Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review of Susan Elia MacNeal's Princess Elizabeth's Spy

Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan
Elia MacNeal

Maggie Hope is furious and humiliated. Born in Britain, but raised by an aunt in the US, she sailed last year to wartime London to settle the estate of a grandmother she never knew. Finding her grandmother's Victorian house hard to sell, she let rooms to young people flocking to the city to work for the war effort. Despite her impressive credentials in mathematics, French, and German, the only job she could get was as a secretary in Prime Minister Winston Churchill's office. After she discovered and almost singlehandedly foiled a plot to murder the Prime Minister and bomb various landmarks around the city, MI5 woke up and offered her a job. As this book opens, Maggie is training with other women at a remote location in Scotland for eventual placement behind enemy lines as spies. Her trainer finds her unfit for the physical demands the job might require, and sends her back to headquarters for reassignment.

Windsor Castle
Despite her embarrassment, her boss is glad to see her. New threats have been discovered, and Maggie is the ideal person to have undercover on site. Which is why she finds herself following a regal butler down the endless drafty servants' corridors of Windsor Castle, the oldest continuously-occupied castle in Europe. As newly-assigned math tutor to Princess Elizabeth, she will be able to mingle with high and low, picking up urgent bits of information for MI5 and passing them on to her handler. The princesses, Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret Rose, have been moved there from Buckingham Palace for safety, since Windsor is out of the usual path of German bombing runs. And as Princess Elizabeth––now Queen Elizabeth, of course––observes gravely, "The dungeons here make excellent bomb shelters."

Life in wartime Windsor isn't exactly a sybaritic experience, despite the lavender-scented, perfectly ironed sheets and antique china. As the maid who brings Maggie's breakfast of porridge and toast announces proudly, the staff, along with the Royals and their guests, each have one real egg a week on Sunday mornings. And the bathtubs are all marked with the mandated five-inch hot water limit. Brr! Maggie gets lost trying to find the servants' dining room, and is blasted both for being late and for not being appropriately dressed. ("We all dress for dinner, and are always punctual.") Rescued by Sir Gregory, the King's equerry, she enjoys dinner with him at a local pub. There she meets three of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, one of whom, Lily, confesses her pregnancy when Maggie finds her throwing up in the loo. When Lily, riding with the princesses next morning, gallops ahead and is beheaded by a wire strung between two trees, Maggie wonders whether it was the pregnancy or Lily's possible involvement in espionage that caused her murder. Or was the intended victim someone else altogether?

To persuade the unenthusiastic Elizabeth that maths can be fun, Maggie gives the princess a decoder disk and helps her to develop a code that Elizabeth and Margaret can use to send secret messages to each other under the watchful eyes of their staff. Fortunately for the outcome of the story, 'Lilibet' takes to the idea instantly.  

There is a certain hectic, incomplete quality to some of the characters and events in this story; events and people met and almost grasped, but then whirled away in the turmoil of war without any opportunity for development or closure. Wartime life might well have felt that way; someone you meet and enjoy today may be dead of a bomb or arrested for treason or on the front lines tomorrow. And Maggie's own past has secrets that she is kept carefully unaware of by MI5.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed this second lovely escape in a series as much as the first––perhaps even more. Maggie has just enough American Girl sauce to spice the story without becoming tiresome, and the author's treatment of the princesses was both respectful and plausible. And where else will I have an opportunity to observe the inner workings of a wartime royal castle? While Maggie accomplished both of her tasks at Windsor, there are enough ominous threads left hanging to make me look forward to her next wartime adventure.

Note: I received a free review copy of this book, and similar reviews may appear on Amazon and other review sites under my user names there. Princess Elizabeth's Spy is the second in a series published by Bantam Books and will be released on October 16, 2012.

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