Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Agency series by Y.S. Lee

The Agency: The Body at the Tower
Y. S. Lee
Candlewick Press
Borrowed from the Library.

Mary Quinn is back, and we have realized, appalled, that we never reviewed her first appearance, in The Agency: A Spy in the House. Let us bring you up to speed:

In the first title, we meet Mary Quinn, small-time pickpocket and thief, as she is arrested, tried, and sentenced for a crime she did indeed commit. Her life since her father's death many years ago has been nothing but struggle, and the idea of death is not entirely unwelcome. Fate - or, the ladies of The Agency - have other plans for her, however.

Spirited away from jail, Mary is given a home and an education it wouldn't have occurred to her to dream of before. Years later, she is grateful for the opportunity she has had to do something with her life, but what should that be? There are not many respectable options for a young woman in the 1800's, and she does not seem to be suited for any of them.

Now we learn the 'real' purpose of the Academy. Those special girls - women - who show an aptitude and a longing to be more than wives or serving girls can train to be...spies. In a culture where women are continually overlooked in every way, who is better placed to overhear careless comments, or to move about unobserved?

In A Spy in the House, Mary embraces her new role, fervently hoping to prove herself to her mentors. She quickly discovers that things don't always go according to plan, and complications continually come up: such as the attractive but annoyingly proper James Easton. When situations arise that her training did not prepare her for, Mary has to rely on her wits, a lot of luck - and, yes, an occasional assist from that infuriating Mr. Easton.

The reparte between Mary and James is one of the high points of both books (and fans of the first will be happy to know he reappears early on in the second). There are continual exchanges such as:

"How else are you going to manage that?"
"I'll just have to try harder."
"Ooh, yes - sheer stubborn stupidity should certainly carry the day."
(pg. 161. Body at the Tower)
James is by turns (and often simultaneously) intrigued and appalled by Mary, and true to the male culture of his time, never seems to understand why he has made her mad. Mary is struggling to keep her secrets - and the fact that she is a spy is just one of them. She absolutely cannot afford to develop feelings for James.

Never fear, this is not a romance, and if boys can get past the girl-oriented cover we think they will enjoy the action and mystery of both books. Ah, and the covers!

At the risk of including a SPOILER, can we just say, in these days of white-washing publishers, how much we love these covers? The girl pictured on both looks exactly the way Mary should look, and that's all we are going to say about that. Brava, Candlewick! We give the series so far a

5 out of 5.

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