So this is by first book review and its going to be about Velvet Undercover (as you probably know from the multiple titles displayed in this post). I’ve heard no hype whatsoever around this book but I liked the premise so I read it and these are my thoughts…
Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown
Genres: Historical fiction, Mystery
Publication: October 20th 2015 by Balzer + Bray
Pages: 336 (Hardcover)
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…
I love spy stories and historical fiction so when I saw this book I was like yes, give me now. The cover is bit misleading and doesn’t contribute to the story or attract the audience I think it wants. Anyway, onwards to the actual content. If you are looking for a mind-blowing spy thriller I don’t really recommend this novel. It is a bit more on the juvenile side and an overall short and enjoyable story that explores the complexities in defining morality. It follows an English teenage spy blackmailed, and sent to Germany during World War I on a mission, with a new identity to retrieve an asset in exchange for the discovery of more information about the disappearance of her father. I lowered the rating to 3 stars the more I thought about it because though it was an entertaining novel and the plot intrigued most of the time, I did have some issues with the simplicity of the writing and character development.
The novel immediately introduces us to Samantha who is part of the Girl Guides in MI5 and awaiting to start a competition. Though I commend the author for jumping straight into the action without any nonsense, I did find this approach did not allow us to get to know the protagonist as well, and even afterwards, I did feel that a lot of her characterisation was tell rather than show. As a consequence, I did find her a bit arrogant about the proficiency of her skills which was annoying at times. However, her intelligence was evident in demonstrating her ability to decipher codes and realise people who were friendly towards her could be enemies with hidden agendas. At the same time, that was what made me confused because her decisions and thought processes were foolish and ignorant at times. There is this time where she completely focuses on one of the two suspects who she believes is Velvet (the asset) ready to inform her recruiters without any further consideration. I thought, as the intelligent girl she was supposed to be, she wouldn’t have placed that much certainty in her conclusions without investigating the other possibilities.
Another thing that irritated me were her thoughts that although illustrated her awareness of situations, they weren’t necessary as I was already thinking exactly what was written, so they ended up being repetitive and weren’t that useful in compelling readers to think again or deceive us. The writer does well in establishing the setting so I wasn’t confused about where the action is happening, but I didn’t get enough of a feeling of the atmosphere. Rather than feeling really intrigued about the time period or the palace where most of the action takes place, it was rather bland and I felt quite detached. The author introduces us to all these different organisations (and sub-departments?) which don’t develop much, leaving me confused a lot of the time about their attributes and objectives. I did like the idea of the elite all-female spy group and as much as I’m critiquing Samantha, I do think she is a strong female certainly perceptive (most of the time), yet realistic in the sense that as a 17 year old girl and her vulnerability does show and she does mess up.
The main thing that kept me going was the plot. The pacing is in no way slow so that helped hold my attention. Despite that, it did make the plot less realistic as Samantha has such a short training time before they plonk her in the middle of enemy territory. Looking back, I did appreciate the foreshadowing even though I did guess many of the twists. A romance kinda exist but it is a bit of a side story and I didn’t care too much about it. Nor did I care much about the other characters as they didn’t have many distinct qualities to remember by.
The premise of Velvet Undercover is fascinating though it could have be executed better. I read this book really easily and quickly but if it was longer, I think the writer would have more time to flesh out the details and develop more distinguishing characters. I wish that more authentic and true to the time period and place, as much of the dialogue felt fake and monotonous which didn’t allow me to engage with the narrative as much as I would have liked. I also expected it to delve deeper into messier and darker issues, (I mean seriously, it’s WWI) but sadly it stuck only to the espionage side of things. I wasn’t really disappointed looking at the Goodreads average rating and reviews, my expectations were quite low and were somewhat exceeded in terms of enjoyment. Somehow, even with all these problems I had with the book, I still had a lot of fun reading it. I think I liked the concept of this novel more than the actual reading. Whoops.
I want to know how much an author’s writing staying true to the time period affects your reading experience – like dialogue, customs, etc. Is it off-putting when an author’s writing does not accurately portray time period or even the country it’s set in. Comment below!
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