Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to participate in the tour and to Harper Collins for my digital review copy via NetGalley.
About the Book
1940. Three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything – beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses – but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of East End London poverty, works the legendary code-breaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Awkward local girl Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles beneath her shy exterior.
1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter – the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together…
As the nation prepares for the royal wedding they must race against the clock to save one of their own.
Format: Hardcover (656 pages) Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: 18th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
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The book opens in 1947 on the eve of of the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It coincides with the arrival of a coded plea for help from the inmate of an asylum to two former friends. It’s a while before the identity of the inmate is confirmed, although readers may have reached their own conclusions some time before that. What takes longer to discover is the cause of the rift between the three friends and the reason for the confinement of one of them.
At over 600 pages, The Rose Code is a chunky read but I was quickly drawn into the stories of Osla, Mab and Beth. Reflecting their different backgrounds and life experiences, the author creates a distinctive character for each of them. Whilst Osla may have attended glittering high society parties and been romanced by Prince Philip (yes, that Prince Philip), she’s surprisingly unworldly in other respects. Conversely, Mab has experienced life’s darker side. I found Beth the most intriguing character because of her very different way of looking at the world, seeing patterns where others do not, making it easy to appreciate why her potential for code-breaking work might have been spotted. And I sure I’m not the only reader to give a little cheer when Beth eventually ‘pokers up’ (as Osla would say) to her mother, the tyrannical Mrs. Finch.
I particularly enjoyed the parts of the book set at Bletchley Park and found myself enthralled by the details about the secret code-breaking work carried out there, how it was organised, and the various machines and decryption methods used. The highly confidential nature of the work carried out at Bletchley Park required the utmost level of secrecy with those involved unable to discuss their work with anyone outside their own section, let alone family or friends. As we now know, many of those who worked at Bletchley Park in real life never talked about their work, taking their secrets with them to the grave.
The author does a great job of conveying both the insular atmosphere this demand for secrecy created and the psychological toll imposed on those involved in the work, aware their success or failure could mean the difference between life and death, even the outcome of the war itself. I can only imagine the pressure of possessing information about the progress of the war – good or bad – and being unable to share any inkling of that knowledge with anyone else. But, on the other hand, the thrill of achievement whenever a breakthrough is made.
Perhaps it’s no wonder those employed at Bletchley Park seek any opportunity for amusement whether that’s a game of rounders on the lawn or membership of the various societies that exist, such as the book club set up by Osla and Mab – christened The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. In the author’s imagination, Bletchley Park even has its own scandal sheet, Bletchley Bletherings, occasional excerpts from which are scattered throughout the book. (Unfortunately, the formatting of my digital copy of the book was not kind to these.)
There are walk-on parts for several well-known historical figures who either worked at or visited Bletchley Park, such as Alan Turing and Winston Churchill. (At the online book launch, Kate revealed there was nearly an appearance by James Bond author, Ian Fleming, another real life visitor to Bletchley Park. Sadly, this had to be left on the literary equivalent of the cutting room floor.) I wasn’t familiar with Dilly Knox before reading the book but came to appreciate what a vital role he played in the breakthroughs in code-breaking.
In the second half of the book, the focus is more on the personal lives of the three women; like many others who lived through this time, it involves both love, loss and a need to apportion blame or assuage personal feelings of guilt. As the book reaches its gripping climax, there’s one last reunion of The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in an effort to bring to justice the traitor who, unsuspected, lived and worked beside them at Bletchley Park.
Although the mystery of the identity of the traitor was absorbing, the most compelling element of The Rose Code for me was the fascinating insight it provided into the work undertaken at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Thanks to the author’s evocative descriptions it didn’t take too much imagination for me to picture myself there alongside Beth, Mab and Osla working around the clock at their deciphering work or snatching the odd break. ‘It was two-thirty in the morning, middle of the night shift, and the converted dining room smelled of Brylcreem, stale fat and kidneys on toast.’
Although the three women in the book are fictional, I felt the story served to shine a spotlight on the important role their real life counterparts played in code-breaking but whose contribution up until now has perhaps been overshadowed by their more celebrated male colleagues.
In three words: Compelling, authentic, intriguing
Try something similar: The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness
About the Author
Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs names Caesar and Calpurnia.