Palace of Spies

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Lots of history, little emotional depth in palace intrigue.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn a lot about what life may have been like for a young woman in the early 1700s in England. They'll also learn a lot about the history of the English throne during the transition from the house of Stuart to the house of Hanover and about the Jacobite rebellion. Real historical figures are mentioned, and one, the wife of the future George II, plays a significant role. Apprenticeship is briefly explained.

Positive Messages

Trust yourself and your instincts.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Heroine Peggy, 16, is a good model of self-reliance, loyalty, and using one's best judgment to solve problems. Other teens her age and adults show a range of behaviors, but the person she's closest to emotionally (her cousin Olivia, who's about the same age) is absent for most of the story. Love interest Matthew is caring and brave and wants to improve himself through study and travel.


For the most part, the violence in Palace of Spies is mild and infrequent -- for example, swords being pointed or slaps in the face. A sexual assault is described vaguely as a hand digging hard between the legs and then pinching; illness from a poisoning is described in some detail but with no gore. A violent confrontation at the end includes punching, sword thrusts, a neck being snapped, and plenty of blood welling, dripping, trickling, and being stepped in. 


There are a few kisses, one of which is forced and unpleasant. Description of a sexual assault includes more unpleasant kissing and a hand digging hard between legs and pinching when a character "found what he was looking for." Peggy witnesses two people having sex, seeing a woman with her legs wrapped around a man's bare buttocks and both of them grunting a lot.


Infrequent strong language includes a few uses of "bitch," two of "whore," and one of "damn."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Older teens drink wine or sherry in moderation. Someone poisons a decanter of sherry. Along with broth and bread, brandy is treated as a restorative. Wine is mentioned about a dozen times; beer and wine are available with meals. One character's breath smells of tobacco.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Palace of Spies, by American Fairy Trilogy author Sarah Zettel, features courtly intrigue from early 1700s England and provides a lot of historical detail. Two incidents have a strong emotional impact on 16-year-old Peggy: a sexual assault and seeing two people having sex. Violence is infrequent and mild until the end, when fighting, killing, and blood are described in detail. A few uses of "bitch" and "whore" are the main examples of strong language.

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What's the story?

In England during the reign of George I, 16-year-old Peggy finds herself betrothed to a stranger who's quickly revealed as a really bad guy. When she refuses to marry, her guardian uncle throws her out of the house with only the clothes on her back. Turning to someone she hopes can help her learn about her past lands her smack in the midst of palace intrigue, disguised as a lady in waiting to the Princess of Wales. To navigate the halls of power, she'll have to solve a murder and learn who her true friends are.

Is it any good?

In PALACE OF SPIES, Sarah Zettel, author of the American Fairy trilogy, leaves fantasy behind and instead focuses on palace intrigue, blackmail, and murder -- a change that's not for the better. Although the story's rich in historical detail (ever tried on a mantua?), its emotional engagement remains pretty shallow. Characters lack the kind of telling details that would make us truly care about them. The even pacing reveals secrets slowly; then comes an over-the-top violent confrontation at the end.

History-loving kids will find plenty to enjoy about a world where everything hinges on who said what and who was seen with whom. An enjoyable-enough light read, Palace of Spies offers lots of interesting tidbits that don't quite make an emotionally satisfying meal.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why historical fiction is so popular. What about the past is so fascinating?

  • Peggy mentions how little power she has over her own circumstances. Historically, how were women kept from controlling their own lives? Are things different today?

  • Did you find the chapter headings intriguing, or did they give too much away?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love sleuthing and history

Themes & Topics

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