The Conundrum of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy
The Conundrum of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy
Some time ago, I read a book called Mr Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal. I thoroughly enjoyed it, which really isn’t surprising – it had Churchill, World War II, ladies being awesome, Bletchley Park, spies… and it was well-written, with a good plot and engaging characters. I looked forward to reading the sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.
In Mr Churchill’s Secretary, gifted mathematician Maggie Hope gets a job working as a typist for Winston Churchill during the early days of World War II. After lots of intrigue, she ends up being offered a position with MI-5 and is sent off to spy training camp. At the beginning of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, Maggie is told she’s washed out of spy training camp because although she’s super-smart and speaks a bunch of languages and basically can do all the brainy parts of being of a spy no problem, physically speaking she sucks at it. She is then assigned to go tutor Princess Elizabeth (i.e. the girl who is now Queen Elizabeth II) in math, which initially pisses her off, until she is told that it’s because MI-5 believes the Germans are planning on kidnapping Elizabeth before installing the recently-abdicated Duke of Windsor back on the throne and MI-5 want Maggie to keep an eye on the princess and attempt to figure out who is plotting against her.
I picked it up a couple weeks ago and have been reading it on and off since then and almost immediately I noticed some differences between the first book and the second. I don’t currently have my copy of the first book so I can’t check, but I feel like the main character reads slightly differently in book two than in book one – the reason for which may become clear in a moment. Also, it was unclear how long it had been since the end of the first book, and there were plot points (namely, those regarding Maggie’s relationship with her boyfriend at the end of book one, John, and what was going on with John) which I think were left purposely hazy but in such a way that it just made me feel like maybe some pages had been left out of the manuscript or something as opposed to artful suspense.
My main problem with Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, however, is that it is obviously World War II alternate universe fanfic of the non-SD6-related parts of the first season of Alias with the serial numbers filed off (i.e., the relevant names changed to protect against copyright accusations). Now, it’s well-written fanfic – if it had been posted on An Archive of Our Own and I had found it there and read it, I’d probably have recced it to anyone who had asked me for Alias fic recs. In fact, if the serial numbers were still intact and it were presented as an alternate universe fanfic, I’d probably point to it as a great example of how to do good AU – swapping the CIA for MI-5, the Cold War and late-90s/post-9/11 geopolitical environment for World War I and World War II, and integrating scenes and lines from the show without compromising the new setting.
The problem, of course, is that the serial numbers were filed off and this was published as a sequel to a book that, as far as I know, was original. I wanted a sequel to Mr Churchill’s Secretary, not a WWII!AU Alias fanfic with the serial numbers filed off. Not to mention the fact that I don’t think it’s particularly ethical to take an entire season’s subplot and pass it off as one’s own. I mean, she literally took the entire Bristow family intrigue subplot and the associated Vaughn family connection (also the Sydney/Vaughn relationship, both work and romantic) and used it wholesale with names and details tweaked as necessary. Entire scenes are recognizable. Dialogue is lifted from the show and adjusted slightly to fit the setting/plot changes. Again, all of these things are things that in fanfic would be acceptable, but in published work presented as original fiction? It’s dishonest, and it’s lazy. Was she bitten by a fanfic plotbunny and decided to write this instead of an actual sequel to Mr Churchill’s Secretary, but then the manuscript for the sequel was due, so she just filed the serial numbers off and turned it in anyway?
Another side-effect of Maggie Hope, spy training camp washout, suddenly becoming Sydney Bristow is that Sydney Bristow is a super spy – super smart and super fit. Whilst Maggie is guarding Princess Elizabeth, she apparently starts going for runs in the morning? Despite having hated all of the physical stuff at spy camp? And she all of the sudden starts being kind of kick-butt. Who knows, maybe the parts where she washed out of spy camp for not being physically capable of undercover work were written before MacNeal decided to go the Alias fanfic route, and then once she did, she decided she didn’t really care about explaining why Maggie was suddenly a kick-ass super spy. (Apparently we were all just supposed to accept that going for a run in the morning would be enough to make Maggie a super spy when months of training from actual professionals couldn’t.)
You know, I gave this book three stars on Goodreads because as AU fanfics go it’s actually really good but I didn’t want to give it a full five stars because of the whole “it’s being marketed as an original novel” thing but now I’m rethinking giving it three stars.
But – and this is important, I think – a lot of the problems stem from the places where the serial numbers were being filed off and MacNeal was integrating her original material (Maggie Hope, spy training camp washout) with the AU fanfic (Sydney Bristow, except as a WWII-era MI-5 agent instead of post-9/11 CIA agent). Good alternate universe fanfic is still dependent on its source material. That’s why the scenes like the one where “Hugh Thompson” (MacNeal’s version of Michael Vaughn) and his MI-5 buddy have conversations about Maggie that sound suspiciously like ones that Weiss and Vaughn had about Sydney or the scene where Maggie was supposed to meet her father for dinner, but he didn’t show up, and then she called Hugh and gave her some advice that echoed Vaughn’s advice to Sydney in the same situation would work incredibly well in an AU fanfic but feel ever-so-slightly awkward in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy. Since they aren’t MacNeal’s work, they don’t quite match stylistically with the rest of the work. In an AU fanfic, the reader knows exactly why those scenes are there and the author is probably making more of an effort to make the entire work match the tone of the show in the first place as opposed to attempting to develop their own authorial voice. When you file off the serial numbers, you take away all of the cues that make those lifted scenes work. Instead of being signposts for the reader that help them orient themselves within the alternate version you are creating of the source material, they become strange discordant moments that just feel wrong somehow.
So what is my conundrum about Princess Elizabeth’s Spy? It’s this: I am totally into the idea of WWII!AU of Alias and I definitely wanted a sequel to Mr Churchill’s Secretary. I just really wish they had been two separate things.
There is a third book in the series already, His Majesty’s Hope. I did a little googling to see if there has been any murmuring about it being AU fanfic for anything. These books aren’t huge sensations, so it’s not like they’ve taken the internet by storm or anything. But I did find this Amazon review, which mentions that the plot seems to borrow heavily from a 1992 movie called Shining Through. (Also, someone replies to that review noting that Princess Elizabeth’s Spy also borrows from Foyle’s War, which I have not seen, so I cannot confirm or deny that assertion.) I am not sure at this point whether or not I’m going to buy it. On the one hand, I did enjoy Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, even if it was AU fic with serial numbers filed off. On the other hand, it bothers me that it was, and it bothers me that MacNeal apparently continues to borrow plots in book three.