I’ve read several positive reviews of Michaela MacColl’s Prisoners in the Palace (Chronicle, October 2010), but what honestly raised my expectations the most was the book’s design. Have you seen it? The cover is gorgeous, the back resembles a broadside—bonus points for actually tying it into the plot—and the interior pages are designed just as thoughtfully.
Yes, I do sometimes judge books by their covers.
Obviously, this can lead to disappointment, but not this time. Prisoners in the Palace is, for the most part, an enjoyable historical novel. Plus, it includes a further reading section and a lengthy author’s note, two things I always love to see in historical fiction.
After Liza Hastings’ parents are killed in a carriage accident, Liza is stunned to discover that she’s in debt. Although her father was a tradesman, Liza was raised in privilege, and the family had taken up residence in London so that she could make her debut in society. But with her parents dead and lacking any other family, Liza’s only hope is to gain a position as maid to Princess Victoria in Kensington Palace.
Luckily for Liza, she speaks fluent German thanks to her German mother. And the Princess’ governess Baroness Lehzen wants to use Liza to the Princess’ advantage—Liza is to spy on the Queen and Sir John Conroy, both of whom want to extend their power as the Princess’ regents.
MacColl’s depiction of Liza and the Princess are the book’s strength. They’re three-dimensional characters, flawed and strong-willed. Prior to becoming a maid, Liza had never considered what life was like for servants. She makes mistakes, needs instructions on her duties and resents her now-lowly status (though she learns that ladies’ maids rank at the top of the servant class)—all done very believably. The Princess is determined to take her place as heir to the throne—and one who can rule competently—but her mother and Sir John have kept her isolated, making her unaware of how the consequences of her actions affect others. Liza, willing to help out of sympathy for the Princess’ situation and her own purposes, becomes both the Princess’ conscience and accomplice.
What doesn’t work is Liza’s romance with Will Fulton, a broadside publisher. While I understood their motivations for working together, I never bought their romantic relationship. Not to mention the fact they kissed—in public!—which lessened some of the book’s believability.
Prisoners in the Palace isn’t as engaging as Y.S. Lee’s first two novels in her Victorian Agency series (Candlewick, 2010)—the reader is not immersed in the setting to the same extent, and Liza is a pricklier protagonist than Mary Quinn—and the romantic tension isn’t as charged. But I’m a sucker for female-focused historical fiction with a helping of social commentary. Prisoners in the Palace provided more than enough depth and entertainment to satisfy me while I await Lee’s The Traitor and the Tunnel due out in August.
Trisha Murakami is a young adult librarian and blogs at The YA YA YAs.