Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Published: October 20
Genre: young adult, historical fiction, mystery
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.
Her acceptance leads her straight into the heart of enemy territory on a mission to extract the most valuable British spy embedded in Germany, known only as Velvet. Deep undercover in the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Sam must navigate the labyrinthine palace and its many glamorous—and secretive—residents to complete her assignment. In a place where personal politics are treacherously entangled in wartime policy, can Sam find Velvet before it’s too late?
Samantha is a knack for languages and mathematics, skills her father taught her ever since she was a little girl. She is approached after a competition by a member of MI5, and offered a position within a secret women’s spy group La Dame Blanche. With her intelligence and skill set, she could be an asset to her country in this endless war. But once Samantha reaches Berlin and is immersed in the kaiser’s court to find and rescue another agent under the codename Velvet, she realizes there are more conspiracies, lies, and hidden agendas than she could ever comprehend.
Safety of any kind is just an illusion.
My mind is blown. Samantha Donaldson is a wonderful character to narrate this intense journey. She’s intelligent and quick, similar to Hermione Granger, but she has a sense of warmth and empathy that reminded me so much of Gretchen in Anne Blankman’s Prisoner of Night and Fog. There are several layers and threads and plots in this book, and Samantha’s wicked-fast brain is able to see the evidence before her and tries to bring the clues together like solving a code. Her moments of weakness as a spy are quickly realized — and I was very grateful to see that she did slip as often as she did (we’re only human! And she’s only seventeen!) — and her strengths create heart-pounding scenes and urgently move the plot along. She’s the star of the novel through and through and kept me on the edge of my seat!
“…people are human beings no matter where they’re from.”
WWI — its purpose, its beginnings, the endless years, the advancements in warfare technology, and everything that comes with spying at the turn of the century — was an absolutely perfect and frightening setting for this. The future of the world felt palpable as well, with the distrust of the Germans and the rocky foundation of figuring out whom to confide when news begins to travel so quickly. If I were a teacher, I could easily create a whole lesson around Velvet Undercover (WWI); Prisoner of Night and Fog and Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (Germany 1930s); Book Thief, Code Name Verity, and Between Shades of Gray (WWII); and The Boy on the Bridge (Cold War).
I feel as if I’m losing who I really am.
Imagine being a spy! You could be caught at any moment, tortured and/or put to death instantly. You could find your information rather quickly (in which case, is that good or bad? Is it valid?) or it could take ages and require an immense acting stamina. How do you know the people you’re informing are telling you the truth, that they’re on your side? Or, on the other hand, how do you know the people you’re obtaining information from is on your side? Who is an innocent civilian versus another spy? The blending of information and personalities takes a toll on Samantha, and watching her come apart at the seams (much like Cassie did in Tana French’s The Likeness as an undercover cop) can only give us a glimpse into the true horrors of that position.
You must read this book.