Thursday, January 16, 2014

Five Maids A-Spying

Maid of Secrets
~Maid of Secrets~
Maids of Honor
Book 1
By Jennifer McGowan

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

God save the Queen—Or we will.

Orphan Meg Fellowes makes her living picking pockets—until she steals from the wrong nobleman. Instead of rotting in prison like she expects, she’s whisked away to the court of Queen Elizabeth and pressed into royal service as a spy. With a fake noble identity, Meg joins four other remarkable girls in the Maids of Honor, the Queen’s secret society of protectors.

Her natural talent for spying proves useful in this time of unrest. The Spanish court is visiting, and with it come devious plots and hidden political motives. As threats to the kingdom begin to mount, Meg can’t deny her growing attraction to one of the dashing Spanish courtiers. But it’s hard to trust her heart in a place where royal formalities and masked balls hide the truth: Not everyone is who they appear to be.

Meg's mission tests every talent she possesses, even her loyalty to her fellow Maids. With danger lurking around every corner, can she stay alive—and protect the crown?

I haven't been much into historical fiction as I used to be. Sure, I get a taste every now and again, but with so much urban fantasy and paranormal teen material coming out lately, I'm sorry to say that the historicals have been crowded out. So you can see how discovering a new young adult historical novel focusing on lady spies and protectors of Queen Elizabeth might intrigue me. Crafty girls armed with blades and surrounded by historical intrigue? Sign me up!

If only it were that awesome.

Meg was an easy enough girl to sympathize with. Headstrong, crafty, and a bit lawless, she values her freedom more than almost anything. And yet, when push comes to shove, she's actually extremely loyal, even to her own detriment at times. I guess you could call her snarky, but thankfully not in a modern way. She's got a lip to her, but is still very much set in the 16th century, so she's not completely outspoken or brash. Still, I liked that she knew her skills, both physical and mental, and wasn't afraid to use them.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by how...passive Meg turned out to be. I know spies are supposed to hang in the shadows, always observing, not springing into action, but Meg hardly did even that! I think she spied a grand total of two times, and even then she hardly gathered any information from it. I guess 'passive' isn't the right word, maybe 'ineffective' works better. Any information she did gather (most of it from pick-pocketing) had to be translated by another person because it was in a foreign language or coded or both. Which meant that too much of the time Meg (and therefore the reader) felt assaulted by loads of exposition.

But even when she was doing something, she never did it on her own. Between receiving orders, passing information off, pairing up with another of the Maids to explore or research, or getting rescued (twice!), she didn't seem all that "talented" to me. And to top that off, there's also a mystery involving this book her grandfather passed on to her on his deathbed. But rather than researching it on her own, or adding context to the deciphering or something, it's instead solved off-screen and the solution handed to her. So as much as her "natural talent for spying" is hyped up, and she's supposedly set on a path toward self-discovery, I didn't really see Meg achieving much at all.

At least not on her own, which is where the other maids factor in. I liked the other girls well enough, but I didn't get much character from most of them. Mostly they seemed to fit different archetypes and never strayed from that archetype. Jane, the Blade, was Tomboyish, so made a good companion for Meg when exploring secret passageways. Anna, the Scholar, liked codes and puzzles, so served as a convenient tool to translate Meg's findings. Sophia, the Seer, was timid and weak, so served as someone to protect as well as make Meg look better by comparison.

And lastly, Beatrice, the Belle, served as the other extreme, the bitchy, prissy, socialite and guy-magnet. Honestly, I was most confused by her character. One minute she'd be all mightier-than-thou and seeming to take pleasure in others' misfortune, and the next she'd be their best friend. There was one section in particular where Meg was forced to lie to Beatrice about being chosen by the Queen for a task, and Beatrice was instantly chummy and apologetic for all her earlier bitchiness. But when she's told another lie about Meg's true intentions, she is even more catty and horrid than before. And the next time we see her, she's perfectly fine again. I can't tell if she was actually a complex character, was too simple to question the validity of the information given to her, or was simply written into various roles to serve the plot.

I was also sorry to see the two spymasters' characters never expand into anything more than plot devices. One man is in charge of Meg and the other Maids of Honor's training, and one is the Queen's spymaster. Both add conflict to the story, partly by threatening Meg's friends should she decide to run away, and partly by assigning Meg to spy on the Queen herself. We get a little of the logistics of why someone would want the Queen's movements tracked, but we never get any motivation from these two specifically.

In fact, we get very little interaction with them at all. Meg receives her lessons and her orders, and is then left completely on her own. Oh wait, no, they do step in again toward the end of the story, but nothing ever becomes of their actions. Well, nothing on their side, anyway. They aren't ever held accountable for their spying on the Queen, or their actions and threats towards Meg. In fact, they get off scot-free for everything. So not only do we know next-to-nothing about them, but their actions aren't even important enough to be addressed.

But perhaps this lack of intimacy between Meg and men was simply a product of the time, for even her relationship with Rafe Luis Medina, Count de Martine was somewhat brief. I'm not much for the love-at-first-sight kind of romance, which this most definitely was, but I can tolerate it as a way to kick things off if there's some growth and bonding afterwards. But all we get from Rafe is nonstop flirting, some stalkerish behavior and threats spy talk, and the claim that he would have rescued Meg after the fact. So all Rafe really has going for him is his gorgeous looks and hawt Spanish-ness. Not really my idea of heartthrob material, there.

I did, however, like how Meg's denial was written. Oftentimes in YA, the heroine will be against men or love and then fight her feelings out of confusion more than anything else. "I've never felt this way, it must be a bad thing!" Meg, on the other hand, knows the attraction for what it is, and fights it because she doesn't want to be owned. She knows as soon as she agrees to marriage, her freedom goes out the window. She would own nothing, not even herself. And though that freedom has already been taken (supposedly temporarily) by the spymasters, she's not about to willingly give herself up like that. A refreshingly logical view for a heroine to take.

Which is what made the treatment of Queen Elizabeth so disappointing for me. I had thought there would be much more interaction with the Queen than there actually was. The fact that Meg talks with her and receives an assignment from her in the 4th chapter helped that impression along quite a bit. But truthfully, the Queen has very, very little to do with this story. On the one hand, I understand that this isn't her story, but on the other hand, these Maids are supposedly her personally picked guards/arsenal, so I would have expected there to be a little more intimacy between her and our heroines.

As it was, though, I think there's enough intrigue in the historical facts for readers to want to do more research and reading on the subject. There was a lot of political strife at that time, both religiously and between the genders, and much of it is simplified or glossed over here in deference to Meg's personal plot. But there are enough references and glimpses here and there that I think this will pique the curiosity of anyone previously unfamiliar with the period. Which is always a good thing, in my opinion.

In terms of a series starter, I'm not sure I'm hooked quite yet. Meg's story wrapped up fairly neatly, though is still quite open ended. The next book, Maid of Deception, actually picks up a couple weeks after this one, and follows Beatrice instead. But while I'm interested to see what part of Elizabeth's reign is covered next, I'm not sure if I'll enjoy experiencing it through Beatrice's eyes. Then again, who knows? I might get some questions answered.

Overall, Maid of Secrets provided me with a fun jaunt into Elizabethan England, but lacked the character depth I crave. I'd recommend it for fans of YA and historical fiction who don't mind some romance as well. It's free of language and sex, but does contain some violence and a good amount of kissing, so I'd say high school and up would enjoy this the most. With a fairly slow pace, a lot of details in regards to settings and clothing, and somewhat stereotypical characters, this definitely won't appeal to everyone. But if you've got a soft spot for historical England or spies or girls overcoming adversity, then you might want to give Maid of Secrets a try.

Approximate Reading Time: 8 hours