Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Agency: A Spy in the House by YS Lee

A young thief rescued from the hangman's noose finds herself catapulted into a new life at a charity school for young girls. Little does she know that not all students are destined to be governesses, ladies companions or even marriage material. For a girl as intelligent and skilful as Mary there is another option, join a detective agency as an undercover agent. So begins Mary's first adventure as the spy in the house.

Mary is sent to act as a ladies companion to the stuck up Miss Angelica Thorold. Her father is suspected of dealing in illicit stolen artefacts from India and it is hoped Mary may over hear a useful conversation or two. What she doesn't expect is that she isn't the only one investigating the Thorold's. Mary is tasked only to observe the family but when nothing useful comes to light she ignores her brief and takes matters into her own hands. Will Mary survive her first assignment or will this be her last?

Set in Victorian London, this book is quite a charming story of intrigue and mystery. It is not a murder mystery as such (although eventually murders do occur) and arguably Mary's mission is quite dull. Thankfully Mary's interpretation of how to get results creates much of the interest in the storyline. There is also a dark secret in Mary's life to add a bit of mystery and I admit when it is finally revealed I didn't see it coming, although there are hints as to what it might relate to at various points prior to this.

The characters are fairly well written although Angelica Thorold really doesn't become three dimensional until towards the end of the book. There is also very little in the book of Mr Thorold who is the suspect under surveillance. In a way this is to be expected as Mary's role in the household does not allow much contact with the men of the household. In fact YS Lee's grasp of social convention in this period is pretty good. However it does leave you feeling as if there is a bit of a hole in the investigation. It could be argued that the other agent's role is to look more thoroughly into Mr Thorold and we never really find out who this other agent might be. It all does make sense when you think about it for a while but in terms of the storyline does make it slightly less interesting.

One thing I wasn't so keen on was the relationship between Mary and James Easton. He is a pretty irritating character and you just don't want him to be Mary's romantic interest. In fact the 'romance' side of things is the part of the storyline that is most jarring. It's not terribly well constructed and whilst you know this is meant to be the romantic element in the book it doesn't feel all that well... romantic. In fact when they kiss it’s rather out of the blue and doesn't do much for the storyline at all. I think this element of the book needed to be written slightly better or just left out altogether IMHO.

The ending in some ways is rather unexpected, which is good! I don't generally enjoy books where I know 'who did it' before I get to the end of the first chapter. The ending does keep true to the overall theme of the book though, that women can be independent (for good or ill) and will find ways to be independent regardless of the consequences.

Quite where the series will go from here is anyone’s guess. I personally am hoping that the next book will allow Mary a chance to do more than just sit in a corner and watch. However, it is difficult writing a strong female character that has the chance to partake in an adventure in a period when women had few opportunities. I wouldn't want YS Lee to write something wholly out of context of the period but I just feel as if I needed something lightly more.

All in all, it was quite an enjoyable read and I was sad to finish the book. It is a different concept and could be a good series.

*4 stars*

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