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Book Review: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

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I was initially intrigued by Prisoners in the Palace due to the connection with Queen Victoria and the pre-Victorian/Victorian era but I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea as it is listed as a young adult book. I was not only pleasantly surprised but thrilled to discover this book easily qualifies for adult reading as well, particularly those adults who adore historical fiction and/or the Victorian era. Because this book excels at both. And it’s a phenomenal read.

I thought Prisoners in the Palace was an engrossing and entertaining historical fiction read, not falling into the literary pitfall that many historical fiction books can — being so heavy handed on the history that the story is a bit dry and the reader isn’t allowed to form a real attachment or bond to the characters. Not so in this case.

Ms. MacColl weaves a rich tapestry of colorful detail of the pre-Victorian period, from the somewhat rundown state of Kensington Palace when Princess Victoria was in residence, to the lives of servants below stairs to the unseemly squalor of London backstreets and alleys and the beginnings of the competitive news business. She shows just enough unpleasantness to highlight the differences between the classes without being overbearing or depressive.

I thought Ms. MacColl did a phenomenal job showcasing Victoria in the year before she became queen. At times Victoria was a petulant teenager, a spoiled child, a lonely young lady and a willful heir to the throne. I have read about Victoria once she was queen but she seemed more alive and real to me throughout the pages of Prisoners in the Palace. Ms. MacColl took actual diary entries from Princess Victoria and wrapped her story around them, giving us a wonderful tale in the process.

Surprisingly, Victoria herself wasn’t the central character. That honor belonged to Liza, who found herself employed as a maid in Kensington Palace after her parents were unexpectedly killed shortly after she turned 17. Liza was a frustrating character for me — some of her actions had me literally wringing my hands and wanting to pull my hair. I did remind myself that she was only 17 and 17-year-olds in 1836 were far less savvy than some 17-year-olds today. Despite my frustration with her slips, I did like Liza. She was spunky without being annoying and she turned out to have quite a backbone on her. She ended up being more like a contemporary heroine, what with controlling her own destiny and being self-sufficient, which may appeal to some young adult audiences.

Newspaperman Will Fulton was a pleasant surprise. While the progression of his friendship with Liza was predictable, I enjoyed reading about his career path especially given as the year of the book’s setting was immediately before the birth of the newspaper boom, when paper became more readily available and persons of all classes would read and purchase newspapers.

Of particular interest is the unusual character of Inside Boy — an orphaned child of the streets who becomes the eyes and ears of Kensington Palace (and an ally of Liza’s and even Victoria’s) all while living in the walls of the Palace. I think I found him so captivating a character because he would have been one of so many “throwaways” back in the pre-Victorian era but he was smart and clever enough (even without schooling) that he was able to fool so many at the Palace and throw the proverbial wool over the eyes of someone like Sir John Conroy. He was also a very distinct, and living, bridge between the life Liza had lived and the one she could possibly face should she lose her position and job at the Palace. The reader doesn’t feel sympathy for Inside Boy, much as you do for the character of Annie Mason, but rather respects his intuitiveness and cunning nature.

Prisoners in the Palace is a great read for young adults who aren’t fond of reading history because it simply doesn’t read like history. For historical fiction buffs, you won’t find Jean Plaidy or Susan Higginbotham here but that’s no condemnation. Ms. MacColl’s writing style is engaging and her story is vividly alive.

On a purely shallow note, the cover art is lovely and I am particularly fond of the back cover, which is a crafty use of newspaper headlines and praise for the book. Bravo!

I would not hesitate to recommend Prisoners in the Palace to both young adult and adult readers; both groups will be satisfied with the magic that comes alive on this book’s pages.

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About Lori Hedgpeth