REVIEW: Also Known As by Robin Benway
Dear Ms. Benway,
I’m very fond of novels about teenage spies and grifters. But while I get a steady grifter fix from series like Holly Black’s Curseworker trilogy or Ally Carter’s Heist Society series, there’s a definite lack of YA spies. So when your novel appeared on my radar, I snapped it up.
Maggie Silver comes from a family of international spies. Both of her parents are operatives, and Maggie demonstrated a knack for breaking into safes and picking locks at an early young. They work for the Collective, an organization devoted to saving the world. To say that she has no concept of a regular life is an understatement.
Then the family’s latest assignment brings them to New York City, and Maggie is finally given her first solo mission. This is something she’s been waiting for. She’s proud of her abilities as a safecracker but they hardly place her into the thick of things.
The mission? A magazine editor has sensitive information about the Collective and is planning to run an expose containing the names and pictures of everyone in Maggie’s family. Maggie’s job is to infiltrate a NYC private school where she has to get close to the magazine editor’s son and use that relationship to steal that information back. But not only does Maggie have no clue how to act like a regular teenager, she also has no idea what to do when she falls in love with her target.
I loved the humor in Also Known As. Humor is such an individual thing, so it’s often hit or miss, but I enjoyed it here. A lot of that had to do with Maggie being the narrator. Despite being a safecracker prodigy, Maggie’s self-effacing charm and parenthetical asides made her hilarious observations that much better.
Another thing I enjoyed was the interaction between the characters. Maggie is not an isolated YA protagonist. She had entertaining conversations with her parents. No absent parents here. Both her mother and father were alive and while they were hardly normal parents, being spies themselves, raising their daughter to be a spy, and bringing her with them on missions, they were still forces in Maggie’s life. I actually thought the conflict between their treating Maggie like a subordinate on a mission they’re supervising and their daughter was very interesting. And there’s her relationship with Angelo, a Collective forger, who’s a family friend and mentor. I adored Angelo and I loved their mentor and mentee scenes. This isn’t a novel where all of the adults are against the teenage protagonists. Maggie has a great support network, and I liked the positive portrayal.
There was also the friendship Maggie struck up with Roux. Once the reigning mean girl queen of their private school, Roux fell from social grace the year before and became a social pariah. Perhaps not the best choice for Maggie’s BFF since it doesn’t exactly endear herself to the school’s social hierarchy, but it was exactly what they both needed. I admit I loved Roux. Lonely and sad, it’s through her relationship with Maggie that she learns how to be a good friend and become a better person. The scene in which she learns Maggie is a spy made me smile:
”We need to break into Armand Oliver’s computer, find out who’s been trying to sell this story to him, then go find that person, find out where they’re hiding these documents, get the documents, make sure they’re not forgeries, and then destroy them.”
Roux blinked a few times. “Well,” she finally said. “That sounds ambitious.”
“It is. So are you in?”
“Hey, remember that time when I gave you a really emotional and heartwarming speech about friendship, and then you told me you were a spy and brought a dozen false passports into my house and then broke into my parents’ safe?” Roux gestured at me with her chopsticks. “Yes, of course I’m in. This is the best thing that’s happened to me in years. When do we start?”
The romance between Maggie and Jesse, the magazine editor’s son, was cute but predictable. It was obvious once the mission was revealed that Maggie would fall in love with him. I did like that Jesse wasn’t the typical resident bad boy. He has that reputation, being rich and privileged, but that’s not the case at all. I liked that the love interest (and it’s only one; no love triangle or multiple love interests here) didn’t try to control the heroine or wasn’t a jerk to her in any way. He’s very vulnerable from the get-go. On the other hand, I never really quite understood why he fell for Maggie so quickly. It’s absolutely a case of instalove.
Despite the espionage aspects, Also Known As is very much a fish out of water story. Readers expecting a fast-paced twisting and turning thriller plot should look elsewhere. This is the story of a girl used to living one life, who’s always dreamed of living another, and who now struggles to balance the two. Now that Maggie has a true friend and a guy she likes, how can she go back to the one she had before? Will she have to resign herself to constantly living a lie and lying to everyone she meets?
I thought Also Known As was a fun book. There are similarities in tone to the Gallagher Girl series so fans of that series looking for something to tide them over between books might want to give this a try. Best part? This appears to be a standalone so there’s no long-term commitment. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be opposed to more adventures from Maggie and Roux, who make great partners. B+