history and need backstory to help put events in context, but this is a romantic novel and I grew weary of Ms. Cole’s sermonizing. But what really had me rolling my eyes by the end of the novel was the constant use of quotes and poetry to frame a scene or conversation. I tried to keep track of these references but lost count halfway through the book. They interrupt the narrative and make conversations and scenes clunky and disjointed.
SD: That’s true. I tried to imagine people really using quotes like that in real life, and was unable to do so, and I found them distracting as well. I suppose they were a way to show Malcolm just how smart Elle is, but Ms. Cole could have found another way to do that.
EBW: I also struggled with the ‘a ha’ moment (which I won’t spoil here). Based on very little evidence or spy craft, these two somehow manage to uncover a major planned offensive by the South. Shannon, when you read a book about spying, don’t you expect to feel a sense of urgency and danger? I didn’t feel any of this and the plot, once uncovered, simply read as another too simple and convenient development.
SD: I was actually kind of surprised by that particular development. I don’t have a great deal of knowledge of Civil War history, so I had no idea where the author was going until the big reveal. True, the sense of urgency wasn’t there in the way I normally like it to be, but I didn’t find what was uncovered to be overly convenient or difficult to believe in. I would have liked them to work a bit harder to actually uncover the truth, but that goes back to what we said before about the fact that more emphasis should have been placed on the espionage aspects of the story.
EBW: Without spoiling the novel’s conclusion and epilogue, how did you feel about the ending?
SD: I was all set to totally buy into it, and then… another convenient resolution. It would have been nice for the tension the author created to have been drawn out a bit more, and personally, I needed some more action to make the climax really ring true. I wanted to really feel like Malcolm and Elle were in peril at that point, but instead, I felt like the author was hinting at danger without really taking the time to fully develop it.
EBW: Agreed. Like almost everything else in this novel, things seem to conveniently work out whenever Malcolm and Elle need them to. Discovering the South’s master plan was more stroke of luck than spy work, Malcolm’s charming personality seems to get them out of any and all tricky and dangerous situations, and secondary characters are always conveniently able to extricate them whenever necessary. Much like the rest of the novel, the ending tries to be more dramatic than it actually is and just when you think a character might actually be in jeopardy, he or she miraculously escapes from harm.
SD: And as for the epilogue; without giving away too much, I think it was a bit too idealistic. It would be wonderful if everyone was super accepting of everyone else, but that isn’t true today and it certainly wasn’t true in the 1860’s. Malcolm’s mother is the only one who seems to have reservations about Malcolm and Elle being a couple, and I’m just not convinced things would have really been that easy for them.
EBW: I completely agree with you there. So what would your overall grade for the book be, and would you recommend this novel to others?
SD: This is a difficult one. Initially, I would have said that I enjoyed this book in spite of its faults, but this discussion has made me more aware of the holes in the story. Unfortunately, the premise of the book turned out to be so much better than the story itself, and so, I’m going to have to rate it a C+, and I’m honestly not sure I would recommend it to others. It might work if you’re looking for a quick read that you’ll like if you’re willing to suspend disbelief quite a bit, but not if you’re looking for something you can really lose yourself in.
EBW: Though I think An Extraordinary Union was full of great ideas, I didn’t like the execution or the relationship at its heart. I wouldn’t recommend it and would rate it a C-.