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You know how some romance novelists try to convince you their heroine is strong, when all she really is is loud and opinionated? Well, Alyssa Cole knows what real strength is, and her character Elle Burns is way more than outspoken when it comes to her fight against slavery. She’s a spy for the Loyal League, posing as a slave in a Southern household and making use of her preternatural memory to glean information to help the Union cause.

When she first meets Malcolm McCall, he’s in disguise as a Southern gentleman and Confederate soldier, but as a detective with Pinkerton’s Secret Service, his true purpose aligns with hers. Soon they’re working together and sharing information, and Malcolm makes it clear he wants to share a whole lot more. But Elle is understandably standoffish—getting involved with anyone could jeopardize her mission, and getting involved with a white man could mean her death.

The danger and romance of Elle and Malcolm’s situation is a winning combination. One of my pet peeves in romantic fiction is manufactured conflict, but Cole doesn’t have to contrive anything here. The Civil War was a volatile time in our history, and the risk to both Elle and Malcolm is very real. It also doesn’t hurt that Cole is a sophisticated and polished writer.

I loved Elle’s independence and poise. She doesn’t “need” Malcolm in the way romantic heroines often need their men—in fact, his presence in her life complicates everything exponentially. She is the consummate professional and perfectly capable of handling herself when she gets into a tight spot. She isn’t ever waiting for Malcolm to swoop in and save the day. I’ve read some great feministy romance this year, and An Extraordinary Union belongs at the top of that list.