The Loyal League, Book 1
Heat Factor: HOT
Character Chemistry: Immediate attraction plus innate distrust
Plot: A lot happens – they are spies! – but it doesn’t distract from the love story
Overall: An excellent romance, with a bonus lesson on how to be a good ally.
Generally, my reviews fall into one of the three following categories: “this book was fun to read, and I loved it!”; “this book was totally bonkers, and what?”; “this book was terrible, and I’m going to write some snark.” An Extraordinary Union, Alyssa Cole’s first installment of her series about Union bad-asses during the Civil War, calls for something else entirely: a serious review.
Elle and Malcolm are both spies for the Union, working undercover in Richmond. Elle is posing as a mute slave in the household of a Confederate Senator; Malcolm is posing as an officer in the Confederate army. As spies, they are both trained in combat and have a penchant for seeking out danger, but they also bring their own unique skill sets to the table. Malcolm is a charming chameleon. Elle has an eidetic memory.
The plot speeds along, as Malcolm and Elle face some danger, uncover a plan to build a warship to break the Union blockade of the South, and try to gather as much information as possible without breaking their respective covers. It works and is engaging, but where this book really shines is the relationship between Elle and Malcolm.
Malcolm is immediately struck with Elle, and remains pretty much completely smitten the more he knows about her. He thinks she’s beautiful. He learns that she’s smart and capable. When they exchange information, he is even more impressed when he sees the level of detail she is able to recall and convey.
But it’s more complicated than that, because Elle is African-American, and Malcolm is not. (Scottish hero FTW!) Through his friendship with, and then love of, Elle, Malcolm is forced to grapple with race in ways he never had to before. He always thought slavery was bad – based primarily on his childhood experiences being beaten down by the English in Scotland – but the slaves themselves were always an abstract idea to him, rather than real people with their own feelings and desires. In addition to being forced to rethink what it means for him to be a good ally, Malcolm also has to face the fact that a real relationship with Elle may not even be possible, even in the North, because of societal pressure. Granted, he is much more sanguine about this dynamic than Elle is – he is convinced much earlier than she is that they can work it out, that he can bring her home to his family as his wife, and that even if they can’t be officially married, they can build a life together.
Elle, on the other hand, sees no future for them together for most of the book. In fact, she sees no present for them together for a solid portion of the book. She is upset at herself for being attracted to a man who she initially takes for an enemy. But her resistance to Malcolm lies not only in the racial trauma she continually experiences and has to process – which is certainly a significant part of what she goes through in grappling with her relationship; it also stems from her childhood, where she was paraded around the North reciting poetry to prove that African Americans weren’t mindless animals. Having an eidetic memory is an impressive party trick, after all. So she is also used to everyone around her appreciating her for her gifts, but not who she is as a person.
I don’t want to give the impression that the challenges Elle and Malcolm face are presented in a heavy handed way. On the contrary, Cole weaves these disparate issues together with grace and finesse. One of the best scenes in the book, in terms of building the relationship between Elle and Malcolm, occurs when they have sex for the first time. Elle and Malcolm argue about military tactics, and then segue into intimacy in a way that makes it clear that this is something they both desire. However, once things start getting hot and heavy, this happens:
But as he continued to move over her and in her, Malcolm felt a waning in Elle’s passion, a mental withdrawal from their lovemaking that stopped him midthrust.
This one moment really struck me for several reasons. First, it really highlights the ambivalence Elle feels about what’s going on. She’s attracted to Malcolm, but also can’t stop thinking about what their relationship actually is. (Relatable.) She says to him, by way of explanation for her sudden withdrawal:
“All my life, I’ve been taught that this is wrong. I’ve been told that men like you only want women like me for one thing, and I should never give them that thing. And now here I am, wanting you so bad that I can barely stand it, but I can’t stop thinking what if – “
Obviously, Elle is speaking in a very specific historical context here. However, her words resonate because there are still plenty of “men like you” who have power over “women like me,” whatever the particular axis of power happens to be.
This moment is also striking in terms of Malcolm’s response. He immediately pulls out and climbs off her. He doesn’t get angry at her for blueballing him; rather, he’s frustrated at the realities of the world that make her continued distrust absolutely logical. But because this is true love, and also because he can charm the pants off a snake, Malcolm responds in exactly the right way: “I want all of you. But you’re not mine for the taking. I’ll make do with whatever meager scraps you’re willing to give me.”
All of which is to say: the conflict they have is not manufactured or because they aren’t communicating but because of the realities of their identities and the time and place in which they live.
Overall, An Extraordinary Union is extremely well-done, which makes it a good, satisfying read. Would I recommend it if you want something light and fluffy for a few hours of pure escapism? Maybe not. But I still recommend it, because sometimes it’s good to read smut that also has something to say about our world.
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