Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel
During my last two years of college, I discovered Fanny Burney. While, shamefully, I have yet to pick up the rest of her delightful canon, I heartily enjoyed Evelina. It was so fresh and fun. After examining recent YA-packaged editions of the Burney-inspired Jane Austen, I wondered why eighteenth century coming of age novels featuring actual young adults (only Northanger Abbey features a teenager) weren’t given the same treatment.
The answer to that question involves Jane Austen as Token Female Writer of the Western Canon, as outlined by Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, despite the fact that Austen explicitly mentioned Burney as an influence on her own work. (We are all connected in a circle, people.) Plus, Burney doesn’t share Austen’s cult of personality, despite the fact that Becoming Fanny would involve burnt manuscripts, anonymous publishing, living at court, marrying a French general, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and one of the earliest documented mastectomies, because she was awake for the entire thing. Sweet Donny and Marie, I forgot how awesome Burney was.
Anyway, my enormous crush on Fanny Burney aside (dead, straight, and married: can I pick ’em or what?), the point remains: I think the young adult market is absolutely ripe for a whole slew of historical coming of age comedy of errors like Evelina. They’re just so fun! And then we’d stand a chance of getting a film version of Evelina and when was the last time you saw someone attacked by a monkey in a period film? Thus, Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies, because I am helpless against eighteenth century coming of age novels about young women.
Palace of Spies finds Margaret “Peggy” Fitzroy, an orphan taken in by her uncle’s family, betrothed to a man she barely knows. The practical Peggy is taken aback, but starts to warm to the idea—until her fiancee tries to sexually assault her at a party. She’s rescued by a strange man claiming to know her mother and offering her a job. She puts it out of her mind until her uncle, enraged, tosses her out onto the street. The job is her only option for the moment, and it’s just as strange as the obviously disguised Mr. Tinderflint: assume the identity of a recently deceased lady in waiting. Peggy does so, but soon realizes that their employers have ulterior motives—and that the real Lady Francesca Wallingham may have been murdered.
Largely, Palace of Spies is a fluffy romp—a little National Treasure, if you will, which is by no means an insult coming from me. Rather, it means that this novel is fun and lightweight with a few quirks to recommend it. Where National Treasure had Justin Bartha snarking his way through the proceedings, Palace of Spies has Peggy’s unflappable and wry voice. Zettel does an absolutely amazing job of making eighteenth century language accessible for modern audiences. Each chapter has a delightfully long-winded title and Peggy often reminds the reader that she’s addressing them from the future, recalling a number of contemporary (to Peggy, not us) novels written in letters. It’s fun, quippy, and very easy to read.
I often have an issue with historical fiction aimed at young adults trying to make history more progressive than it was, but Palace of Spies doesn’t do that. It does that by simply keeping Peggy in the rarified world of the court and by relying on her eminent practicality. Peggy certainly cares about other people—most touchingly, her beloved cousin Olivia and her artist love interest—but she can assess a situation calmly, even if her handlers hate it when she goes off-script. Religion is obviously a huge part of her cultural context, but her own fairly loose grasp on faith allows her to engage with both sides without ever coming across as someone too modern. It’s nicely done.
But the mystery itself is a little plain, although the slow reveal of the real Lady Francesca is marvelous. (Pro-tip: the more ladies, the more stories you can tell about ladies! Huzzah huzzah.) The stakes are plenty high and there are plenty of court machinations, but Peggy spends a little more contemplating her lot in life and the machinations often feel elementary. Of course, Peggy is playing in the small pond of the ladies in waiting and her main rival lacks an agenda beyond gaining power. The end of the novel finds Peggy and her compatriots in the big leagues, so perhaps the sequel will be a bit more substantial.
Bottom line: Palace of Spies is a fun, fluffy romp through the Georgian English court with fantastic language. If you would like!
I rented this book from the public library.