One should exude assurance, he said, even in the face of sure defeat.
Velvet Undercover, Teri Brown
 
17-year-old Samantha Donaldson—aspiring mathematician, runner for MI5*—is crushed when she misses out on winning the coveted Markel Cup, but it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Ish. Her excellent-but-not-quite-excellent-enough performance gets the attention of a military bigwig, who offers her—despite her youth and inexperience—a place with La Dame Blanche, a secret agency of female spies.

Soon, Sam is off to the heart of enemy territory on a mission to track down a missing agent. All she has to work with is the agent’s code name (Velvet), her general vicinity (the royal palace in Berlin), and a false identity with which to infiltrate the aforementioned palace (Sophie-Thérèse, a poor relation of Princess Cecilie). Once she’s in, though, she realizes that it isn’t just spies who have secrets…

It’s a spy thriller—and it offers up plenty of twists and turns, as any good espionage fiction should—but at its heart, it’s about the complexities of relationships, of family, of responsibilities, of war. It’s about how people can hold ties and loyalties to more than one country; how we can be torn between personal ideals and patriotism; between ties of the heart and responsibilities to the government; between making a choice between doing right by one person or doing right by the greater good. It’s about the hard contradictions in life—I’m struck by how odd it is to be amid such obscene luxury while men are dying in trenches on the front—that exist whether we’re at war or not.

It provides a good reminder that sometimes we, as readers, need to have a little more trust that authors—get ready for a shock here—actually DO THINGS FOR A REASON. My notes from the first half of the book include entries that say (snottily) PLOT HOLE! and WHAT NO THIS IS BALONEY! But I should have had trust, because once it all came together—once I knew the entire story—I realized how well Brown had laid the pieces out. I felt PRETTY DUMB, let me tell you.

There are weaknesses. It uses the same devices again and again—Sam regularly recognizes but can’t place someone’s voice, recognizes but can’t place someone’s perfume, forgets about a message, says something along the lines of “I’m a British spy in enemy territory, I’m dead meat if they catch me”—and her voice is sometimes more 2015 American than upper-crust WWI-era British schoolgirl. For the most part, the explanations and descriptions of the politics and social conventions and dangers of the time read as organic to the narrative, but there are a few rougher spots that get didactic. And the romance never sparks, never feels integral to the story.

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ALSO, an obnoxious design note: our heroine gets her hair—which is described as “white-blonde”—bobbed early on, so, as lovely as the cover model is, she gives me the sads.

Will I be shouting about it from the rooftops, handing it out on street corners? Nope. Is it a solid, thoughtful spy story that I’ll be recommending to library patrons looking for somewhat quiet historicals? Absolutely.

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*That was a real thing! MI5 employed Girl Guides as messengers during WWI! What with that and some of the other details—the intrigue and tension within the royal family, Fritz Haber’s scientific research, secret tunnels under the Stadtschloss—I very much wish there’d been a lengthy historical note and list of suggested reading at the end. But, unless one has been added to the finished copy, alas.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.