Friday, November 08, 2013

Romance, Espionage, and Empire: Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

A warning to all young ladies of delicate breeding who wish to embark upon lives of adventure: Don't.

Hard-won wisdom, earned the hard way by Peggy Fitzroy.

"I must begin with a frank confession. I became Lady Francesca Wallingham only after I met the man calling himself Tinderflint. This was after my betrothal, but before my uncle threw me into the street and barred the door.

Before that I was simply Margaret Preston Fitzroy, known as Peggy."

A orphaned poor relation, Peggy has enjoyed a pleasantly genteel upbringing in her resentful uncle's house, sharing lessons, fashions, and gossip with her cousin Olivia, also sixteen, until her uncle abruptly announces that he has arranged a marriage of convenience for her with Sebastian, the son of another influential merchant. On first sight, at her first grown-up ball, Sebastian seems not too bad, handsome and charming, but with a charm which quickly turns brutish when he assaults her in the garden. Rescued by an unlikely white knight, the rotund, middle-aged gentleman who calls himself Mr. Tinderflint, Peggy tries to put the experience behind her. But when Peggy refuses a forced marriage between herself and her assailant, her uncle casts her out of the house and she turns to Mr. Tinderflint, who makes her a very peculiar offer, to take the place of his ward at court, at a price.

"I will be as plain as I can.  Lady Francesca Wallingham was named one of the maids of honor to Caroline, our new Princess of Wales.  But Lady Francesca was struck by sudden illness while visiting at home and died of a fever.  It is our intent that you should take up the post in her stead."

It seems Peggy bears a striking resemblance to Francesca, and she is promised a crash course in courtly etiquette and entertainments to help with the impersonation, all to provide Mr. Tinderflint with a steady flow of information on the internal politics at court.  Having nowhere else to turn, Peggy agrees to the deception, but when she takes up the pretense of being Lady Francesca, she finds there there is more to her role than playing cards, flirting, and reporting royal gossip.

England's Hanoverian king, George I, is threatened by the ever-plotting and potentially powerful Jacobites, who scheme to restore the Scottish James to the throne, and Peggy soon discovers that Lady Fran had been up to her delicate eyebrows in royal treason, plotting with her lover, the purported footman Robert, to discover Queen's Anne's supposed Letter of Secession passing the crown to James and use it to overthrow the crown. Peggy fears Francesca's death was murder at the hands of a rival faction and realizes that she is caught between two unhappy prospects: she fears she will share the real Fran's fate if she cannot unravel the strands of the Jacobite conspiracy and she knows that if she is discovered to be a spy at court, she will face the gallows.

Sarah Zettel's forthcoming Palace of Spies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is a cracking good piece of historical fiction that has it all, a mystery with midnight trysts, documents sewn into the drapes and hidden in fireplace carvings, spies and counterspies galore, and deadly danger all the while, with a smart and witty heroine who cleverly navigates the mean girls among the ladies-in-waiting, carries out a role which rivals that of a stage diva, and wisely defers romance in pursuit of her goals. There are plenty of historical touches that will please costume drama buffs and a hold-your-breath conclusion in the dark, deserted Kensington Palace where Queen Anne died, all the elements which prove author Sarah Zettel the perfect mistress of her genre. A wicked page-turning romp through a turbulent period with a quick-witted heroine with the talent to trump the game.

Sarah Zettel, author of the popular American Fairy series and other science fiction and fantasy novels, promises that this book will be the first of a trilogy of historical fiction adventures for young adult readers.

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