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Although The Secret Service of Tea and Treason is number three in a series, it generally works as a standalone. The premise, secret agents posing as household servants in Victorian England, is brilliant, and I loved the callback to the old Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series in the secret headquarters entered through a shop, the A.U.N.T. acronym, and the gadgets, both magical and not. I really wanted to love this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get there. There were a great many things I liked about it, though, so let’s look at those first.
The main characters are charming. The heroine, Alice Dearlove, is clever, loves books, and can hold her own in a fight. She prides herself on being a professional woman. The hero, Daniel Bixby, is smart, strong, bookish, and equally able to hold his own in a fight. Both grew up in orphanages run by A.U.N.T. and so were trained from childhood to be effective agents for the organization. It has shaped their lives so it is their main focus, and their superiors are determined that nothing will distract from that. When this policy leads to conflict later in the book, it’s believable and is handled well.
Also handled well are the attraction and resulting sexual tension between Daniel and Alice as they pretend to be married. They’re determined to maintain a professional demeanor, focusing on the mission, but that pesky attraction draws them steadily closer. Because of that attraction, they both grow and change. They’re each in an emotional place at the end of the book that’s very different from where they are at the beginning. The character arc was engaging and believable.
The book has a large supporting cast, so it’s natural that some would be drawn in more detail than others. The A.U.N.T. head scientist is an inept version of James Bond’s Q, and I would’ve felt sorry for him had he been a little less pushy and annoying to Alice and Daniel.
A few of the pirates and other supporting characters are developed in individual scenes, but most have brief introductory appearances that give the reader an idea of their characters. This is one spot where having read the prior books might have helped by supplying a fuller picture of them. A bit more about those the hero and heroine knew before would’ve been helpful to me as a first-time reader. When Daniel turns to a particular character at a moment of crisis, I would’ve liked just a little about how he feels about his reaction and why he trusts this individual.
I also have trouble with the idea that pirates and spies travel by magically flying houses (vaguely reminiscent of Baba Yaga’s chicken-leg but non-flying house and her flying mortar and pestle), yet the government wasted about twenty years without managing to figure out how that’s done. This means the pirates have free rein for raiding, not that much of it occurs in this book. This may work for some readers, but I just didn’t buy it. If pirates are a problem, someone who wants them stopped will figure this out. If A.U.N.T. can do it, so can someone working for the government.
The overall plot involves Alice and Daniel searching for a weapon that’s to be used to assassinate Queen Victoria. A.U.N.T. finagles their attendance at a pirate house party so they can find and destroy or steal that weapon. While I liked the idea, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency about it. Alice and Daniel do search various parts of the mansion, but there’s no ticking clock, no feeling of an immediate threat. Because I didn’t feel anyone was in serious peril, the book sometimes felt slow to me.
While the pirate houseguests are a threat to everyone around them, stealing from each other and their hosts and vandalizing the house, they don’t seem to be much of a threat beyond their group. They’ve stolen various valuable objects, and one of them fires on the A.U.N.T. flying house, but they don’t seem generally menacing. Even when they chase Daniel and Alice, they don’t seem serious about catching them.
I also don’t buy that anyone who knows how these people behave would invite them to a house party and tolerate their vandalism and stealing. They play games that damage the house, and I have a hard time accepting that any host would put up with that, let alone invite in a group they know are prone to such behavior.
In summary, I loved the setup, the emotional arc, and the main characters. The overall plot didn’t work for me, but I realize not everyone cares about that as much as I do. Based on the setup and the strength of the romance, I recommend the book.