Courtney Milan has been a vocal fan of Alyssa Cole for awhile now, and I’m a vocal fan of Courtney Milan, so I have been harboring guilt for waiting until now to read Cole. Something about the blurbs for her previous series weren’t setting me on fire, but An Extraordinary Union sounded unique and daring — a black woman (Elle) undercover as a slave during the Civil War who falls for a white man (Malcolm) undercover as a Confederate soldier? Wow.
I’m not trying to ascribe any vanity to Milan when I say this, but I totally get why she responds so well to Cole: based on this book (to be fair, small sample size for Cole if you’re concerned about my accuracy here), it seems that they have very similar sensibilities and tendencies. They’re both hard-hitting on social issues and not afraid to make injustice a focal point of the story. Cole goes in on the practice of slavery, obviously, but many of Elle’s complaints about the treatment of black Americans still resonate, and painfully. When she tells Malcolm that she has a hard time trusting him, it’s not just because — as an undercover agent used to subterfuge — he’s really good at acting the part of a bigoted white man, but that when she even just looks at him, white, in his gray Confederate uniform, she sees in front of her a symbol of hate, and she can’t just forget the history of oppression and mistreatment she has experienced by people who look like him. It’s heartbreaking, powerful, and speaks to — for example — the debates that happen to this day about what place the Confederate flag has on/in government buildings in the American South. What is neutral history for some is a viscerally upsetting symbol of oppression for others.
Cole and Milan also tend to sometimes focus on the actual plot of a book, sometimes to the detriment of the romance and character chemistry. I am not bothered by this if the story is, in fact, strong enough to carry the book, which was the case here. I did find the chemistry a bit awkward at times, but I’m actually of two minds about whether or not that was even a bad thing. On the one hand, in a romance, you don’t want awkward chemistry. On the other hand, this is clearly a loaded situation, and I 100% understand why Elle would be slightly stilted and reticent. Even in her moments where she succumbs to passion, it’s almost impossible to be completely carried away when there is so much at stake, so it does read as more authentic to me that this is a couple with a lot of growth ahead of them. Couple that with Cole having put together a pretty tight Civil War suspense/espionage story within the parameters of romance, and I chalk this up to a win.
The next book in the series sounds fascinating — a mixed-race woman whose home has been commandeered by the Confederate Home Guard (she must pass?) is also hiding a prisoner escaped from Confederate forces in her basement. And the prisoner happens to be Malcom’s brother! I’m looking forward to it, and this is all making me want to go back and give another look to Cole’s previous series.