Ellen (who goes by Elle) is a spy for The Loyal League, masquerading as a slave to get information to support the Union cause. Malcolm is a Pinkerton man, masquerading as a confederate officer to get information to support the Union cause. Their works bring them together to share information.
This was a really engaging romance–Elle is super-snarky and Malcolm is a very enjoyable laid back kind of commentator. They are both really smart and brave, and they admire that about each other. They are also both exceedingly wary about their chosen line(s) of work, which require them to lie like breathing. How do you build a honest relationship when you’re forced to lie constantly?
The major romantic barrier for Elle & Malcolm is that she is black and he is white, and this novel actually forces them to reckon with that– internally, in terms of their relationship, and in terms of what it means for them socially and professionally. As opposed to “sillier” barriers you might see in period romances, this one takes on a huge, important, undeniable issue with grace and panache. Elle and Malcolm falling in love is DANGEROUS for them, not just emotionally, but physically and socially, and that danger forms the major part of the tension pulling the novel along, paired with an attempt to foil a particular military plot that could change the course of the war. They struggle with their feelings in ways that feel real, and whole, and scary. And they come out the other side with a better notion of who they are and what they want, without ever shying away from the consequences of their choices.
That said, if you’re going to call this an “issue” romance, put it in the same “classic example of doing it damned well” category as Mary Jo Putney’s “The Rake and the Reformer.” Because this was damned good. The supporting cast is well-drawn and complex, the action/spy plot is great, and their budding romance–and the challenges that come with their particular situation are handled superbly well. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.