I’ve read the first two books in this fab new middle grade mystery series close together, so this will be a combined review!
Books: The Abbey Mystery and The Burglar’s Ball by Julia Golding
Publication date: 23rd April 2021 and 22nd October 2021
Ownership: E-ARCs sent free of charge via NetGalley. All opinions my own.
These books are so much fun! They imagine the adventures of a 13 year old Jane Austen who ends up entangled in various mysteries around her, and who has to use her copious wits to solve them. Told from her perspective in the third person, they have a really entertaining voice, and manage to capture the spirit of Jane’s humour with tongue-in-cheek love – they’re a treat for an Austen-loving adult, but I think they’d also stand alone well for a younger reader who hasn’t encountered her work yet. There’s a really clever mix of what we know of Jane’s real life, and references to her work, including the names of a lot of characters – for example, when a Mr Willoughby offends her, Jane swears to avenge herself by “making sure no one by the name of Willoughby was ever looked on favourably again”. There are also sisters Elinor and Marianne, and an unpleasant Wickham, and several others I won’t spoil – I love the idea that Jane worked real people she’d met into her stories!
But though this sounds like it might be a bit too silly and self-referential, there are solid stories underneath too, and I very much enjoyed the central mysteries as well as the Austen flavour. The Abbey Mystery sees Jane sent to Southmoor Abbey to be a temporary lady’s companion to Lady Cromwell while she plans a huge ball for her son, but Jane can’t help but be intrigued by the tales of the Abbey’s ghosts, and there seems to be other suspicious behaviour going on. The Burglar’s Ball sends Jane and her sister Cassandra for a visit to their old school, The Abbey in Reading, but when one of the other guest’s diamond necklace is stolen, the secrets of the school begin to need investigation. I obviously won’t talk much about the plots, as the fun is in discovering the mystery for yourself, but they are really rollicking adventures and I had a great time with all the twists and developments.
The casts of both books are extremely lively and entertaining to get to know. I loved Deepti, Jane’s friend, who came to Southmoor Abbey with her father, who was hired as a cook by Lord Cromwell while he was in India – I thought it was brilliant how her experiences and skills are so different to Jane’s, but the two are wholeheartedly respectful of each other and make a great team. Deepti appears in the second book, too, which I wasn’t expecting, but was very pleased to discover! Each character, especially the villains, is keenly observed and pinned to the page – which might well remind us of the sharp portraits of a certain author’s own stories… Jane herself is a very likeable heroine, and her feelings are also very believable, particularly her frustration with the limitations of being a girl and the rules she has to follow, and her bristling against injustice of any kind. I love that there are letters home from Jane scattered between the chapters; not only do these give a glimpse into Jane’s relationship with her brother Henry, who hasn’t so far appeared himself, but they also contain puzzles to solve or fun writing quirks like missing letters. It’s a lovely reference to her real life letters, and the wordplay is exactly the kind of thing I would have been all over as a kid!
Speaking of wordplay, it didn’t escape my notice that these are named alphabetically, and I hope that’s an indicator that this will be a long running series – they’re just great, and the mystery genre really lends itself to longer serials. I’ll be looking out for any more, for sure – and whether you’re an Austen fan or not, readers of middle grade mystery should definitely check these out. Five out of five cats for both!