Review: Also Known As by Robin Benway
...I had a shiny new plan.
And like most of my plans, it involved deviousness, blatant lying, and coffee.
I started with the coffee first.
About a month ago, I re-watched all five seasons of Alias (and, yes, I'm still mad about the suckitude of the final season) and found myself wishing that I could find books that fit the Alias-style mold: spying, action, romance and humor all wrapped into a quickly-paced, mysterious storyline.
Around the same time, I went to ALA's mid-winter exhibits and ended up in a conversation with one of the representatives from Bloomsbury about how I wished there were more young adult novels that were full of smart humor (I'd just finished reading and loving The Reece Malcolm LIst, which nails that). The rep then dug into her stash of review copies and handed me Robin Benway's Also Known As.
Strangely, not only had a never read Benway, I'd never even heard of her, despite that seemingly everyone on the internet adored Audrey, Wait!
Clearly, the reading stars aligned, converging as Also Known As, a fun, fresh and absolutely charming novel.
Maggie Silver has a much more thrilling life than most 16-year olds. She's the child of international spies who work for an organization called The Collective. They move around constantly, stopping bad guys as a family. Maggie's speciality is safecracking, which she picked up as a child by playing with master locks and graduating to working side-by-side with her parents on cases. Maggie also have a great adult friend and mentor in Angelo, who's a snappy dresser and a great confidant for the young safecracker.
After a summer in Iceland, the family is assigned to a new case in New York City--this time, it's a solo assignment for Maggie. Her job? She has to attend a normal(ish) high school for the first time, make friends with Jesse Oliver and gain access to his father's safe--which contains secrets which threaten to bring down the entire The Collective.
After my first week of high school, I was ready for it to be over.
It turns out, high school kind of sucks. Maggie makes fake friends with the school outcast and former popular girl, Roux, who is one of my favorite supporting characters in a long, long time. She's brash and inappropriate and absolutely hilarious. She also manages to fake date her target, Jesse. As happens in this sort of story, Roux quickly becomes a real friend and Jesse a real love interest, and things get complicated, especially as the mystery behind Maggie's assignment unfolds.
While the spy backstory is a fun hook, where Also Known As really shines is in the relationships.
Maggie's burgeoning friendship with the aforementioned Roux is one of the most fun teen friendships I've read. Both girls are socially awkward for different reasons, and watching their friendship grow was pretty funny and also very sweet in a slightly dysfunctional way.
She waved her hand toward me. "Your uniform. Didn't we discuss this yesterday?"
"Oh." I glanced down at my plaid monstrosity. "Um, I thought that was more of a theoretical conversation."
Roux just stared at me. "Theoretical conversation? Are you for real?" She continued on before I could even answer. "Look, please do it for me. My eyes, they burn when I look at this situation. Help me help you."
Similarly quirky banter is at the core of Maggie's sweet romance with her target, Jesse.
"We did? I'm kidding!" he said when he saw my face. "You looked like you were about to cry! I'm only kidding, I swear."
"I wasn't going to cry, I was going to murder you." Note to self: Hide emotions better.
"Oh, well, that's more like it. And, yes, we kissed." He shot a sidelong glance at me. "Are we still cool with that or...?"
"Oh we're cool. We're very cool. No worries there, my fried. We are A-OOOOOOO-KAY." Shut up, Maggie. Just stop talking right now. Right this very second. I mean it.
If this were a novel that was intended to be very serious fiction, I would roll my eyes at such self-aware dialogue. But, Also Known As does exactly what romantic comedies do when they really work: It's breezy and smooth and puts a smile on your face. I actually think that sort of dialogue and story and flow in general don't get enough credit for general awesomeness. Writing that sort of story and really making it work has got to be incredibly difficult. In this book, it totally works.
While reading Also Known As, I kept thinking that this did remind me of Alias (one of my Goodreads updates was something like, "This is like reading about Sydney and Vaughn's teen daughter--and it's amazing!") I'm always picking up caper/heist-style novels and not finishing them because I want to find what I love about caper-based movies and television shows in a book. Also Known As finally--finally!--did that.
Like many rom-coms, there are a few weaknesses, however.
The relationship between Maggie and Jesse develops really, really quickl and there are big pronouncements and big decisions made really quickly. The relationship between Maggie and her parents is charming and the adults are very present, but I kept thinking that they were kind of clueless for international spies. Ultimately, those shortcomings didn't inhibit my enjoy of Also Known As whatsoever. None of these downsides are unexpected for this sort of story and the snappy, crisp writing certainly helped me suspend my disbelief.
The characters and old-school caper plot come together in the best of ways, and I am so excited that we're going to get more of Maggie, Roux and Jesse soon! Robin Benway is working on a sequel (it sounds like this was originally written as a stand-alone). This is such a memorable voice and definitely is one that could carry a second book or even a series, so I am thrilled by this news.
(I still want my grown-up Alias books, though.)
Thank you to Bloomsbury for the ARC of Also Known As.