Pandora's Box

An Extraordinary Union

Alyssa Cole

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-.

Buy it at A/iB/BN/K

Buy An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole:

Buy from Amazon.com      Get it on iBooks      Nook      Kobo     

Book Details

Reviewer :      Em Wittmann

Grade :     C

Sensuality :      Warm

Book Type :     

Review Tags :     

Recent Comments


  1. Amanda April 12, 2017 at 7:29 am - Reply

    I haven’t been in the mood to read historical romance lately but when I do this is next on my TBR. It was on sale the other day for pretty cheap. I’m interested to come back and read this review again afterwards to compare.

  2. CarolineAAR April 12, 2017 at 7:58 am - Reply

    I don’t understand why the heroine is on the cover wearing a Regency-inspired dress in an 1870s room for a Civil War romance. She should have hoops or petticoats. It’s unlikely that there would be a gas lamp in the home of a non-wealthy citizen before the war. It’s pretty but inexplicable.

    • Em Wittmann
      Em Wittmann April 12, 2017 at 12:46 pm - Reply

      I agree. Though I think the cover is beautiful, it isn’t historically accurate & again, are we glamorizing slave life?

  3. Kristen Donnelly
    Kristen Donnelly April 12, 2017 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Oh, this makes me sad. I was so looking forward to this book! I’ll get around it to soon, but I’m glad to have this review so I can adjust my expectations to more reasonable levels.

  4. Dabney Grinnan
    Dabney Grinnan April 12, 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

    I liked it better than you guys did. I’d give it a strong B.

    • Keira Soleore
      Keira Soleore April 12, 2017 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      This is good to know. I’m really looking forward to reading this book, so the review was a bit disquieting. Despite it, I’m going to go ahead and read it. I have read and enjoyed other work by Alyssa Cole.

      • Em Wittmann
        Em Wittmann April 12, 2017 at 12:48 pm - Reply

        I also am fond of Ms. Cole’s writing. This one was just an off-note for me.

  5. Em Wittmann
    Em Wittmann April 12, 2017 at 11:49 am - Reply

    There was so much more that Shannon and I had to say about this book – this conversation/review was one of the easiest I’ve ever written.

    Honestly, I’m confused about the praise for this book. I understand/believe this is a much underdeveloped time period and subject area in Romancelandia (and that slavery in and of itself isn’t romantic), and Ms. Cole’s twist – slaves as spies – is brilliant. But praising a book simply because it’s a good idea when the execution is poor, is wrong.

    I don’t know. It just didn’t work for me.

  6. Ey Wade April 12, 2017 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Interesting. I love critical reviews. Makes me want to read just to see if I feel the same.

    • Jessica Peterson April 18, 2017 at 6:50 pm - Reply

      I’ve never actually thought about negative reviews that way, Ey, but I totally agree! If reviews have taught me one thing about romance, it’s that tastes vary WIDELY – one of the things I love most about the romance community. I’ve loved books reviewers trashed, and I’ve been underwhelmed by books reviewers couldn’t get enough of. I’ve only seen *glowingly* positive reviews about this book, so it was interesting to read one that was a bit more negative. I guess I’ll have to see for myself!

  7. `Emily April 12, 2017 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    I haven’t read this book yet, but I have some things to say about this review anyway.
    1) I’ve noticed in the past that books that vere off the beaten path in historical romance tend to get comments about “pacing” (early works by Beverly Jenkins and Jeannie Lin fit this description). If the book is being marketed as suspense I could see that being an issue. However the pacing being off in non-suspense fiction is harder to determine. The pacing may not be what romance readers are used and then they say it’s off. It could be off, but maybe it works differently for different people and/or people have different ideas on to tell a story.

    2) Cole has said Elle and Malcolm are based on real people, but not a real couple if that makes sense. Since Cole has done research and most of us haven’t, a lot of reviewers and readers give her the benefit of the doubt. (Most positive reviews say that the reviewers enjoyed the characters.)

    3)Almost every new reader to historical fiction featuring people of color has, to certain extent, looked at book and said “given the obstacles people of color faced back then a happy ending isn’t realistic.” Yes there were (and are) more obstacles for people of color. On the other hand, there were also much larger obstacles for women, people of different classes, and people in general. All historical fiction overlooks a lot of the history of how much illness, death in childbirth, lack of rights for women, etc. affected people in general, and all romance assumes that HEA won’t be marred by a fatal accident or sudden illness, etc. Learning to extend the same amount of disbelief for people of color, that you would any other romance couple is part of becoming comfortable reading romance with people of color.

    I plan on reading this myself. I thought she looked at little young on the cover.

  8. Emily April 12, 2017 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I haven’t read this book, but I have a few things to say about this review. (I also apologize if this is a duplicate post, but I have tried posting several times and haven’t seen my comment.)
    1) I have noticed that historical romances set in underdeveloped time periods/places tend to be described with the pacing as off. (Early works of both Beverly Jenkins and Jeannie Lin come to mind.) I have read suspense novels where I felt the pacing was off, but in non-suspense works pacing can be arbitrary issue. What works for one reader may not work for another and a writer may feel that the story is best told with different pacing.

    2) Elle and Malcolm are supposed to be based on real people, although not a real couple. Cole said she did a lot of research for the book. (Many reviewers said they liked the dbook, because they liked the characters.)

    3) Many a new reader to historical fiction featuring people of color has said “Given the obstacles people of color faced historically, I find it hard to believe their happy ending.” There were (and are) more obstacles facing people of color. However there were also more obstacles for all people especially women and the lower class that don’t get mentioned in HR. All historical romances ignores the risks of disease, bad sanitation, death in childbirth etc., and all romance says that the happy ending for the couple will not be marred by a serious or fatal accident or sudden fatal illness. Part becoming of a historical romance featuring people of color reader is learning to accept the HEA and suspend disbelief for these couples the same way we do for other romance couples. (Some readers are so convinced an HEA is impossible for people of color they refuse to read historicals featuring couples of color. There is a lack of diversity in historical romance and many blog posts and review sites have dealt with the issue. Most recently Smartbitches had a post a couple of months ago called the Diversity Thorn.)

    I plan to read this, but I’m a slow reader. Not everyone has the same taste, but this is the first mixed review I’ve seen for the book.

    • BJ Jansen April 13, 2017 at 5:31 am - Reply

      Emily, I think that we are facing the same problems now that we are starting to get romances featuring POC, as we did when queer romance started to be more accepted. When gay romances first appeared someone always died or was beaten up and hospitalised. It was as though people will accept diversity as long as they don’t have an HEA.

      This is a form of prejudice. It was only a year ago when trying to get a POC on a Romance book cover was near impossible even if the MCs were Hispanic, Latino etc. By the same token I don’t think we should fall into the trap of judging books that are breaking through the diversity barrier by different standards.

      On the subject of pacing I must say I do disagree. All novels, novellas, short stories etc whatever, genre must have pacing that matches the story being told.

  9. Gigi April 12, 2017 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    I just finished it and while I agree with a few of the points made in the review I really enjoyed it and would give it a B+. And I’m not praising it because it’s unique or what have you. I honestly enjoyed the story and closed the book with a happy sigh despite some quibbles.

Leave A Comment