Friday, July 2, 2010

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

Earlier this week, I read the new book in Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, Only the Good Spy Young, about a girls' boarding school that trains young spies. (Carter's series is a lot of fun!) Turn back the clock to Victorian-era London and you'll find Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls, which has a similar mission. There bright lower-class girls are taught to be proper maids and ladies' companions, little knowing that the best of them will be recruited to act as spies while they're at it.

Orphan Mary Quinn is headed to the gallows for stealing bread at the age of 12 when she is abruptly rescued by a woman posing as a prison matron. Four years of study later, she finds out the secret of Scrimshaw Academy when she is invited to become a spy. An adventurous soul at heart, Mary accepts the invitation—and her first mission.

Mary is sent to be a lady's companion to an unpleasant merchant's daughter named Angelica, but her true purpose is to spy on the household, since Mr. Therold is suspected of buying and selling stolen artifacts in the Far East, crimes that technically occur outside of Scotland Yard's jurisdiction.

Mary soon chaffs at the feeling that she isn't getting much spying done, although she has been assigned merely to assist the primary agent on the case, whose identity she does not know. She wonders why the invalid Mrs. Therold goes to the doctor every afternoon, deals with the difficult Angelica as best she can, and tries to decide why a family acquaintance, James Easton, appears to be spying on the family, as well. (Um, could he be the agent? Or is he up to something else?) Although Mrs. Therold is encouraging Angelica to win the heart of James's besotted older brother, George, Angelica seems to be more interested in James herself. For his part, James seems attracted to Mary. Of course, at first he merely acts suspicious and cranky towards Mary, as well he might, considering she dresses up as a boy and sneaks out in the middle of the night to search Mr. Therold's warehouse.

While the touch of romance is fun, A Spy in the House is really focused on the mystery of the stolen artifacts and Mary's efforts to solve it, efforts that quickly outpace the scope of her original assignment. Along the way, Mary also manages to help the prickly Angelica, who has troubles of her own. Lee does an interesting job of making readers hate Angelica early in the book, then come to feel sorry for her later on.

A visit to a Lascars' refuge (an old folks home for Asian sailors) not only has a bearing on the case, but turns up surprising information about Mary's own past. Then the bodies start to pile up, and James begins to worry about Mary's safety, which irritates her no end. The boy really should worry about his own safety, and hope that Mary will be around to rescue him!

Fun (and impressive!) fact: The author has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture.

This fresh take on the spy genre promises us more adventures with its supertitle, "A Mary Quinn Mystery." The narrative moves along briskly, and the power of Mary's longing to make more of herself—her longing for a challenge, really—makes her a heroine worth caring about. I'll be watching for Book 2.

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