An Extraordinary Union: The Loyal League

Written by Alyssa Cole
Review by G. J. Berger

Early in the Civil War, brilliant and beautiful Ellen (“Elle”) Burns and Malcolm McCall, a handsome Scot, spy for the North in Richmond, Virginia. She, a former slave now free, has been inserted into the home of a Confederate senator as a slave once more. He wears a gray uniform and worms his way into every important Southern group he can. Elle and Malcolm coordinate with the same network of Northern spies and couriers.

Elle has a special gift of great use in the spy game. She is able to recall word for word everything she has ever read or heard, but she pretends to be mute—to make it easier to go unnoticed and avoid having to answer questions. Malcolm is a charming liar and expert horseman, and handy with any weapon.

Elle and Malcolm begin a torrid romance, combine to gather information on the South’s progress in building an iron-clad ship of war, and save each other from a string of predicaments. Questions of the heart dominate the storylines. Is Malcolm playing her? Is she playing him? Will their true relationship as lovers, as spies, be uncovered? Can these misfits stay together when the spy mission ends?

Episodes of spy work, sudden violence, escapes, and near death are intertwined with analyses of race, gender, oppression, and freedom, as well as the deeper impacts of sex and love. Cole tackles a lot, with mixed results. Keen readers of historical novels will note the overall modern tone and words (such as “electric zip” and “adrenaline”) that were not used until much later. But any reader should enjoy the tumultuous journey of this unusual couple.