Spies Like Thus

Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9780553535204. 304pp.

(Note from Gene: I’ve known Kelly since back when she was a children’s librarian back in the early 2000s, I meet her to write a few times a month, and I loved her first book.)

Gene: So your book, your fantastic book. Give me your pitch for it.
Kelly: It’s about a girl, Annis, whose father is murdered and instead of becoming a governess she’d much rather become a spy. Unfortunately the War Office doesn’t see eye to eye with her.
G: Don’t you have to pitch it as a Regency first though?
K: I don’t, actually. I typically don’t. When I’m talking to elementary school kids about what I’m writing next, I say this happened 200 years ago and then I give that pitch. This one kid was like It’s exactly like Maximum Ride!  And I was like, um
G: I haven’t read that. But what about the Alex Rider series. This is if Alex Rider wore a dress and he could sew.
K: Yes. That is exactly not what it is like.
G: No.
K: It’s a Regency but it’s not a romance.
G: She doesn’t find for a while that her dad is murdered. She’s kind of cast out of her life because she and her aunt suddenly don’t have any money — all of her dad’s money goes missing. And she goes to the War Office in a very haughty moment, after she knows she has magical talent, and tries to convince them to hire her as a spy. She goes about it in completely the wrong way.
K: I think that is basically her approach to pretty much everything for most of the book, if not the entire book. She has her idea of how things should be done and nobody else ever agrees with her.

G: Is that point of view funny to you? Why did you pick her to be the protagonist?
K:  Everybody else in the book is so competent that she is the only one who wouldn’t have solved the mystery within ten pages, and that made her the most interesting character.
G: It’s the story about her discovering how powerful and smart she is in a certain way.
K: Yes. And it is oddly not about appearance. I deconstruct things and put them back together again. So this was partly looking at what moved people across class lines during this part of English history, which was not the same as Victorian England at all.  It’s 1818, the year Frankenstein came out.
G: Napoleon is a prisoner of war at this point…
K: For the second time. He’d already escaped once.
G: And that kind of figures into this story as well, right?
K: Yes. That’s pretty common. He was the Big Bad. That’s a convention of fiction set in that era.
G: Explain the magic a bit and how you came up with that.
K: Part of what I was interested in was what moved people down the social spectrum as well as up. So all of the magic in this book — there are illusionists who can paint pictures that move and disguise things, there are glamour artists who sew things that disguise people or bring out different qualities in them…
G: …or just make dresses that look like what they’re not.
K: All sorts of things. Nobody is very sure because magic is a trade secret. It’s artisan level magic. So you have to put your hands on the thing you’re enchanting. It can’t be manufactured. This was the rise of manufacturing in England, right? So if you’re a metal magician you have to be the one to touch the thing you’re making.
G: Like the teapot that magnifies your body heat to make tea!  Which was awesome.
K: Yes. And most of the metal magicians were part of the war effort. People were pressed into service to disguise battleships… Any time you have to make the thing, as a woman who is upper class, that’s going to bring you down a peg or you’re not going to be able to use your magic at all.
G: Which is why she disguises herself when she has to use her talent to make some money.
K: And that’s part of the social contracts that kept people in their places. Pretty much the only thing that moved women across social classes at that time was beauty. There are examples like Lilly Langtree or Lady Emma Hamilton…
G: (nodding like he knows who Kelly is talking about)
K: These were women who were born very poor. Lady Hamilton was a scullery maid I think.
G: So they end up marrying rich men and being accepted into society?
K: Generally through a long and complicated process, yes.
G: Competency couldn’t lift you up?
K: Nope. Talent didn’t. But magical talent, if you look at most fantasy novels, can.
G: What about Millie the maid in your book?
K: She’s Irish, which made a difference at that time. She’s extremely competent. She’s not in a good social spot. She barely has the option to work as a maid, and has no ability to make anything of herself.
G: She just has to wait for her employers to pay or, and/or hope that they can eventually. But she’s obviously the smartest person in the room, the most qualified in a lot of ways.
K: Other than Annis’s Aunt Cassia, yeah, who sees some of herself in Millie and is more able to see people outside of their social standing. That’s one of the things that Annis struggles with.
G: If you don’t pitch this as a Regency, why did you write it as a Regency?
K: It is, but it doesn’t follow a lot of the standards. Regency novels are almost always romances. And this is not, which many people have not noticed.
G: There’s a little.
K: But that’s never the primary thing about the story. And that’s very rare in YA books that are marketed towards girls or women. It’s a hard thing to pull off. Because books are about power, and that was the primary power women wielded at the time, if you’re going to have a female protagonist what is she going to be able to do?
G: Marry up.
K: One of the exceptions are the Bloody Jack books.  Jack disguises herself as a boy and runs away and joins the British military to get food. But they’re never pitched as Regencies. Neither are Patrick O’Brien’s books, though they take place in the same time period.
G: You threw a lot of characters in here from other books?
K: Yes!  There are always lots of people in Regency novels because society mattered, who you knew and how that all worked was part of it. I always loved it when authors put in a real person but I didn’t realize it until later. So I not only put in some real people who were amazing in their own right but also some characters from other novels set in this time period. Authors let me borrow their characters.
G: You wrote for permission?
K: Yes, for all of the characters that are in there.
G: What other Regency novel did you recommend I read?
K: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman. It’s about a woman who becomes a demon hunter. What I liked about it a lot — it’s upper YA — if you’re out there stabbing demons you’re going to end up in some compromising situations that have social consequences for you. And she takes those all the way through. I was really impressed by it. My book is kind of about how you work within society’s confines and bend them to your will and hers is what happens when you can’t do that.


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