skygiants: Nellie Bly walking a tightrope among the stars (bravely trotted)
[personal profile] skygiants
Rose Melikan's The Blackstone Key is one of the few books I've grabbed at random off a library shelf recently without ever having heard of it. Then I immediately grabbed the next two books, The Counterfeit Guest and The Mistaken Wife, so I guess they were doing something right, although also several things not right.

These books are deeply fluffy YA-ish Regency espionage hijinks starring Mary Finch, an impoverished orphan schoolteacher turned (by the end of the first book) surprise heiress with an unexpectedly encyclopedic knowledge of British law and an enthusiastic penchant for Adventures! !! !!!

Captain Holland, the series love interest, is an artillery officer who is good at mechanics and up on new military technologies. Other salient characteristics include:
- a terrible tendency towards sea- and carriage-sickness
- an ongoing resentful inability to understand all the clever literary and historical references being tossed around by the rest of the characters
- CONSTANT MONEY STRESS

I'll be honest, he won me over during the first book when Mary's like "am I a bad person for worrying about how the outcome of all this espionage will affect my potential inheritance?" and he's like "DEFINITELY NOT, if anybody tells you they don't stress about money THEY ARE LYING."

Rose Melikan is a scholar of the period and very good on British military history. She is not so good on plot. The first book is complete, hilariously convoluted nonsense involving SMUGGLERS and CIPHERS and MYSTERIOUS WATCHES and a SURPRISE CHANCE-MET DYING VILLAIN. It turns out that the villains are attempting to kidnap Captain Holland for his encyclopedic knowledge of military technologies, and make it look like he and all his friends have defected to France using an ELABORATE SYSTEM OF FAKE CIPHERED LETTERS that can ONLY BE BROKEN using a SPECIFIC PAGE OF BLACKSTONE'S COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND! !! !!!

The second book is probably my favorite and definitely the least nonsense plot-wise; it's about the 1797 naval mutinies, and Our Heroine gets recruited to spy on a plotter because she happens to know his wife and will likely be in his house, which does not stretch suspension of disbelief too very wildly. (It's also sort of entertaining to watch the author do a careful dance between what I suspect is a personal sympathy for unionization and strike tactics and the fact that Mass Military Mutiny Is Definitely A Bad Thing, Our Characters Must Stop It At Any Cost.)

...then in Book Three we are expected to believe that an actual professional spy sees no better alternative for an important espionage mission than taking a well-known youthful heiress and society figure whose salient skills are, as aforementioned, a knowledge of British law and an enthusiasm for Adventure, and sneaking her off to Paris in a fake marriage with a clueless American painter while her respectable household desperately tries to pretend she's in London the whole time. At this point suspension of disbelief goes straight out the window again.

I have mixed feelings about Book Three in general; it's the darkest of the three and several sympathetic characters die as a direct result of Our Heroes' espionage endeavors including the one prominent non-white character in the books -- the actual wife of the clueless American painter that Mary is fake-married to, an escaped slave who spends the entire novel being quite reasonably being like 'WELL, I DON'T CARE AT ALL ABOUT BRITISH POLITICS AND THESE ESPIONAGE HIJINKS ARE DEFINITELY GOING TO GET US KILLED, SO MAYBE I WISH YOU WOULDN'T????' I'm mad that she dies, I'm mad that her white husband does not die, and I'm super mad that the events that lead to her death involve reluctantly denouncing Mary to the authorities and then being shocked and horrified to realize that this will also probably get her husband arrested too, given that she's been presented as wary and intelligent and that's an extremely rookie mistake! I'm not here for that! I'M HERE FOR THE HIJINKS.

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