The Agency: A Spy in the House

March 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book after reading the review on Misfit Salon.

1850s London. Mary narrowly escaped the gallows at the age of twelve. Convicted of stealing, she is sentenced to hang. But she is rescued by the ladies at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, where she is receives an education, and eventally, employment. When Mary is 17, she discovers that the school is also a front for an agency of female spies. The Agency banks on society’s low expectation of feminine intelligence and ability, and places its agents as domestic servants. Mary’s first assignment is seemingly simple: act as a paid companion in the Thorold house, and listen for any discussion of illegal shipments being handled by Mr. Thorold’s shipping business. Of course, the situation turns out to be more complicated than Mary or the Agency originally suspect.

As I have said before, I tend to avoid books that place girls and women in stereotypical roles. This book is exactly the opposite. Nothing is as it originally seems, and strong female characters abound. Several times, Mary lets a male acquaintance “have it” for underestimating her.

The action in this book moves quickly, keeping the reader’s attention. In fact, I found myself needing to go back a few pages several times to pick up an important bit that is mentioned seemingly in passing. Though I guessed the end (I’m very good at guessing plot twists, and there are subtle clues for those willing to be on the lookout for them), I was surprised at how it came about, and several details caught me off guard. Kudos to the author, Y.S. Lee for keeping me guessing.

I was very impressed by the character’s dialogue. To me, it seemed accurate for the period. In comparison to the “journal entries” in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the syntax and word choice in The Agency: A Spy in the House is more believable for the Victorian era.  I attribute this to Lee’s expertise in Victorian England (she holds a PhD).*

Finally, I agree with Misfit Salon that I wanted more detail about Mary’s training as a spy. Though it is believable that a young woman who was formerly a thief, and whose life depended on being stealthy, would need little training in the art of spydom, detail into her brief training would have proved interesting. Perhaps this will be fleshed out in one of the planned sequals?

*Or, perhaps, I am more accustomed to reading English works and letters than American of that period.

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