I received this book for free from Publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown
Published by Balzer + Bray on October 20th, 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Perfect for fans of Jennifer Donnelly and Libba Bray comes this page-turning historical spy thriller from Teri Brown, author of the Born of Illusion series.
Samantha Donaldson's family has always done its duty for the British Crown. In the midst of World War I, seventeen-year-old Sam follows in their footsteps, serving her country from the homefront as a messenger for the intelligence organization MI5. After her father disappears on a diplomatic mission, she continues their studies of languages, mathematics, and complex puzzles, hoping to make him proud.
When Sam is asked to join the famed women's spy group La Dame Blanche, she's torn—while this could be an unbelievable adventure, how can she abandon her mother, who has already lost a husband? But when her handlers reveal shocking news, Sam realizes she can't refuse the exciting and dangerous opportunity.
Her acceptance leads her straight into the heart of enemy territory on a mission to extract the most valuable British spy embedded in Germany, known only as Velvet. Deep undercover in the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Sam must navigate the labyrinthine palace and its many glamorous—and secretive—residents to complete her assignment. To make matters worse she must fight a forbidden attraction to the enemy—a dangerously handsome German guard. In a place where personal politics are treacherously entangled in wartime policy, can Sam find Velvet before it's too late . . . for them both?
A thrilling story of one girl's journey into a deadly world of spy craft and betrayal—with unforgettable consequences.
Historical fiction is the genre that I’ve been trying to delve into much more this year. This paired with a fondness for (at least the idea of) spy thrillers, as soon as I heard about Velvet Undercover, I was excited. A teenage spy sent into Germany from the UK during World War I? Color me intrigued. This book was entertaining… but not exactly mindblowing.
I’ll start with my biggest point of critique and the thing that kept this book from ever really engaging me fully: the writing. I have this thing with historical fiction – especially those set in Britain or with British characters. I really need the writing to feel authentic and engrossing. If you’re in Britain, you should at least attempt to present British-sounding dialogue and terminology. You should not, like this book, talk about a dinner of stew and biscuits – when biscuits in Britain means cookies. *facepalm* Overall the writing was so Americanized and watered down for its target audience. That’s not to say it was bad, but it just left me wanting more. And with settings in London and Berlin, I really want a sense of atmosphere to where I can picture the places, the people, and the mannerisms in my mind, but this book never quite got there.
The plot, luckily, kept me going. Samantha Donaldson gets recruited by MI5 due to her having lived in Berlin as a child, to dive into the field and save an undercover agent who may very well be compromised. She’s been trained at a special school and has a knack for code breaking, so she’s glad to be able to put those skills to good use. However, she doesn’t go completely voluntarily. She’s blackmailed into it, being promised information about her father who went missing during a diplomatic mission.
As far as mysteries go, Velvet Undercover does a lot of things right. You’re pointed in one direction, Samantha is gradually decrypting clues as she goes along, and before long there are some murders and plot twists that convince you to keep reading. It really is interesting and compulsively readable in that sense. And as the story, for a large part, takes place in the royal palace in Berlin, it was cool to see an image of how one of the enemy countries was governed. Though the book doesn’t delve into it too much, you do get a sense of the political maneuvering during the time period (and the foreshadowing about the consequences for the country and the world in the coming decades).
But, yet in other things, this book is a bit simplistic and juvenile. And not in the sense that this is a fun, rompy spy novel – it’s completely serious – but Samantha can be pretty dumb. She arrives in Berlin knowing that there are two suspects that could be Velvet. She focuses only on that and gets annoyed when it’s been like a week and she’s not sure who it is yet. Seriously, after like a week, she plans to just ask one of the two if they’re Velvet. And I’m supposed to believe she’s a top notch spy with a promising future? Her sleuthing was pretty simple, and she jumped to conclusions way too quickly. I kind of expected that she would first spend some time (months, pretty much) adjusting to her surroundings and gaining the trust of the people, doing some sneaky and intelligent poking around here and there, but… no. Not really.
That’s not to mention that the plot twist that should shock you was about the most obvious you might expect from such a spy novel, and that Velvet ended up being exactly who I thought it was – from the first mention of that character on the page. I still kind of enjoyed figuring out how the pieces fit together, and the story had a pretty solid construction, but it just didn’t wow me. At all.
I guess it’s all about managing expectations. Velvet Undercover is a story you read for the plot and setting, not the characters or the romance (which isn’t a big deal – very much a side story – but also gave me pretty much zero feels). The story is solid and mildly addictive to read. And yet, at the same time, you shouldn’t expect serious sleuthing, intriguing puzzles, or shocking plot twists. I hate to say it, but remember the ‘teenage’ in the ‘teenage spy novel’ label.