Friday, 11 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 73: "An Extraordinary Union" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:

Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South - to spy for the Union Army. 

Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he's facing his deadliest mission yet - risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia.

Two undercover agents who share a common cause - and an undeniable attraction - Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of war in the Confederacy's favour. Caught in a tightening web of wartime intrigue, and fighting a fiery and forbidden love, Malcolm and Elle must make their boldest move to preserve the Union at any cost - even if it means losing each other...

Elle Burns is the daughter of slaves and can even remember the slavery of her childhood, before her parents' master's son freed them when he inherited. She may be young and female, but she has a gift that can provide invaluable help to the Union cause - her eidetic, or photographic memory. Able to recount with perfect recall anything she has read or overheard, she's the ideal spy. She is rather hot-tempered, though, which is why her current mission involves her posing in a newly elected Confederate senator's household as a mute slave. Her superiors hope that can keep her from exploding and risking the mission. Working undercover in Richmond, Virginia, she hopes to overhear plans that may help the Union cause and hopefully end the Civil War faster.

Malcolm McCall is the son of poor Scottish immigrants, and while he may be white, he remembers all too well the hardships his family suffered in their homeland before his family emigrated. His parents marriage suffered because of some of the horrors inflicted on his mother by British soldiers, his father could never entirely get over it and was pretty much driven mad. Determined to ensure that there is no such oppression and mistreatment of people in his new homeland, he is an avid supporter of the Abolitionist cause and proudly serves the Union and President Lincoln by working for the Pinkerton Secret Service. Posing as a decorated Confederate soldier, he charms his way as a favoured guest into Senator Caffrey's household and tries to learn as many secrets as possible to report back to his superiors.

He's somewhat taken aback to discover that the pretty slave he saw abused by the spoiled young Miss Caffrey earlier in the day is apparently his contact, and that she's not mute or in any way slow, rather the opposite. While Elle is naturally quite wary of the strange soldier she is asked to cooperate with, Malcolm seems pretty instantly infatuated with Elle, and his attraction only increases when he learns just how intelligent and talented she is. Even though they both work for the Union, the couple are both very aware that an inter-racial marriage would be impossible and forbidden, even if they survive their dangerous mission.

Elle is used to people around her being initially rather impressed with her memory, but usually they either seem jealous that such a gift is bestowed on a black woman, or they feel threatened and slightly put off by it. Daniel, her former best friend and erstwhile suitor, seemed intimidated by it and certainly didn't want her to use her abilities to spy for the Union. Now he's been taken prisoner by slavers, and one of Elle's hopes while working as a spy is to discover his whereabouts in the South to see if she can help get him freed. She's surprised when Malcolm is neither upset, threatened or intimidated by her recall, but seems even more attracted to her because of it. As they get to know each other better, he also comes to see what a burden it must be for Elle to perfectly remember absolutely everything she's ever read or heard - she can't really selectively overhear bad or horrible things.

This book was one of those releases that I've seen raved about practically everywhere that reviews romance on the internet. It may have raised my expectations too high, because while I liked the book, it certainly didn't exactly blow me away, and I thought the romance developed very fast and became intense extremely quickly, considering the brief timeline the novel takes place over. Especially considering the racial and political difficulties facing the couple, Elle's misgivings are brushed away in no time at all. Also, it's clear that Malcolm needs to be very open-minded, but he seemed almost anachronistically understanding and a bit too modern in his attitudes throughout the story.

I did like that over the course of the novel, it's clear that each of the protagonists have their strengths and while they are good apart, they're even better together. They also both get a chance to rescue the other out of some pretty dire straits. Thinking back, I think the ending may have been a bit sudden and certain bits were a little bit too convenient to be entirely realistic. I appreciate reading a romance from a different time period than I usually do, though, and it's quite clear that Ms. Cole has done her research well. This is the first book in a series, and I'm sure I'll be reading more of these.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover highlighted in a number of places as a very good one, and I agree that it's nice-looking, I have doubts that a house slave (like Elle is posing as) would be allowed such a nice dress. It really seems too delicate and pretty for that. I do really like the background details and the pose and posture of the woman on the cover. She looks competent, but wary and on guard, which seems very suitable for this book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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