Being a 16-year-old safecracker and active-duty daughter of international spies has its moments, good and bad. Pros: Seeing the world one crime-solving adventure at a time. Having parents with super cool jobs. Cons: Never staying in one place long enough to have friends or a boyfriend. But for Maggie Silver, the biggest perk of all has been avoiding high school and the accompanying cliques, bad lunches, and frustratingly simple locker combinations.
Then Maggie and her parents are sent to New York for her first solo assignment, and all of that changes. She’ll need to attend a private school, avoid the temptation to hack the school’s security system, and befriend one aggravatingly cute Jesse Oliver to gain the essential information she needs to crack the case… all while trying not to blow her cover.
I’ve only read one book by Robin Benway (Audrey, Wait!), but it was such a hilarious, fun novel that I knew I had to read Also Known As when I saw it on Netgalley. I didn’t even read the synopsis, so I had no idea that this was a spy novel. I just wanted something light, entertaining, and humorous, which is exactly what I received.
When I think of spy novels, the only books that come to mind are the Gallagher Girls novels (or Heist Society, but only because spying and heist-ing involve a similar set of skills and action) by Ally Carter. Had I known anything about this novel, I probably would have expected something in that vein, involving tons of espionage action, a fast pace, and some dangerous mission that only gets resolved after some kickass fighting (despite the fact that the protagonists are teenagers). Something close to the later books in Ally Carter’s awesome series. However, Also Known As is a different kind of spy novel (and most similar to the Gallagher Girl book, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You). It isn’t about an action-packed mission or some larger than life fight — it’s a spy novel simply because it’s about spies. Its focus is entirely upon the human relationships.
In Also Known As, Maggie is on her first solo mission for a secret organization called the Collective, which basically fights crime all over the world covertly (and then covers up their involvement in those scenarios, but in a way that raises no questions). What I loved about this book was the way it did not attempt to glamorize “being a spy”. Sure, the job still seems so much cooler than a nine-to-five, and Maggie’s just a high school student, so it’s freaking amazing. But there were no attention-drawing cool costumes or awesome-yet-unrealistic gadgets. Each spy in the Collective had his or her own talents (for example, Maggie is a safecracker, her mother is a computer hacker, and her friend Angelo is an expert forger) that required certain skills and only had certain work. For the most part, they had to cooperate together with a network of spies to get any job done. In a way, it seems more realistic than the way films portray “spy culture”, and if spies do exist in such an organization, I believe such a network of individually skilled workers is definitely possible. [Insert conspiracy theory here, haha.]
One of the things I love about espionage stories in television and books is the way some missions require people to be your assignments, and you’re meant to get close to them in order to obtain information (or distract them until you can obtain information) without actually getting close to them. It’s a paradox because it is difficult forging human relationships without personally “becoming attached”. You’d have to be heartless to realistically even accomplish such a thing. Like in I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, Maggie’s challenge is just as difficult as Cammie’s, especially because, like Cammie, she has never known a life outside of her espionage world. She’s never been to a real high school. She has no idea how to act around normal teenagers (or what “normal” teenage behavior is). She’s not even sure how to really make friends. (Why bother, when after this mission is over, she’s going to have to pack her bags and possibly move to another country for a limited time, only to be transported again?) So when Maggie’s given her first independent mission, in which all she needs to do is get to know a rich boy named Jesse Oliver well enough to get invited to his home, where she can obtain information about his father, it is more easily said than done. She ends up befriending him and sort-of crushing on him (she’s not around many people her age and this boy is pretty and adorable — can you really blame her?). And she finds herself in a tangled web of lies, both with her parents, who are counting on her to get this job done (because if they fail, the existence of the Collective might make it to the news, and there would be worldwide chaos), and with Jesse Oliver, who was only meant to be her assignment — nothing more. So many untruths are difficult to maintain, especially when you’re interacting with all parties on a daily basis, but I thought it was realistic the way Maggie’s dilemma panned out, and I felt that in her position, anyone would have a similar experience.
Like in the portrayal of her mission, realism was important to Also Known As in other respects as well. Maggie’s parents, like any parents whose daughter has limited experience being “out in the real world” (despite the fact that she’s done some extraordinary things all over the globe), were a little overprotective. They worried for her welfare, they grilled her about where she was spending her time outside of school, reminded her of her priorities, and they were nervous about her dating and essentially, growing up and learning to be more independent. Few parents in young adult literature seem to have a place in the novel or play an active role in their children’s lives, so this was wonderful to see. I also thought Maggie had a very natural teenage voice. The characters acted their age, and both the romantic relationship and the friendships in this book were believable. Actually, I love that for Jesse and Maggie, the romance began the way any high school romance does in real life: two people who are intrigued by/attracted to each other want to know each other better (there’s a spark), so they go out, and then they decide to (awkwardly and adorably, because they’re in high school) become exclusive. The relationship turns into something that means something to them that they want to explore and see where it goes. Maggie and Jesse go on classic, adorable, cliche-and-cheesy-yet-totally-fun dates and they truly enjoy each other’s company. It isn’t YOU-ARE-MY-SOULMATE-AND-I-CAN’T-LIVE-WITHOUT-YOU, but it shouldn’t be that intense. They’re only in high school!
My favorite relationship, however, is Maggie’s friendship with Roux. I love the way their personalities, although rather different, complemented each other, and they genuinely started off as “two people who kind of bonded because they had no other friends” until they became “two people who truly got to know and care about each other”. Female friendships are just as difficult to forge as romantic relationships, and I liked the way Maggie’s experience explored this. I also thought it was fantastic that Maggie and Roux had some incredibly insane and completely amusing conversations (that never felt random or out-of-place). Honestly, these are the kinds of conversations I have with my friends in real life.
I describe this novel as “Gallagher Girls meets Gossip Girl meets Nikita“. If Division aided the “good guys” instead of criminals and terrorists in Nikita, the Collective would be Division. They’re opposite sides of the same coin. The New York City private school, the set-up, the social hierarchy, and the tendency for this clique to gossip had a very Gossip Girl feel to it, and the Gallagher Girls aspect is self-explanatory. Jesse Oliver also kind of reminded me of a more intelligent Nate Archibald (from the television series), though that could just be the work of the setting and the sound of his name.
As far as names go, “Jesse Oliver” is really fun to say. I can completely understand why Maggie had to use his full name all the time (at first). I ended up referring to him as Jesse Oliver through… basically the entire novel as well.
There’s this scene where Maggie is shouting into her cell phone on a New York street about what an awesome spy she is (it’s not as arrogant as it sounds — she’s trying to defend her qualifications for the assignment). As careless as this is for an experienced spy, Maggie is also new at independently working on missions. (So, technically, she’s inexperienced.) It makes sense to me that she’d slip, even with all the espionage work she’s done with her parents and other agents over the years. She’s a safecracker. She has no idea how to be undercover. (Also, it’s New York City. If anyone screams such a thing into a cell phone in NYC, no one pays attention to it. Or takes the comment seriously.)
I like that although Maggie’s assignment is about Jesse Oliver, the book is not. (Not really.)
Maggie and Jesse’s moments with the Cherry Garcia and the ice skating were incredibly adorable. Sometimes you just want a cute boy to sit on a (random) stoop and share an ice cream with!
Not gonna lie — I laughed hard when Maggie was researching Jesse Oliver, and found out he was caught shoplifting a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye from a Barnes & Noble.
The spying in this novel doesn’t rely on super-fancy, probably nonexistent equipment. Spying involves research and mistakes and stake-outs. And again, Maggie’s skills are limited to safecracking. She needs other people, like Angelo, to help if her work involves something more. (Though there is a cool helicopter scene towards the end that I loved reading.)
Because I didn’t know anything about this book when I started reading, I didn’t mind the lightheartedness. However, if you’re expecting a spy thriller (as some sites are marketing it), you’re not going to find it here. The spying aspect of the novel could have been drawn out in several areas of the story, but with Maggie as the protagonist, I actually thought it made more sense for it not to be. It works better as a cute contemporary.
I love that Roux and Maggie have conversations that aren’t always or even remotely about Jesse Oliver or another boy. This is what some of my recent reads have been missing.
Can we talk about how awesome Angelo is? He was definitely one of my favorite characters.
When Jesse discovers Maggie’s secret, that he was (or at least, he started out as) an assignment, I appreciated that it took him a while to be completely okay with her again. I like that Maggie had to prove to him that she cared for him more than just a mission, and that by the end, they’re still both easing into the relationship and trying to make it work. But I also love that Jesse did not react to the discovery with a complete denial of his feelings. A lot of times boys in fiction say cruel things when they’re hurt that are completely untrue, and it adds all this unnecessary angst to the story. Jesse acknowledged his feelings enough to talk things through with Maggie, despite his hurt. He’s still working on the forgiveness at the end of the book, so he’s not easily getting past it. But he’s not brooding over it either, which is refreshing.
I have a few problems with the conclusion of this novel. I couldn’t comprehend how quickly Maggie “connected the dots” about Oscar, even with the background she had from Angelo about his attempt to kidnap her in the past. I don’t know how anyone could logically assume a man who tried to abduct her a decade ago would still be around in the same apartment. Though I was glad someone pointed out that the possibility of it being that man was nil (because he died years ago, and faking a death to an organization of spies is near impossible), I don’t know how she could realize who it actually was either. The story made sense when she outlined the connections (though I still don’t understand the motive behind his actions to reveal information about the Collective, other than for revenge for his thwarted plans from years ago), but arriving to those conclusions, knowing the same information Maggie knew, did not seem natural. (Also, why did he need years for this plot? Merely to gain their trust in order to (eventually) sabotage them (repeatedly) years later? I do not understand.)
I really want to know what happened after Also Known As ended. I’m guessing Maggie continues to go to school, allows herself to be a teenager instead of a spy, and then — maybe some time in the future, after she graduates high school or attends university — decides to return to the Collective and go on missions again?
Also Known As is a cute novel that will keep you laughing start to finish. Readers looking for a fun story, adorable dates, and a protagonist still trying to figure out how to balance her “unique skills” with being a teenager will enjoy it. (Readers looking for an incredibly mysterious, action-packed spy thriller, however, might be somewhat disappointed.)