I probably would have skipped Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan completely if it weren't for Shae singing its praises so loudly. And that would have been so sad because this is a fun and exciting beginning to what I hope is a five book sequence. (I know that it has a sequel and another book scheduled for 2015. But that will still leave my TWO FAVORITES without books. They better get books.)
Orphan Meg Fellowes makes her living picking pockets—until she steals from the wrong nobleman. Instead of rotting in prison like she expected, she’s whisked away to the court of Queen Elizabeth and pressed into royal service, where she joins four other remarkable girls in the Maids of Honor, the Queen’s secret society of protectors.
Meg’s natural abilities as a spy prove useful in this time of unrest. The Spanish Court is visiting, and with them come devious plots and hidden political motives. As threats to the kingdom begin to mount, Meg can’t deny her growing attraction to one of the dashing Spanish courtiers. But it’s hard to trust her heart in a place where royal formalities and masked balls hide the truth: Not everyone is who they appear to be. With danger lurking around every corner, can she stay alive—and protect the crown?
Basically? Yay for smart girls who spy, study, actively train, and come together to run circles around the men trying to control them! I mean really. It has everything that you could possibly love if you are a character loving reader of adventurous political intrigue. This book focuses on Meg, who is an actress and has been for almost all of her life. The Queen insists that means Meg doesn't truly understand who she is and in many ways the Queen is correct. But Meg yearns to know and discover. She is proud of her talents and determined to win her freedom from the gilded prison she finds herself trapped in. This book as the first in the series also introduces Meg's four fellow Maids of Honor, Beatrice, Jane, Sophia, and Ann. All of the girls have issues. They all have different strengths and different weaknesses. They don't always get along or like each other. But what develops between them is a true bond of friendship and common purpose. I love how they come together to go over the heads of their superiors and outwit them.
I'm rather picky about my historical fiction and am happy with what McGowan does with the historical setting here. It is clear she did her research and knows her stuff. She manages to stay mostly true to historical accounts of real people while bringing their personalities to fascinating life. Of course, she has taken liberties here and there, but none that the history major in me who took a semester long class on Tudor/Stuart Britain was upset at. I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of Elizabeth for many reasons, most notably how manipulative yet vulnerable she is.
There is also a touch of romance, which was lovely but not at all the focus. There is just enough of it and it's level is pitch perfect for the sort of work Meg does and the kind of things she's involved in. I did feel that the fervor of the boy was a little extreme for the brief acquaintance but it was done so well that it worked for me. I also liked the realism of the resolution there.
This book has so many fun elements to attract and keep readers: adventure, mystery, intrigue, romance, and smart girls who have each other's backs. I can't wait to read the sequel, Maid of Deception.