This book, set in 1814 Regency England, is full of charm. Napoleon is in Elba, but everyone seems to know that island won’t hold him for long. The backdrop of the story revolves around the political intrigue of Napoleon’s supporters to get him back, and the royalists who want to restore the Bourbons to the the French throne. (Although the book takes place in England, Napoleon’s whereabouts and fate were of critical importance to all of Europe.)
Yet, this book is not really about politics at all. What is going on in the wider world merely forms the context for this coming of age story about Georgiana (“Georgie”) Fitzwilliam, 16, who, as the story begins, is being banished to Stranje House by her parents. Her parents believe they are putting her in a punitive boarding school that will ensure that their rebellious and unladylike daughter is remolded into marriageable material. But Headmistress Emma Stranje is not who they think, nor is the school to which they have cruelly consigned their daughter. Rather, Emma runs what might be more accurately described as a “safe house” for girls who don’t fit in – that is, girls who are intrepid, think for themselves, and care for more than ruffles and flounces. Emma is, moreover, helping them to improve, rather than suppress, their talents and unique abilities, and to become scientists, thieves, and spies, while learning how not to “stick out like odd ducks flapping about atop the beau mind’s Plum Pudding.”
At Stranje House, Georgie is asked to continue her experiments to develop invisible ink (the “last straw” for her parents), in order to help two spies who are associates of Emma’s: Lord Sebastian Wyatt, and the man who has raised him as a father would have, Captain Grey. Of course the impulsive Georgie falls for Sebastian, and he for her, but it’s complicated, and all the girls of Stranje House are called upon to employ their special talents to save both Georgie and Sebastian…..
The story ends with a bit of “alternative history” to allow the author to make a point about individual agency, but I don’t think she needed to go that far to make her statement.
Discussion: I thought this book was adorable. Although it has some similarities to the Fair Assassin series, I found it closer to the Ruby Red Trilogy. This book is full of humor, for one thing, and the writing more like Gier’s than that of Robin LaFevers.
Georgie is wonderfully “nerdy,” always thinking about science and math, even at tea time:
“I picked up a small square shortbread biscuit and stared at it, noting the uneven angles, wishing it were a perfect square, but it was, after all, merely a baked good, and baked goods did not ordinarily form perfect squares.”
Yes, there is InstaLove, but I don’t think it is an unusual occurrence for that age range. And yes, Georgie thinks worth is a function of how attractive you are, but she has been raised by extremely superficial parents. (Lest anyone not understand why Georgie’s red hair is such an issue, red hair in England was, and still is to this day, considered to be almost an affront, as it is associated with the Irish, who historically continued to resist British terror tactics to give up their religion, land, and autonomy.)
Evaluation: This book has a delightful premise, and the setup shows promise for some entertaining companion novels. Emma Stranje is a particularly intriguing character, and I hope we see her featured more in future books. The book is full of good messages, such as the overriding importance of inner worth, and the notion that “home” is where you feel accepted for who you are. It’s an especially great book for young girls!
Published by Tor Teen, a division of Tor/Forge, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, 2015