From Regency to Victoriana: The Agency Series by Y. S. Lee
But you all know about my Steampunk fetish, and truth be told, a lot of the fun of that is the juxtaposition of all that tightlaced etiquette set against adventure. The Agency series by Canadian author Y. S. Lee is no exception to this proven formula. The book jacket tantalizes with a description of a poor, savvy orphan, sentenced to death at the age of 12 for theft, who is saved by women who run an astonishingly empowering school for girls. When Mary reaches the age of 17, she confesses to being dissatisfied at the options available to her, only to have those same women smile and let her in on a secret. They run "The Agency."
Which is, in fact, a secret agency that contracts out to the government. The bureaucrats in charge just know it's a spy ring with a great deal of success, but the reason is simple. The teachers at the school know that women are ignored and overlooked, so the intelligent girls they recruit to educate can masquerade as governesses and lady's companions, gathering valuable data in their wake. Taught to defend themselves, adopt disguises, pick locks, and write in code, Mary and the other operatives end up with an arsenal that allows them to enter any situation and figure out what is going on.
In the first book, The Agency: A Spy in the House, Mary is given her first assignment as a lady's companion in a house of a wealthy merchant suspected of large scale shipping fraud. Tunneling into the dysfunctional depths of the home's relationships takes perseverance and patience, all amid the odiferous backdrop of what became known in London as "the big stink" or the heat wave that caused the Thames to smell so horrible that it produced a succession of reforms in the treatment of sewage for the city.
Mary has difficulty getting to the bottom of her "employer's" finances, until she meets up with James Easton, a well-born engineer whose brother happens to be courting the daughter of the house. James has heard rumors that the family finances are suspect and wants to ferret out the reality before an undesirable connection is made. James is infuriated and fascinated by Mary, and the feeling is quite mutual, but as the mystery comes to a close, the feelings between them are left by the wayside as they both know James is moving to India for an engineering contract and won't be back for years.
The Agency: The Body in the Tower, brings us almost a year and half later in Mary's life. She's an established and more experienced operative with a dangerous new mission. She must live as a young boy apprentice, working at a construction site of St. Stephen's Tower, a.k.a. Big Ben where a worker has "fallen" from the tower. The work is dangerous and forces Mary to remember her childhood when she would adopt the dress and mannerisms of a boy to avoid abuse, but she manages to push through her discomfort and peel back the layers of deceit. A major complication arises when James Easton, back prematurely from India and suffering from acute malaria, takes on a small commission to determine the safety conditions of the site. He recognizes Mary immediately and they are once more a team, who realize their growing feelings and the danger they pose.
A feature that pleasantly startled me was the overarching story arc regarding Mary's origins. She is confronted in each book by an aspect of her childhood she tries to painfully deny and chooses to face that fear and delve deeper rather than ignore it. Her courage and pluck - and her knowledge that as attracted as she is to James, there is much of her that he would consider unsuitable - makes her the intelligent yet vulnerable heroine we can all love and root for.
The writing is outstanding, made all the richer by author Lee's background (she has a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature and Culture and it shows in the details). The first Agency book was originally an adult mystery, but when her agent mentioned that it was a great coming of age story, Lee tweaked the character ages and shaped it as just that. Perhaps because of it's origins, the writing never talks down to the reader, having a seriousness of purpose that transmits the harsh reality of Mary's background, no matter how ladylike she behaves in the given moment.
The Agency: The Traitor and the Tunnel due out in 2012 for the U.S. (and August 4, 2011 for the U.K.). I've already pre-ordered my copy from amazon.co.uk (I am NOT waiting for this sequel). Lee also just announced the approval for a fourth book, tentatively titled Rivals in the City. YAY!!
I've decided to not be snobby about the Victorian period, no matter how much I love Regency, particularly when I am in good hands like that of Y. S. Lee and writers like her.
But I don't have to like crinolines.