In this prequel to Code Name Verity, a teenage Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart has just returned from boarding school headed to her family’s former ancestral home Strathfearn House that is being sold to become another boarding school to pay her grandfather’s debts, since the estate hadn’t been able to pay for itself in years. Upon her arrival two days earlier than planned, Julie decides to attempt to surprise her family and friends, but doesn’t run into any of them. Figuring she’ll run into them soon, she takes a walk along the river, knowing this opportunity will be forever gone soon, and is somehow attacked. When she comes to two days later, she’s in the hospital and believed to be a traveller, treated like she’s no better than an unwanted animal. She can’t remember the events around being attacked, and meanwhile, there are other unusual circumstances. A man has gone missing and is believed to be dead and other suspicious events have happened. Julie, together with new allies of the Scottish travellers Euan McEwen and his sister Ellen, tries to discover what happened and also clear the travellers of any suspected wrongdoing before someone is gravely injured.
This was so very different compared to CNV. It is basically more of a historical mystery taking place well before the war. Julie is also much younger at fifteen, and is determinedly trying to be older than she is. She sometimes acts as if she has the authority when her family is unavailable and she pretends to be older to attract older men too. Julie can’t wait to grow up, and though she tries, she still carries the naiveté and sense of entitlement that has yet to be challenged until now. Julie forms a number of new relationships throughout the novel that teach her rather different lessons, things that ultimately are helping her form her identity. When her hair is shaved off, she has a chance to explore what being a boy is like because everyone believes she is a boy rather than a young noble lady. This identity swap, however unintended, shapes her into exploring things she never was able to before, whether through her sexuality or her class standing. This is possibly one of the key changes for becoming Verity.
One of themes of the book is the prejudice against travellers. See this Wikipedia entry on Scottish travellers and who they were and here for more educational info. We might associate them more as gypsies, but for the most part, they were still regarded as undesirables even in this day and age. Today we could easily compare this with some attitudes towards the homeless, immigrants, or refugees (though actually a news station mentioned gypsies in the US fairly recently). However, during this novel, because the travellers are nearby, they are automatically thought to be suspects, subjected to any number of indignities, and even withheld from other privileges that are perfectly legitimate, like Julie showing them her family’s collection at the library. Julie’s family seems to be one of the very few who accept and defend the travellers, but they cannot stop the violence and prejudices that happen when someone powerful isn’t around (beatings, accusations, rape).
Other interesting things about this book are the history of Scottish pearls, Julie’s relationship with her grandfather and his family’s downfall during the wars (which happened quite a bit during this age), and bits and pieces of real Scotland (though Mary Queen of Scots pearls are actually invented in this story despite her having loved pearls and having possibly the most famous pearls in the world now passed down and even worn by Queen Elizabeth II).
While this isn’t an earth-shattering novel like CNV, it does show a lesser noticed side of history, namely the Scottish traveller abuse and prejudice. I found it to be much more subtle and to carry more gentle character development than her other works. I’m not quite sure what teen I would give this to, except maybe an older teen more interested in literary classics, historical fiction, mystery and identity crisis because it is fascinating from these standpoints or to make a full character comparison between Julie and Verity. Other fans blown away by CNV might find this underwhelming instead, though I enjoyed the read.