Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this diverting mystery trails a feisty heroine as she takes on a precarious secret assignment.
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.
This read like a dream. Yes, I said it. Now if you are anything like me and your bibliophilic life started with raunchy mills and boons (Australian and Kiwi editions) and then widened to include historical romance (which were just as raunchy but did teach me a lot about Bonaparte) you will have some level of familiarity with historical novels boasting of a strong heroine and an intriguing hero. This, I hasten to add, is not to imply that The Agency is a romance novel. Oh no, far from it. Or that there are heaving bosoms involved…well, there might be but they’re certainly not the heroine’s. Anyway, what I’m trying to say, albeit not very well, is that first book in the trilogy asserts its position not just as a YA Historical fiction (rare in its genre) but as, dare I say it, brilliant YA Historical fiction.
Let me count the reasons I say this.
There is a fluidity in Ms. Lee’s writing that, quite frankly, grips you by the collar and jerks you into the novel and holds you captive and enthralled until you are unaware of the time that has passed and the work that you have left undone. Her writing is on par with authors that have several novels under their belt and there is no sense of awkwardness in her prose that is so common with debuting authors. You have to love smooth writing, you guys.
Her characterizations are bloody awesome. Mary Quinn is by no means perfect and it is her imperfections that, ironically, make her perfect. The beginning grips you with the bleakness of her fortune, with the depths of despair that have led her to that point and the ending leaves you bemused by the distance she has traveled within the scope of the book alone. I like the fact that Mary is human enough to be relatable to me. That she can give in to human vanity and despite having had to grow up so fast, still retain that sense of childishness, that intrinsic immaturity that is so common to people of her age. Not that I mean anything negative by that. It’s just that she reads like the teenager she is despite being put in a situation where she could have been written like a woman in her twenties. I like that.
James Easton is delicious as the unwilling hero of the tale. Not that he takes over the tale entirely. No. We see glimpses of the story through his eyes and what this does is deepen our appreciation of Mary and the entire novel. James is not as fleshed out as Mary is but that’s okay. He is defined enough that you can, through his unwilling fascination with Mary Quinn, structure the hierarchy in the story and place the social status of the various characters. He also spices up the narrative because the romantic tension between him and Mary Quinn is enough to make a girl swoon.
The other characters are also interestingly hewed. I love it when the author spends enough time to create original characters no matter how small their part in the narrative is instead of using stereotyped, stock characters. This shows that the author has imagined the world she has created down to the last detail. And furthermore, that she respects the intelligence of her readers.
The narrative brings up some very interesting points. The role of women in the society at the time the novel is set in is one of the things discussed. Their limited freedom and the stereotypes they lived under. And what breaking away from these stereotypes and expectations would mean to a woman. What interested me more than that, however, is Mary’s internal conflict about her mixed heritage. In fact, this is one of the most interesting things about the novel. How she addresses these issues and whether they will influence the manner in which she lives her life and the decisions she makes for the future is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy.
So the verdict? Read the book. It has everything a good book needs and is everything a wonderful book should be. I recommend it to everyone who likes good literature.