Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: Maid of Secrets - Jennifer McGowan

Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan
Series: Maids of Honor #1
Genre: YA, historical fiction, mystery
Published on May 7, 2013
Published by Simon & Schuster
Pages: 416
Read From: 7.13.13 - 7.15.13

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?


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? Absolutely not. While the clothes and dagger did catch my attention, everything else about the cover - namely, the character impersonator - made me cringe. Was this to be another Venom? Had I tricked myself into believing that this book would be any good? What had I gotten myself into?!

Characters: Surprisingly, my worries to put to rest fairly rapidly. I expected Meg Fellowes to be haughty, brimming with a bad attitude, and downright terrible at playing any sort of role when the need arose. But when we first meet Meg, she's putting her acting prowess to good use and proved her talents in pickpocketing. She is a reluctant recruit to Queen's Elizabeth's spy network, but she doesn't tote around an attitude because of it. Rather, Meg agrees to service for the Queen's sake, and not because William Cecil and Francis Walsingham tell her to. Meg also shows practicality and a quick wit. The other Maids of Honor were really fun to get to know as well. They each had their own distinct personalities and traits, and it was interesting to see how they all interacted with one another. Jane probably was my favorite side character, and not just because she was Welsh. Extremely skilled at assassination, she was very matter-of-fact, practical, and quiet. She had no Attitude, and she was easy to take seriously when she delivered a threat.

The Romance: And here is where Meg began to show weakness as a character. The "dashing Spanish courtier" whom Meg finds herself attracted to, Rafe, brings out the worst in her. I never did understand what Meg saw in him, because Rafe never came across as anything else but a flirt and a scoundrel. As far as Meg knows, he's an attractive Spanish spy who might mean Queen Elizabeth harm. So why does she go head-over-heels for him? Beats me. But whenever Rafe was around, Meg's spying ability began to slip, to the point where she was making stupid blunders for stupid reasons, and I started to doubt her prowess. However, as annoying as the romance is, it also isn't horribly prominent, and when Rafe isn't around Meg goes back to being awesome.

Plot: Ever since Meg's parents left her to her grandfather's care, she's been a member of the Golden Rose acting company. But she doesn't appear on the stage; Elizabethan England wouldn't allow it. Instead, Meg puts her acting skills to use circulating crowds and picking their pockets for a few extra coins to help feed the troupe. But one day Meg makes the mistake of picking the pocket of one William Cecil - Queen Elizabeth's adviser. When she's caught, Cecil offers her a choice: rot in the dungeon for all eternity and condemn the Golden Rose with her, or join the ranks of the Queen's female spies, her Maids of Honor. For the sake of the acting troupe, Meg agrees, and she enters the world of the royal court. Every Maid of Honor has their special talents, and Meg's is an ability to repeat any conversation after only hearing it once. So when a Spanish delegation arrives at court, Meg is assigned the task of listening in on their conversations, in the event that she uncovers a plot against the Queen. But Meg soon finds herself embroiled in more than one plot. The Queen is worried that there is a traitor in her midst, who is trying to undermine her authority. Meanwhile, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, the Queen's own adviser and spy master, want Meg to spy on the Queen herself to ensure that she is not risking her throne for affairs of the heart. And then Meg discovers the terrible fate of the Maid of Honor she is replacing, and she worries that she may be the mysterious assassin's next target. Being pulled in so many directions, how can Meg know who to trust? It initially takes a little while for the plot to reach a point that actually becomes interesting, and sometimes it was difficult to remember who was demanding what from Meg. If you get confused by why everyone seems to be looking for these mysterious letters, have no fear - it does make sense in the end. A little less than halfway through, events that seemed unconnected start to make sense, and the Reader is immersed in political intrigue, mysterious sabotage, and murder.

Believability: I have no historical complaints to make in this area. Obviously there is no proof that Queen Elizabeth had a spy network of ladies, but it's possible, and the Author made it seem probable.

Writing Style: First person, past tense. I admit that I was rather surprised at how fitting of the era the narration and dialogue was. It added to the authenticity quite a bit.

Content: Other than some passionate kissing scenes, none.

Conclusion: Impatient with Meg's snowballing, Cecil and Walsingham give Meg only a few weeks to find out what she can about the Queen and the Spanish. With a possible murderer breathing down Meg's neck, she is walking a thin line and it may be too late already. The climax was much more exciting - and less cliche - than I thought it would be, with some surprising twists. I wasn't expecting the villain to be who it was, mostly because he wasn't in the story all that much and I sort of forgot about him. And he managed to monologue without falling into the ridiculous category. If the romance was more prominent in Maid of Secrets, it would have been an absolute fail. I still don't care for Rafe and I will never understand what Meg sees in him. But because Maid of Secrets focuses more on the political intrigue and the growing camaraderie between the Maids of Honor, it wasn't a fail and I actually really enjoyed it.

Recommended Audience: Girl-read, fifteen-and-up, great for historical fiction and His Fair Assassin fans.

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