Book Review: The Rose Code

Kate Quinn

Rating: 2 out of 5.

published: 9th March 2021
spoilers? yes


1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, 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 codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.

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. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger – and their true enemy – closer…

Galley provided by publisher

CWs: sexual harassment, racism, physical abuse, sexual abuse, forced institutionalisation, forced drug use

The Rose Code, perhaps aptly, provides a somewhat rose-tinted view of World War II and Bletchley Park. That’s not to say it needed to be grittier or darker than it was (it is, after all, set during a war, and there are on-page deaths), but the way it presented that war — particularly the way it presented some of the major players (Churchill, namely) — gave it that sort of naive feel.

But let me shelve that particular point for a moment and start from the beginning. I knew, having read The Huntress, that Kate Quinn’s brand of historical fiction is very detailed and very slow-moving. Whereas I wasn’t prepared for that in the previous book and thus got somewhat bored, I was here. I set myself up ready to take a few days over reading it, to not rush it or expect it to move faster than it did.

And then it turned out I actually wasn’t ready.

Because what I expected of this book involved a lot more mystery and a lot more investigation than what I got. The copy I read was 640 pages. It is not until page 523 (the number is stuck in my mind for this very rant) that the flashbacks end. And then two or three pages later, the culprit shows up and says “hey, I’m behind it all!”.

Perhaps the blame can be put squarely on me here, expecting a historical mystery rather than something more… dramatic (in the sense of like a drama), I suppose. Instead, that’s what I got. The book seemed intent on detailing every single bit of drama from when the three main characters meet, up to the point where it falls apart. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except it moved so slowly — there was, it turns out, a heck of a lot of drama to get through. I think one way that could have been fixed was to have the present day interludes move faster. Instead of faffing about thinking about whether they would help Beth escape the asylum where the traitor put her, they could have got her out earlier and then spent more time perhaps investigating the mystery.

Because that’s my second point in relation to this. You’ve spent over 500 pages explaining the backstory to the mystery, but now you have no time to develop the mystery. Which makes it all the more disappointing when the culprit just reveals themselves for no apparent reason. Did they need to go to the asylum to see Beth? I can’t see why, except for revealing who did it in the most dissatisfying fashion possible. Especially when you still then have 120 pages to go and what on earth are they going to do that makes that worth reading?

If that had been my only problem, perhaps I would have given the book 3 stars instead of 2 (for a lot of it, I was thinking of rating it that). But then.

I mentioned up top about the rose-tintedness of this book and I think there are two things in particular which illustrate this. The first happens about halfway through the book. For what seems to be solely to include Churchill at some point in the narrative, the man himself shows up to inspect Bletchley Park (I would argue the use of Alan Turing later on in the book is for a similar reason). And Mab, whose POV it is at this point, spends a paragraph wishing she could mother him. It opens with the line: “As Churchill thanked them, she felt an almost violent urge to nurture”. And “wasn’t anyone looking after him while he looked after the whole nation?” She “had to clasp her hands to stop from doing up his overcoat as he turned to leave”. I don’t know how to explain the way I physically recoiled at this part. But if you thought this was bad, just wait til you hear what’s next!

In all honesty, if I had known that this book featured Prince Philip — yes, the real life Prince Philip — as a prominent love interest, I would not have touched it with a 7-mile long bargepole. I skipped entire chapters because they were the romance scenes between Osla and Prince Philip. Having real life individuals feature in books is not something I enjoy — I am not opposed to it completely, but I do not often enjoy it (it often only works for me if everyone is taken from real life). Here, it made me shrivel up inside. It’s like — I don’t know how best to put this — a Prince Philip x OC romance before Prince Philip x Elizabeth II endgame. And that’s a sentence I wish I had never had to write. It’s some kind of wish fulfillment, like you see in RPF fics. And I truly hated it.

This, then, is the reason I couldn’t rate it over 2 stars. For all that Kate Quinn is a clearly accomplished writer, she completely lost me with the combination of Prince Philip as a love interest and a mystery that wasn’t.

But if you are a fan of hers, then you’ll probably enjoy this. For me, though, this is a sign I should stop trying.

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