Jennifer's Reviews > Alias Dragonfly

Alias Dragonfly by Jane Singer
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's review
Feb 22, 2012

did not like it
bookshelves: ebooks, extended-reviews

** spoiler alert **

This review, based on the galley, contains spoilers a-plenty, but after you read it, you won’t want to read the book anyway.

True rating: a half star.

To come straight to the point, Alias Dragonfly is a half-hearted, sloppily written book. I hate that it is so, and even more that I have to write a review describing it as such, because the premise – a novel about a young girl who is recruited as a Union spy at the start of the Civil War – excited me. I am a lover of historical fiction and have been a Civil War buff since I was a kid. But the text reads like an unedited first draft, full of poorly realized characters, scenes that are partially drawn, and mistakes of all kinds.

The only consistently solid writing in the entire tale is to be found in the prologue, which relates a dream (that turns out to be a cheap trick to capture the reader’s attention), and the opening four chapters, in which our heroine, Maddie, recounts her journey to Washington City and settles in at her aunt’s boardinghouse. However, from this point on, as the settings and characters compound, the author flounders. Too often a typical scene consists of Maddie briefly interacting with other characters in hastily sketched locations. Seldom is a scene truly set for the reader, with adequate descriptions of the surroundings and characters. And mistakes abound. For example: In a scene at breakfast in the boardinghouse, Maddie tells us her father “got up from the table.” A short conversation follows, and then on the next page, Maddie says, “My father got up from the table” – but obviously, he was already up. These sorts of errors in continuity plague the text. (In fact, at the start of this scene, Maddie states that her aunt has only one boarder. Yet on the very next page, a second boarder enters and sits down for breakfast!)

In an effort to keep this review under book length, I’m going to detail just a handful of the problems and errors found in Alias Dragonfly:

– It is never explained why Washington, a Union city and the (temporary) home of Abraham Lincoln, the anti-slavery president (as the reader is reminded over and over), is such a hotbed of slavery. Slaves are dragged through the streets in chains, whipped in plain sight, mistreated, and even gunned down. Yet the reader is supposed to blame the South for what is being allowed to occur in a Northern city. (The reason for this confusion was the Compromise of 1850, which preserved slavery in the nation’s capital while banning the slave trade there, but the author doesn’t mention this.)

– Sometimes a scene is so carelessly tossed together that the reader isn't even told which characters are in it, and their sudden appearance as if from thin air is disconcerting, to say the least. For instance, in chapter nineteen Maddie is taken by Mr. Webster, one of her fellow spies, to a photography studio. He raps at the door and it opens. The room is deserted, as far as we’re told, but Mr. Pinkerton, the detective chief, enters from the back. Pinkerton speaks for a couple paragraphs, and then this strange line appears: “Mr. Webster and Mrs. Smith clasped hands.” But at no time was Mrs. Smith said to be in the room! (Mind you, this is one of many problematic scenes in the book.)

– In another scene, a Rebel spy is told to “ride east at sunset” from Washington City to Centreville, Virginia. But Centreville is, and always has been, almost due west of Washington.

– Directions are a continual source of trouble in this ‘historical’ novel: One of Maddie’s spy colleagues mentions that he chose to room at her aunt’s boardinghouse because of its proximity to the house of Mrs. Greenhow, the Rebel spy he is stalking. And indeed, 1625 K Street, the location Maddie later gives us for this house, is only about three blocks due south of 1240 16th Street, the address of the boardinghouse. To get there, one simply walks down 16th and turns on K. But when Maddie wanders off in search of her father’s camp, she is described as going “up” 16th (in reality, down), then taking a “right” turn (in reality, a left) onto New York Avenue. Eventually, she arrives at the intersection of K and New York. Here she pauses, for it’s been a long, hot, dusty ramble, but where she stops to rest just happens to be in the alley beside Mrs. Greenhow’s house – yet based on the author’s detailed relation of her walk, and her mention here of the address, Maddie is actually about eight blocks away from where the house is said to be. Well, you say, fiction is fiction after all. Yes, and if this were anything but an historical novel, such a mistake could be shrugged off as poetic license (albeit still staggeringly poor research and proofing – the same house can’t be in two different locations). But the author is clearly making an effort at realism and is badly off the mark.

– What sets Maddie apart from the average fifteen year old is her photographic memory. Time and again we are told that she is able to recall everything she sees with perfect clarity, even down to the number of roses in a wallpaper pattern that she counts after little more than a glance at the wall. The author, however, clearly doesn't share her gift. On (Nook) page 47, Maddie describes a doll a little girl is holding as having a “blue checked petticoat,” and then, a few seconds later when the doll is placed in a window of Mrs. Greenhow’s house, Maddie says the petticoat has been changed to one of yellow. Fine so far. But on page 99, in an effort to demonstrate her amazing memory to Mr. Pinkerton, Maddie recounts what she saw: “The doll’s petticoat was red. Moments later someone placed it in the window. The petticoat color had changed to blue.” (We will soon revisit this remarkable gaffe.)

– Maddie’s general conduct is eccentric, to say the least. She falls in love in a split second, for no reason that the reader can see beyond a man’s eyes and general demeanor. She can have outbursts of anger or tears at any time, sometimes for baffling reasons, and then she’s immediately in control again. While this wildly inconsistent and unpredictable behavior might make for a good sketch of a fifteen year old girl in stressful times, it makes for an extremely bad potential Pinkerton agent.

– Maddie and her companion make camp one night close enough to a Union regiment that she can hear “the low voices of soldiers” and “the clanking of cook pots.” Yet when she awakens in the morning, she finds to her dismay that the regiment has departed. Which means that she and her companion somehow slept through the shouted orders, the neighing of horses, the creaking of wagons, the blowing of bugles (!), and all the sundry and very loud noises that a military encampment makes as it prepares to decamp.

– As the plot moves west to Centreville and the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), one expects a Civil War historian (as the author is said to be) to shine, with descriptions of the battlefield, soldiers, etc., that bring the battle to life. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. The battle is not much more than some distant shouts, rifle shots, and cannon blasts. The confusion among civilians is rendered nicely, to be fair, but no image lingers in the reader’s mind of the battle itself. Worse, there is no sense of the immensity of the conflict. The way it is presented, the reader feels that Bull Run was a quick skirmish involving a few regiments of troops fighting it out on a small patch of land. In reality – and realism is the goal of any historical novel – the battle spread out over miles of terrain, lasted many hours, and involved over 60,000 troops.

– One of the most unrealistic scenes in the book unfolds when Maddie is kidnapped. Unknown to her, the kidnaping is a test by her spy mates to see how well she’ll hold up under duress. Maddie is blindfolded and gagged, her hands are tied at the wrist – in front of her (and, even more strange, her legs and feet are not bound at all) – and she is dumped in a carriage. She eventually ends up on the floor of a pleasant smelling, carpeted room, and the kidnappers leave. At this point she becomes the first blindfolded person in history who, when her captors are gone, doesn’t, as a first instinct, reach up and pull down her blindfold. Instead, she leaves it in place and gropes about the room. Ah, but we can’t totally blame Maddie, for we quickly find out that the author needs her blindfolded for the next scene – the interrogation. (Had she removed her blindfold she would have recognized her captors as her new friends.) The grilling she undergoes consists entirely of a slur against her father and a question about another person, to which Maddie, lying, answers “No.” Physical violence is not used to attempt to force the truth from her, and no cold steel barrel is placed against her head (although this happened in the carriage – why not here as well, where such a threat would actually make sense?). Her captors simply issue a few verbal threats then leave again. And Maddie immediately pulls down the blindfold. No, she doesn’t. For some reason, she is able to use her hands and fingers for everything but pulling off her blindfold (and removing the comb from her hair, as will be seen next). Instead, she shakes her head until her comb falls out of her hair and, blindfolded and in a completely dark room, she instantly grabs the fallen comb in her mouth. She eventually removes her blindfold and the scene cranks on. But the main point here is that this brief ‘ordeal’ is enough to convince professional spies that she won’t crack under the torture of the Rebels. (There are many other scenes that defy belief, like the fight with an enemy spy in which Maddie crawls across the ground instead of standing up and running, though she’s not seriously injured. This was contrived so she could be easily pushed into a ground-level well by her opponent. The whole incident makes poor Maddie look not a little like a simpleton.)

– Maddie eventually infiltrates Mrs. Greenhow’s household. Although ‘infiltrate’ is too strong a word, for Greenhow, a supposed super spy whose life and freedom are in imminent danger, accepts Maddie into her household with scarcely any suspicion or background investigation. She blithely puts her in charge of her young daughter, and then the next day entrusts this total stranger with a spy mission! Of course, this leads to the woman’s capture (not a bad few hours’ work considering that the entire Pinkerton force had been unable to nab this woman for months). Oh, and I promised we’d revisit the doll’s petticoat. When the doll is first mentioned, it is blatantly obvious to the reader that the petticoat is a signal. A spy has just entered Mrs. Greenhow’s house, and suddenly the doll appears in the window with a different colored petticoat. Even the dullest of wits can see that for what it is. However, when Maddie describes this scene later to Pinkerton and his agents, it dawns on none of them that this is a signal. It’s mind-boggling, actually, given the number of times we’re told about the brilliance of Pinkerton and his employees.

– There is no mention of Maddie being taught how to decode messages, but there she is near the end of the book, speedily decoding a Rebel message.

Earlier I said Alias Dragonfly seemed like a first draft. But now, having read through it a second time while working on this review, I realize that it is more of a glorified outline. It’s as though after the first few chapters, the author began to run out of time or interest, and simply fleshed out her bullet points. Only the character of Nellie, the Negro servant, is truly believable. Her dialogue is nicely written and her actions realistic, and if Ms. Singer had applied her skills equally well to the other characters, this would have been a better book. And then there are occasionally good lines to be found, such as this comment a Union spy makes after humming Dixie: “Catchy little tune, isn’t it? When we win this war, I hope we capture the song along with all the soldiers they have left.” It’s a shame the writing wasn’t up to that level throughout the novel.

I am aware that this is an angry review. But angry I am. I wasted several hours in reading and rereading this book, and in writing this review. Of course, no one forced me to write it, but I am tired of the fact that so many books of low caliber are being published in YA fiction. It does author, publisher, and reader a disservice, and in this case, it gives historical fiction a bad name, potentially turning a young reader’s head away forever from an entire genre or period in history. Had this come across my desk back in the day, I would have redlined the errors and advised the author not to return the manuscript until every mistake had been corrected. Even then I might not have accepted it. Perhaps the editorial staff at Bell Bridge Books doesn’t have the philosophy that a book should be right before it is set loose. But in the end, the blame, as with praise, always belongs to the author. Surely Ms. Singer could have taken the time to at least get her facts right. I don’t expect every writer of historical novels to have the storytelling skills of a Walter Scott, nor do I expect every tale of the Civil War to resound with the authenticity of an Ambrose Bierce. But a reader has the right to expect a certain amount of honest effort for her investment of time and money, and it was not given in Alias Dragonfly. Any book that relies on the ignorance or apathy of its readers for its success is not worth the print (or battery power) it consumes.
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