cover_spyness_200In Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen, we meet one Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie Rannoch, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch, cousin to George V, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India. Lady Georgiana has a few problems beyond a name and lineage too large for ordinary use. For example, she has . . .

  • . . . a rather nasty sister-in-law.
  • . . . a rather scandalous mother.
  • . . . a family that’s trying to set her up with fish-faced European princes.
  • . . . a responsibility to not get in the scandal pages.
  • . . . an interest in a somewhat inappropriate Irish nobleman.
  • . . . set of skills that includes French, walking while balancing a book on her head, how to seat a bishop at dinner, and absolutely no practical talents.
  • . . . absolutely no money.

That’s right. Lady Georgiana (you can call her Georgie) is flat broke. She might be 34th in line for the throne, but that and a shilling will get you a cup of tea. And sadly, even if she weren’t in the middle of the Great Depression, getting a job is simply out of the question. A royal working as a shop clerk? Imagine the scandal when the society papers found out!

cover_royalpain200Georgie has never had to live on her wits before, but when her brother the duke cuts her allowance off (at his wife’s insistence), she knows she has to learn fast. After all, she only has two other options: marriage to someone considered suitable by everyone but her (she’s now in her early twenties, and rapidly approaching spinsterhood!), or become a lady-in-waiting to an elderly friend of Her Majesty the Queen.

Those wits come in handy, though, when a particularly odious Frenchman winds up dead in her bath, with her half-brother Hamish, Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch (also known as Binky) now the prime suspect.

These are truly delightful tales. They mix mystery, historical romance, and satire in a particularly savory blend and spiced with characters that truly come alive as you go. It’s often hard to say whether the mystery, the romance, or the satire is at the fore in these books, but personally I enjoyed the latter the most. The peek inside the 1930s aristocratic and upper-crust world ranges from skewering to scathing, yet all delivered with a tongue-in-cheek flair that left me laughing.

royalflush_200Now, before I go further, I should give a caveat. I did not actually, physically, read a word of this series. This was the first series I’d “read” entirely through audiobooks. That’s something I’ve been doing a lot of in the last year, since audio lets me enjoy books without feeling like I’m working (as has been happening frequently as I sit and read normally). I still notice things when in audio, but I don’t feel like I have to take notes or email the author.

I mention this because the narrator was the best I’ve ever heard. Her name is Katherine Kellgren, and I’m now going to be picking up audiobooks just because (or at least more likely because) she’s the narrator. And as she has literally hundreds of audio credits, I’ll be kept busy for a while even if I pick and choose.

It may well be that her performance contributed a lot to my reaction to this series. She pulls out so many different voices that it’s easy to forget that it’s just one woman; and she puts so much life and inflection into each character that they truly feel real. Trust me, these audiobooks are worth the price.

Okay, back to the books themselves.

cover_royalblood_200The mysteries are fun. They can be simple at times, and the Cabot Cove Syndrome got more than a bit strained by the sixth book, The Twelve Clues of Christmas (though they hung a lantern on that in the eighth and most recent, Queen of Hearts), but they’re still enjoyable even if they aren’t intricate mysteries that can only be solved by someone of Sherlockian proportions. Georgie brings a nice perspective to the theme, as a young woman who can feel lost in both high and low society, as someone who is at once the most and the least practical character in the series. Detective fiction usually centers around someone who can see more than most, and Georgie’s position in life gives her that.

That position feeds into the satire that I enjoy so much. The purpose of satire is to poke fun at things that are too serious, and in pre-WWII England there are few people more serious than those clinging to the last vestiges of true aristocratic life. Georgie may be cousin to the King of England, but she’s also the daughter of a stage actress and the granddaughter of a London policeman. Despite growing up in high society, she always finds herself longing for her Granddad’s semi-detached house — even if she can’t quite get used to Cockney rhyming slang.

naughtyinniceYet she can’t settle into the life of a modern working girl, making her own way and being independent, because of her Rannoch family sense of duty. She can’t let the King and Queen down. And so she belongs to both worlds and neither, and can deliver an innocent sort of perspective in first person narration that translates to delightfully biting commentary for the 21st-century reader.

The satire never truly dips into parody; it pokes fun, but doesn’t ever completely destroy. Throughout the books, you can get hints of how the aristocracy should act — not just how they’re supposed to behave, but how they’re supposed to conduct themselves as part of society. Throughout all the irony involved in such an aristocratic takedown, you never get the idea that being an aristocrat is truly bad — but you do get a sense of the utter failure to live up to an ideal that might not actually be attainable.

Of course, the satire is about far more than that. Imagine Downton Abbey as a clever romantic comedy rather than . . . actually, I’m not sure how to define Downton Abbey, as it’s not really a tragedy even if it felt like that before it began descending into American-style soap opera territory. (I stopped watching in the third season, if I recall correctly, in case you were wondering.) Take all those looks at the social life of the upstairs and the downstairs (mind you, I haven’t seen Upstairs Downstairs yet, but it’s on my list) and the way they change after World War I, and then imagine it staged for humorous effect. That’s the Royal Spyness series.

cover-12cluesThe historical side of things takes on the same flair, as the 20s flapper era gives way to the 30s and the heart of the Great Depression. The Depression is never satirized; it’s simply there, occasionally ominous, often inevitable, always nearby. It’s a time that writers love, as they stand on the cusp of another World War, and you have the inevitable references to “that silly man with the mustache” in Germany. Yet Bowen doesn’t slip into the trap of many historical dramas in this period, namely of putting too much effort into ironic timing when someone talks about the Nazis. Instead, you get a full and proper sense that not only did none of them realize what was coming, but that none of them could really be faulted for it. The historical bias of the 21st century stays firmly in the area of satire, where it belongs; and even then, I doubt even Georgie herself would fully understand what we’d find so funny.

We also get other historical bits and pieces that make me fascinated (but then, I like history). We get a look at some continental aristocrats as well, something often overlooked. The Depression, women’s rights, communist movements, advances in vehicle technology, and even American relations are all touched on in ways that don’t get too much modern historical bias, which I detest (one should always judge an historical period on its own merits, and never with the thought that one’s own age is inherently superior).

My favorite historical element, however, is the scandal of the Prince of Wales and “the American Woman,” Wallis Simpson — an aspect of history that most Americans have never heard of, and rarely find as important as it was. Queen Mary asks Georgie to keep an eye on the affair in the first book, and so we meet Wallis pretty early on, four years before she sparks a constitutional crisis. Wallis is a divorcee, and the monarch may not marry a divorcee. (And for those of you who are saying “but Henry VIII” — actually, Henry VIII was never divorced. And I’m about the furthest thing from being an apologist for someone I consider a rather despicable man; but remember what I said about historical bias!) Bowen makes it both easy and fun to dislike Wallis, who keeps showing up in the books like a bad penny.

Doesn't she look like a perfect movie villainess?

Doesn’t she look like a perfect movie villainess?

I find myself looking forward to when the series covers 1936, which is when Edward takes the throne and the crisis goes from conjecture to reality. (If you’ve seen the very excellent movie The King’s Speech, then you’ve seen part of this story.) However, since it’s taken eight books just to get through two years, I’m not expecting it any time soon.

cover-heirsThe final of the four genres is the romance. This also gets thoroughly satired, as Georgie navigates the sexual mores of the time. She’s determined to not wait until marriage (since that’s what modern girls do), but hasn’t yet found “the right time.” All around her, everyone is falling into bed with each other, but she’s waiting for love and refuses politically-arranged marriages.

Here, the satire starts getting a bit contrived, but that often happens with sexual situations. What’s far more fun is watching Georgie trying to reconcile her desire for romance with what she sees as the new “proper” way of doing things. Ultimately, she’s yet to sleep with anyone — and since she’s found the love of her life and he’s decided (not without reluctance on his own part) to wait until marriage because he wants to give her everything she deserves, the satire has actually settled down to something that felt more natural by the most recent book.

Not that it was never funny, even if it occasionally felt too deliberate. Her own mother and best friend (both of whom one might most kindly describe as “promiscuous”) spark the vast majority of this, though my favorite remains the moment Georgie’s lady’s maid enters at the wrong moment and comments after a moment, “I came to undress you, my lady, but I see the gentleman has that well in hand.” (Quoting from memory. This joke actually gets recycled once more, so I might be mixing the two up.)

cover-queenofheartsThe content is never anything I can describe as graphic, though I’ll still rate this as being for adults. Plus, the satire in general is better with age and experience, as often happens.

Overall, the romance is fun, but not anything truly “awwww”-inspiring. I am, however, still rooting for Georgie’s happiness.

My final comment is the biggest downside for this series: the price.

These books run to the expensive. Her Royal Spyness, book one, is currently $7.59 on Kindle. Books two through seven are $5.99 each, while book eight, Queen of Hearts, is all the way up to $10.99. Buying all eight will, at the moment, set you back $54.52. These aren’t particularly long books (less than 400 pages), so it winds up being a relatively high price per book.

That price might well change, and there are likely to be used options you can try. Even so, I’d really recommend going for the audiobooks. If you get an membership, none of the books will be more than fifteen dollars, and some are cheaper than that for members. That will set you back a lot more, but the quality you get with Katherine Kellgren’s narration is, trust me, worth the price.

Yet even without that, the entire series is worth looking at. As I’ve said before, sometimes books wind up costing a bit extra because of the author’s own situation, as it gets worked out between author, publisher, and distributor. These books are fun, and well worth trimming a budget for, no matter the format.