Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Review: The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Title:  The Agency: A Spy in the House
Author:  Y.S. Lee
Publisher:  Candlewick Press 
Genre: YA/mystery
Hardcover: 335 pages
ISBN: 0763640670
Summary from Goodreads: 
Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.
  • Overall rating: 8/10
To buy this book: IndieBound | The Book Depository | Powell's | Amazon
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Y.S.Lee's The Agency: A Spy in the House is the first book in a series of mystery novels following Mary Quinn, a Victorian girl who was sentenced to death at the age of twelve and was fortunate enough to be rescued by a couple of women who run an exclusive school (as well as a secret investigative agency).  They give Mary a thorough education and when she nears seventeen, they offer her the opportunity to train to work for the Agency.  A Spy in the House follows Mary undercover on her first field training exercise.

What I Liked:
-     The setting!  I was so impressed by the way Y.S. Lee presented Victorian London.  The details of her characters' lives provided a clear picture of the overall social climate, the manners of the time, and the layout and atmosphere of London in 1858.  The historical elements of this novel feel authentic and well-researched, yet the author never slows the pace of the story with lengthy descriptive passages and never halts the narrative to provide dry history lessons.  Her brisk, straightforward writing style makes it easy to imagine the sights (and smells) of Victorian London.  Even readers who don't generally gravitate toward historical novels will find it easy to immerse themselves in Mary Quinn's world.
-     Mary is clever, focused, and very easy to like.  She was resourceful enough (and lucky enough) to survive a tragic childhood, which makes her a character you'd like to see succeed from the very first pages of the novel.  Mary has a fairly modern attitude and demeanor, and her excellent instincts make her perfectly suited to detective work.  With a bit more experience, she will definitely be a fantastic spy.
-     James Easton is intelligent, opinionated, funny, idealistic, and rather arrogant.  He has never encountered anyone like Mary before, and she challenges him in every way possible - intellectually, physically, and emotionally.  If you have a soft spot for pairings who verbally spar and try to resist falling for one another, then you will enjoy getting to know Mary and James.
-     The romance in this book is based on more than just physical attraction.  They connect intellectually, find each other intriguing (and infuriating), and have several serious obstacles to overcome if they are ever going to pursue a relationship with one another.  At the moment, they don't fully trust one another.  Plus, Mary and James are each just beginning their careers, and in order to be successful in their individual professions, their independent career goals must take priority over their personal desires.  Still, their banter is sharp, their chemistry is evident, and their paths seem destined to cross.
-     I was pleased to see the damsel-in-distress roles reversed at one point within this story.
-     The humor in this book is well-placed and spread liberally throughout the book (particularly when Mary and James are anywhere near each other).

What I Wished:
-     While I enjoyed the information that Mary was able to gather regarding her past, the way in which she stumbled across that information seemed like an unbelievably fortuitous coincidence.
-     I am generally not a huge fan of 'big reveal' moments when the villain spells out the details of their nefarious plot, and this book does have a moment which leans strongly in that direction.
-     I liked that so many societal issues were touched upon within this story, from poverty to the opium trade to racism, and I loved the clever concept behind the Agency taking advantage of society's tendency to underestimate women.  Some of the ways in which the story examined women's rights fit perfectly into the story, but one particular subplot (Angelica's character arc) felt like it veered in a direction that was purely designed to illustrate a point.
-     Overall, I was surprised to be more interested in the setting and the romance than I was in the mystery or the secondary characters.  Since this is the first book in a series, the mystery has a conclusive resolution as do most of the secondary characters, but Mary's own story is just beginning by the end of the book.

The Agency: A Spy in the House is a fun new historical mystery series set against a realistic Victorian backdrop.  I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes historical mystery novels or historical romance novels, but I would also recommend it to people who are generally intimidated by historical novels because Y.S. Lee's writing is very accessible and Mary is a very modern heroine.  If you would like to learn more about The Agency series please visit Y.S. Lee's website, facebook, & twitter, or read an excerpt from A Spy in the House here.

A second perspective:
My husband really enjoyed this book.  His thoughts:  "I liked how real and gritty Victorian London was in this book.  From the smell of the Thames to the noise in the streets, the author captured the time period and location perfectly.  I also liked Mary.  She is a smart and perceptive heroine.  I definitely want to read the next book."  


Rhoni said...

What a cool twist to have a female spy in that time period in London! Sounds good.

Thank you for stopping by CKY Books.

Jan von Harz said...

While I was very impressed with the setting too, I was less impressed with Lee's characterization. I do however want to read the second book in this series to see if that improves. Great review, thanks!

Cleverly Inked said...

Not many authors can get the feel of the time and era right. SOunds good.

jeanette8042 said...

Awesome post! Just wanted to also let you know that you've received the The Versatile Blogger award:

Candace said...

Sounds like a good one! Great review! I really enjoy historical fiction so I'll be watching for this one!

Violet said...

Rhoni - Isn't that a fun concept? I loved the idea of a Victorian spy agency that takes advantage of society's tendency to underestimate women by placing undercover spies right in plain sight.

Jan von Harz - Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts on this book. I actually finished reading both of The Agency books before I sat down to write this review, so my more favorable opinion of Lee's characterization skills may be in part due to that. I tried to keep this review specific to the first book, but I'm sure my general opinions of Mary and James were altered by their expanded rolls in the second book. My overall opinion of the first book was also improved by the fact that my husband thoroughly enjoyed it and was excited to discuss it with me (which was a pleasant surprise since historical fiction is not often to his taste). His interest in the story and characters definitely helped enhance mine. :)

Liz - Thanks for stopping by to comment! The characters in this story may be fairly modern, but Victorian London feels authentic.

Jeanette - Thank you for the lovely award! Very kind of you! :)

Candace - If you like historical novels, then you should definitely check out the Mary Quinn mysteries. A Spy in the House is a fast read with a spunky heroine. :)

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