This is a young adult novel I was granted access to through Netgalley – with thanks to them. It is the third book in a series, but the only problem with that is that I want very much to read the first books and don’t have them yet. (This also appears to be called The Traitor and the Tunnel – for the original Canadian edition, perhaps?)
Mary Quinn (aka Mary Lang) is undercover. She is twenty years old, and a part of an extraordinary intelligence agency, and posing as a maid in Queen Victoria’s household. And I must say that the first glimpse we’re given of Queen Victoria is a hilarious eye-opener that won my heart completely, for both her and this book. One of the best first lines I think I’ve ever seen:
Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, had a lamp shade on her head. Again.
There’s something about that “Again” which just tickles me deeply.
I love that Mary’s ethnicity – born of an Irish mother and a Chinese father – is simultaneously so easy to pass off as something else and so dangerous. I love that she has this mixed ethnicity – in a whitebread universe of fiction, she is unique and engaging. Another of her many distinctions is an almost unapologetic criminal past: Mary has as a child done what she needed to do to survive, having at an early age seen her father disappear and her mother die, and while she is far less than proud of it all, it is what it is. If only it didn’t all exist as a wall between her and the fascinating young man she met in her prior investigations, James Easton … And if only her current investigation into small thefts at Buckingham Palace – which is rapidly turning into something else – didn’t look like it was going to throw the two of them together again.
The writing is rather spare, with an inflection of the 19th century which makes me think of the writing axiom that a hint of dialect is far better and easier and more enjoyable to read than a constant stream. The sense of humor – often very dry – that runs throughout, from that very first memorable line, makes this a joy to read, and short chapters seem to make it fly by.
I loved the look at Victoria, her family, and the Palace as their home and that of their servants – the bits of the place you’re not as likely to see on a tour. I loved the tone of the story – Mary is a literary cousin to Indiana Jones, James Bond, and The Three Investigators, only female and twenty and half Chinese and the daughter of a sailor, and perhaps a murderer – a wonderful point of view. I loved the romance – quite passionate for what I persist in thinking a young adult novel ought to be, but PG-rated and very well-written and satisfying. I appreciated that the matter-of-fact tone with which Mary considers her past is echoed in the outlook on the duties and necessities and hazards of the job in the palace: it is a fact of life that maids must turn and face the wall and pretend they aren’t there whenever one of the Family comes upon them in the midst of their work, and however silly it is there is no fighting it and no questioning it. It is a fact of life that a young man in the family, be he “gentleman” or be he Prince, is a constant hazard to girls serving in the house, be it Eaton Place or Buckingham Palace. It’s horrible, but again it is what it is and it can only be avoided until avoidance becomes impossible, and faced once it happens: there is no recourse.
It is this latter looming possibility along with the cold, hard facts of what it is to be Chinese in England in the 19th century that keep this grounded in reality, giving the fantasy of the Girl Spy a solid foundation. I didn’t expect the depth of emotion in the story, nor the extent to which I’d become involved in it. Very well done indeed.