Genre: Historical, YA, Fantasy of Manners
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young People
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
The year is 1818, the city is London, and 16-year-old Annis Whitworth has just learned that her father is dead and all his money is missing. And so, of course, she decides to become a spy.
Annis always suspected that her father was himself a spy, and following in his footsteps to unmask his killer makes perfect sense. Alas, it does not make sense to England’s current spymasters—not even when Annis reveals that she has the rare magical ability to sew glamours: garments that can disguise the wearer completely.
Well, if the spies are too pigheaded to take on a young woman of quality, then Annis will take them on. And so she crafts a new double life for herself. Miss Annis Whitworth will appear to live a quiet life in a country cottage with her aunt, and Annis-in-disguise as Madame Martine, glamour artist, will open a magical dressmaking shop. That way she can earn a living, maintain her social standing, and, in her spare time, follow the coded clues her father left behind and unmask his killer.
It can’t be any harder than navigating the London social season, can it?
MURDER, MAGIC, AND WHAT WE WORE is a Regency romp featuring a young lady with many opinions about lies, spies, and fashions. This delightful tale is chock-full of wit and verve, and while readers may not be blown away by it, they’ll certainly find themselves charmed by Kelly Jones’ latest novel. The fact that it’s a standalone certainly doesn’t hurt!
Miss Annis Whitworth has spent most of her life as a society lady whose keen eye for style has earned her a reputation as a woman of taste; the latest sleeve styles, delicate lace, and even the occasional daring neckline are Annis’ raison d’etre. So when her father – whom she’s always believe to be a spy – dies suddenly and leaves Annis and her Aunt Cassia destitute, this lady of quality finds herself in something of a bind. Annis and Cassia need to find a source of income quickly, lest they be thrown in debtors prison and lose their position in society, but there are few respectable options for ladies and Annis refuses to become a governess or a lady’s companion. Instead, she turns her eye towards her greatest loves, needle and thread. For it turns out that Annis is more than just stylish: she can also sew glamours, transforming garments to look and behave completely differently. Under the assumed identity of Madame Martine, French glamour modiste, Annis opens a dress shop in a quiet country town with the help of her intrepid maid Millie (and a master of disguise). But there’s more at stake than a few truly hideous gowns and even the lady’s fortunes, as the spies who murdered Mr. Whitworth are still at large…
By far my favourite part of MURDER, MAGIC, AND WHAT WE WORE is its sly commentary on the state of women in the Regency era. All classes of women are represented here, with the ladies Whitworth joined by both Millie and a business woman named Miss Spencer. Each has specific circumstances relating to education, wealth, and class, but in the end they’re all in the same situation: they’re underestimated by their male counterparts and struggle to live independently. The camaraderie that develops between these characters, especially the genuine friendship between Annis and Millie, is wonderful to see. I particularly appreciated how Millie’s experiences as a servant opened Annis’ eyes to the difficult and dangerous circumstances for women in the working world. Add to all this feminist goodness the fact that Annis’ strength comes from sewing, which is dismissed as women’s work, and I was grinning from ear to ear.
Although there is magic to be found in this story, it’s fairly subtle and largely secondary to the primary plot of murder and espionage. There isn’t anyone in Millie’s life to teach her about her abilities, so her limits and the possibilities of her glamours are unknown even to her. Personally I would’ve preferred a bit more development on the magical front, as I found I had more questions than answers about how it all worked. That said, there’s something positively delightful about a protagonist who has the ability to sew a cloak of invisibility or a shawl that makes you look like someone else. The sewing of glamours is very well suited to a story about espionage, and while I found much of that story line rushed and somewhat obvious, I did enjoy how they complimented each other. If only Annis had been able to sew a handkerchief that’d open her eyes to the rather blatant identity of the enemy spy!
Overall, this is a funny feminist romp that any fan of historical YA or fantasy of manners will enjoy.