Downton Abbey fans you need to be reading this series! The FitzOzbornes in Exile is the second in an unique YA trilogy about a group of young royals from a fictional island nation off the coast of France in the 1930s and early 1940s. Told in diary form from the perspective of sensitive and observant Princess Sophia, it has a distinctly Downtown-esque vibe and is the kind of YA adults of all ages can also (thoroughly) enjoy, which is why I included the series in my Top Ten Under-Sung Series post .I am so thankful for Shelf Elf, who loves this series and convinced me to read it.
Warning! This review contains some spoilers.
After narrowly escaping the bombing of their beloved home by Nazis, the FitzOsbornes are thrown into society life, Sophie and Veronica preparing for the first season in London. Sophie is thrilled at first, but the presence of Veronica’s would-be-assassin Rebecca, the arrival of orphaned Basque children, and trouble brewing in Europe keep her attentions divided.
Author Michelle Cooper seamlessly weaves the fabricated history of Montmaray with real historical events and people to the point where I found myself thinking wait, IS there such a place as Montmaray? Is my memory of world geography just that bad? But no, there are helpful notes in both books that clarify what is true and what is fictional. Veronica, a ferocious feminist and loyal subject and one of my favourite YA characters, is forever immersed in history and politics and I found myself enjoying her political debates with Simon Chester, illegitimate son of the King and her chief rival. I don’t normally go in for heated political debates about Spanish history and communism versus fascism but Cooper imbues her characters with such passion and clarity of speech that one can’t help but be equally fascinated.
It is gratifying to see how Sophia matures, getting over a girlish crush on Simon and taking interest in a quiet young aspiring veterinarian, having her first piece of writing published. and coming to Veronica’s rescue in innumerable ways. Veronica is a formidable character but instead of standing in her shadow, Sophia is finally learning to stand apart while still loving and admiring her cousin. She learns a few hard lessons about love and marriage, and this book is particularly feminist in its approach to women’s issues and politics, but in a way that seems plausible. At the end of the book both Veronica and Sophie have amazing, character-defining moments that made me want to stand up and cheer. Alas I was reading in my office and despite working in publishing that sort of thing is generally frowned upon.
I am fascinated by how Sophia approaches and accepts her brother Toby’s preference for men, which feels progressive for the time and yet is a bit reserved in a way that seems natural. In fact she approached all matters of sex and relationships with this curious open-mindedness that is refreshing and distinctly contemporary.
The language is this book is period without feeling complex or too flowery and even in dire situations there is so much hope and humour in Sophia’s voice that you are laughing in life or death situations. How does the author do this? Genius, methinks. Veronica and Aunt Charlotte, who reminds me very much of the Dowager Countess, have some fantastic one-liners.
This book is heavier on the politics than the first, which makes sense as it leads into WWII, but it also features a number of assassination attempts, a few parties featuring some amazing dresses and jewels, a bit of mystery, and a cross-country train race that elevate the series even more. Fans of historical fiction,war novels, and books such as Code Name Verity, Anne of Green Gables or I Capture the Castle will eat this series up. I cannot wait to see what Cooper does in The FitzOsbornes at War. I have a feeling no matter what happens, I will be sobbing at the end.
Hey BBC, miniseries please?!
The FitzOsbornes in Exile is available now in paperback.