Monday, January 04, 2016

Trafficking in Treason: Assassin's Masque by Sarah Zettel

It was a book room, and I needn't have bothered with the candle. A small brass lantern flickered on a round marble table. Next to this table, arrayed in her magnificent white silks, stood Sophy Howe.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

The birthday gala of the Hanoverian Prince of Wales is in full swing, with everyone in lavish costumes and masques, but Peggy Fitzroy, sent to court as a spy to uncover a plot to overthrow the crown, knows that her rival among Princess Caroline's ladies in waiting, Sophy Howe, is up to something when she follows her down the labyrinthine back corridors of St. James Palace, and into a small room.

"Peggy, you are always so original. What on earth do we find to talk about when your are not with us?" Sophy flashed one of her brilliant smiles as she brushed past me to the door. "Find me when you know the favor I have done you."

I was sure Sophy and Sebastian had wanted something in this room or had left something behind for others to find.

That was when I saw the loose panel.

It took a moment's nervous scrabbling the pry the little panel loose. There, in the central seam of the brickwork a narrow slit had been cut. And in that slit, I could see the edge of a paper. At last I was able to pull it free. It had been folded into a tight square, wrapped with pain blue ribbon sealed in plain blue wax.

I had seen ribbons and seals of this sort before--all on Jacobite letters.

The mysterious note contains a cryptic numerical cipher which reveals that the Jacobites, supporters of the banished Stuart ruler, are poised to invade England and take the throne back from Peggy's protectors, the imported rulers of the German House of Hanover, the Prince and Princess of Wales, But although she passes the message to her mentor, Lord Tierney, alias Mr. Tinderflint, Peggy senses that he himself may be a double agent, working for both the House of Hanover and the Jacobite James Edward Stuart, Pretender to the throne. She even fears that her recently returned father and Lord Lynhurst, brother to the brutal Sandford who almost forced her marriage to him, may also be working both sides of the conspiracy against each other. She has no one to trust but her cousin Olivia and her true love Matthew, and Peggy fears that Sophy has planted the note in order to make her appear enmeshed in Jacobite conspiracy, a sure way to lose your head, however pretty, in such times.

Quickly Peggy arranges a private audience with Princess Caroline and reveals what she has discovered.

"Yes," said the Princess. "It all fits.

What you have told me fits very well with other pieces of information recently relayed to His Royal Highness." She paused. "Once you bring your father here, you are done with this work." she said.

But, alas, Peggy Fitzroy is not yet done with her work as counterspy in the court of St. James, in Sarah Zettel's third book in the Palace of Spies series, Assassin's Masque (Palace of Spies) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). There are more than enough romantic and power intrigues yet to be uncovered in this engrossing historical novel to make the usual high school social scene look like a picnic in the park.

As a teen protagonist, Peggy Fitzroy is unflappable, even rescuing her frenemy Sophy from possible death in a cellar in a delightfully opaque denouement that reveals many surprises, but leaves some secrets still undisclosed. High school history students who have "read the (history) book" may know, of course, that despite his viable claim, "the king over the water," James Stuart, never became king of England, but Zettel's conclusion leaves enough tempting threads still untied to promise that perhaps this series, framed as a trilogy, might yet yield another royal espionage thriller. "Like its heroine, Zettel's tale is still smarter and wittier than its rivals," says Kirkus Reviews.

Because of Zettel's skillful early exposition, Assassin's Masque (Palace of Spies) can stand on its own as a scintillating historical spy story, but who would want to miss the faux flirtations, fabled fashions, and fantastic feats of the redoubtable Fitzroy, victorious at high-stakes courtly card games and no stranger to breaking into dark and deserted palaces and out of dank and dangerous manor houses, in the earlier books, Palace of Spies and Dangerous Deceptions (Palace of Spies)? (See reviews here).

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