Agent of the Crown (2016), the third book in Melissa McShane’s CROWN OF TREMONTANE fantasy series, shifts to a third generation of the royal North family: Princess Telaine North Hunter has been secretly working for her uncle, the king of Tremontane, as a spy for the last nine years, since she was 15. She’s deliberately created a public image as a frivolous, bubble-headed socialite, while she works behind the scenes to uncover plots against her country. Only the king and her maid (who is also an agent) are aware of her double identity. Telaine’s job is made somewhat easier by an inherent magical talent that she also guards as a close secret: she can instantly tell if anyone is lying directly to her. (A lie is indicated by bold font in the text, a trick that took me a few pages to catch on to.)
One night at a ball, Telaine sneaks off to rifle through Count Harroden’s papers, who’s been acting suspicious lately. She’s forced to hide in a closet when the Count and another man, the unsavory Baron of Steepridge, come into the office and discuss a smuggling deal. When she reports back to the king, he unexpectedly sends her on her first undercover field assignment: staying in the rural town of Longbourne (Jane Austen shout-out!) in Steepridge’s barony to find out what the Baron is smuggling and why.
Telaine is sent to live in the home of her ageless great-aunt Zara, once the queen of Tremontane and now in hiding herself (Zara’s story is told in Exile of the Crown). Telaine introduces herself as Lainie Bricker, a commoner from the big city who is skilled with creating and repairing magic-imbued mechanical devices ― a fortuitous hobby of Telaine’s, which she hopes will get her entry into the Baron’s mansion. Zara is incensed at Telaine invading her life and home without an invitation, and initially turns most of the townspeople against Telaine … with the notable exception of Ben Garrett, the young blacksmith. Telaine divides her time between getting to know the townspeople better ― especially Ben ― and secretly investigating the Baron. One of those will be dangerous to her heart and the other to her life.
Agent of the Crown has an absorbing plot that’s an enjoyable mix of a fish-out-of-water story, as the city-bred royal Telaine gradually integrates with rural townspeople, a slowly developing romance, and a tension-filled spying assignment, where the wrong move may mean death. Melissa McShane is talented at creating realistic characters who engage me emotionally. It’s reminiscent of Troubled Waters, one of my favorite books from Sharon Shinn that deftly mixes magical fantasy and thoughtful romance, where people learn and grow in the course of their relationships. In the course of her new experiences and adventures, Telaine learns more about the people of her country as well as about herself.
Like Rider of the Crown, the second book in this series, Agent of the Crown directly addresses the question of one’s identity and making difficult choices about your path in life. Between her roles as the superficial and flirtatious princess, the secret agent, and the commoner Deviser, it’s hard for Telaine to come to terms with who she truly is as a person. And as she grows more fond of Ben and the other people of Longbourne, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to maintain her secret identity and avoid compromising her mission as a spy.
But what else could she do, and retain her honor? She was used to losing things by now. She’d lost Lainie Bricker. She was about to lose the Princess. It seemed she was going to find out who Telaine North Hunter was, because that would be the only identity left to her.
While Agent of the Crown can be read on a stand-alone basis, like most series the experience is definitely enhanced by reading the prior books in the series and becoming familiar with the characters and their world. I strongly recommend this book and the CROWN OF TREMONTANE series to readers who enjoy magical fantasies that include romance.