From Regency to Victoriana: The Agency Series by Y. S. Lee

8:03 PM 2 Comments A+ a-

Having been on my Regency binge recently, I was a little reluctant to switch to a Victorian time period.  You know, stuffy rules, supercilious morality, and the crinolines!  Don't get me started on the crinolines.

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 second book, 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.

We are lucky that there are two more books to come (thank goodness!), with the next one, 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.

Regency Romance for the YA Audience: Historical Romance Reader's Advisory for Teens

3:00 PM 2 Comments A+ a-

I have been reading a LOT of Regency Romance recently and began wondering about the younger teen who might be interested in this type of book.  The early Stephanie Laurens romance novels, what she terms her Regencies, would be great for them (only the later Cynster, Bastion Club and Black Cobra series are sexually explicit - the early seven or eight novels are quite light and very tasteful in terms of alluding to the physical intimacy) but what else is out there?

Irish author Cora Harrison published a fun, well-researched novel, I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend, published by Delacorte Press in 2010 that would be ideal for an audience interested in romance but minus the more explicit content. Harrison took the documented knowledge that Jane Austen's cousin, Jane Cooper, attended the same boarding school and lived with the Austen family for a time, later marrying a wealthy sea captain, and created a novel that brings the Austen family to life.  Changing her name to Jenny (a nickname for Jane during the period) and making her a few years younger was a device that allowed Jenny to be a little closer to Jane, offering the reader more opportunities to see Jane as her letters and other first-hand accounts depict her as a teen.  The romance between Jenny and Captain Harrison is extremely well-done.  It's a light, sweet novel that would be a nice read for any fan of Jane.  Harrison followed it up with a UK second book (not apparently published in the US, but you can buy it used), Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend, in which Jane and her cousin go to Bath after Jenny becomes engaged and have adventures.  I'm not a fan of how the title uses a modern colloquialism (it seems pretty flippant to me and actually more like one of the modern reinterpretations of her work, like Prom and Prejudice), so we'll see if I read it.  This one was just great on its own.

 But the real gem (and an author I plan on pursuing further) is The Season by Sarah MacLean.  Alex, Ella, and Vivi are well-born daughters of the ton and about to have their debut, an event they are approaching with some trepidation.  But fiery Alex, surrounded by her handsome older brothers, has learned to not live life by other people's rules, and when it seems like neighbor and friend Gavin, Earl of Blackmoor, is a target for a traitor, she gets involved.  Gavin takes one look at Alex's new dresses and upswept hair and realizes that his feelings are no longer brotherly, and he doesn't want Alex placing herself in danger. 

MacLean crafted a good little mystery here which provides a wonderful backdrop for her deft writing about the period and about the lives of these three girls, all of whom read as bold three-dimensional characters yet seem at home in their time period.  Her Regency chops are excellent, with lots of accuracy and appropriate language use, and there is serious heat between Gavin and Alex (which doesn't go beyond kissing and hugging for the YA audience).  Lack of more sexual intimacy aside, this book still feels like a true Regency romance, with a little less focus on the male lead than you might have in one of those books.  It would be a terrific introduction for any middle school or younger high school girl ready to enter the world of romance.

Sarah MacLean is definitely an author to watch.  I've ordered her adult Regency romances, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, and Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart (just published in May 2011).  Her website is FABULOUS (I have a serious pet peeve with difficult author websites, although I'm empathetic that so many obviously have to figure it out themselves) and clearly reflects her background in public relations, which she thankfully left to pursue a romance novel career.  Thank you for your personal choices, Sarah!!  She seems to be a great and witty interview based on her blog interviews (Writing and Ruminating Blog, Romance Bandits, and The Romance Dish).  (Be sure to look at her author recommendations - this is a woman who knows her romance authors and isn't afraid to share her knowledge!)

So let's not leave those young newbies to the Regency romance novel to flounder, but introduce them to the delights of the genre.  It's the start of a long, and utterly delightful, road on which they will not lack for enthusiastic company.