The first time I read the blurb for Murder, Magic, and What We Wore, I knew I would be reading it at the earliest possible moment. Lady Annis and her aunt are left penniless on her father's death, but Annis discovers that she has a skill that might solve their money problems--she can sew glamours. With a few stitches, she can change a wool garment to silk, or keep the wearer safe, or make her unnoticeable. Annis has an eye for fashion; she thinks they have a chance.
But she's also begun to suspect that her father was on more than a business trip when he died--that in fact, he's been a spy. She approaches the Home Office and offers her services, but when they turn her down, she may have to figure out how to do her part for England on her own.
I read Kelly Jones's previous book, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, out loud to my son a couple of years ago, and we really loved it. This move into YA has all kinds of delightful elements--spies! balls! magic!--but I really, really wish they'd come together into one cohesive picture. Each of the parts is quite charming and delightful, but I got a bit of whiplash moving between them.
When Annis and her aunt find themselves destitute, they fear they'll have to be governesses or paid companions--a fall from social grace and a very limiting life. Annis's skill might be able to save them--but becoming a seamstress, even a glamourist, would still exclude her from her social circle. So her idea is to become a secret glamourist. With the help of her maid, she disguises herself an an old French woman, Madame Martine, who is the new modiste in a small town outside of London. Annis can have a normal social life while Madame Martine makes enough money to live on.
This is my favorite part of the plot--if you left the spies out of it completely, I would have loved this book. Annis is completely overconfident (she's excellent at repairing and altering dresses, but quickly realizes she's never made one from scratch before), the pressure of being penniless is a wonderful tension, and her growing friendship with her world-wise new maid is absolutely heartwarming. Annis is maybe too successful at everything--the upper class, they really are just like you and me--but it's charming, and she puts snobs in their place, demonstrates the actual, literal importance of clothing in the lives of young women, and finds her own competence.
At the same time, though, she's trying to unmask a plot to break Napoleon out of exile, and trying to get hired as a spy, and it's the clunkiest thing in the world. Again, Annis is overconfident, but it comes across as much more arrogant. I also saw through pretty much all the plot twists here (is literally EVERYONE in London a spy?), and all the suspicion just got in the way of the really sweet story of a girl trying to earn her own way in the world.
The book was so charming that I wanted to love it, and I'm going to read the next book Kelly Jones writes, because the premise here is so delightful, and what works here works so delightfully well. But the pattern didn't quite come together into the beautiful piece I wanted it to be.
I received a free advance copy of this book from Netgalley for review.