Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Spy In the House, The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel: The Agency series by Y. S. Lee

Canadian Books #1, 2, and 3.

This series was another random pick from the library. The Traitor in the Tunnel was on display on top the shelves in the New Arrivals section, and I liked the cover, so I looked in the shelves for the first book. What a pleasant surprise to find the author is from Toronto!

The Agency is such a great concept. In Victorian London, where women are condescended to and dismissed as silly, emotional creatures who can't be taken seriously, what if there were a secret organization of women spies? They could take advantage of their functional invisibility to see and hear things a male spy would never have access to. (It's the perfect wish-fullfilment fantasy for anyone who has read Victorian novels and been frustrated with the constrained lives of the women.)

A Spy in the House begins with 12 year old Mary in prison about to be hung for burglary. She is rescued by the Agency, and, long story short, decides to join and be trained as a spy. So you've got your orphan story, your historical story, your spy training story (not a lot, but some), and then the sneaking around undercover story. These books have it all!

The adventure of the first book is Mary's final training exercise before she is admitted as a full member of the Agency: she must pose as a lady's companion in a house where suspicious things are going on. In The Body at the Tower there is an apparently accidental death that might not be so accidental during the construction of Big Ben and the Parliament Buildings, and Mary disguises herself as a boy to get access to the worksite. In Traitor in the Tunnel, Mary is a maid in Buckingham Palace and gets to meet Queen Victoria (wonderful characterization of that famous figure).

Our protagonist chooses the name Mary Quinn, because she can't let anyone find out her real identity. The reader eventually finds out who she is as Mary explores some mysteries in her family's past, and it's an exciting and unusual twist that adds depth to her character and emotional tension to the plot. (My advice? Don't read reviews on Goodreads, and don't read the blurbs on books 2 and 3, because they give away at least part of her secret, and what's the fun of that?)

I really liked Mary. She is resourceful and independent but has realistic fears and makes mistakes. I was also fascinated by the Agency and its two founders, and I wish Lee had explored their stories more. And then there's James. James is an engineer, and he's cocky and flippant and entirely aggravating. Mary keeps running into him in highly compromising circumstances, and their relationship is a delight of Beatrice and Benedict* proportions. Not only do we get all the orphan/historical/spy bits, but there's a smoking romance to boot!

Lee is a Victorian scholar, so her London in the 1850s is full of authentic, stinky detail. If you, like me, are fascinated by the Victorian Age, and if you like a good complex mystery (murder or otherwise), and if you'd really rather your romantic leads snap witticisms than swoon, you'll probably enjoy these books as much as I did.

*Much Ado About Nothing: the characters spend half the play wittily insulting each other, then discover they're madly in love. Great fun. The Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branaugh version is pretty good.


  1. this concept is SO compelling! i really want to check them out now :)

    1. They're a lot of fun. And there's apparently a fourth book coming out--yay!

  2. (also, couldn't find your email address and had to pass this on - it is too good to be true:



  3. I love these books!! I was so happy when I heard she was continuing the series, as originally it was said to be a trilogy.

  4. Just found them after someone on Twitter recommended them. Devoured them quickly and hope there indeed will be more.

    I rather liked that as a Young Adult writer, Lee did not explore the agency's founders story -- kids don't know, don't care, and I have fun speculating this way, being old(ish).

    Her Victoriana was a brilliant as any I've read, and more gritty than most while not dwelling on the differences but her character just accepts This Is How Things Are. I like that in a historical.

  5. I have never heard of these books, but they sound like such fun! Great review! I enjoy a good HF book and plan to check these out. Thanks for sharing.