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Why I’m a fan of The Agency series by Y. S. Lee

June 11, 2012

I read and reviewed the first book Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series, A Spy in the House, when it came out a couple of years ago, but never got around to discussing its sequels, The Body at the Tower and the recently published The Traitor in the Tunnel. Since I’m interviewing Y. S. Lee as part of the Summer Blog Blast Tour (the full schedule is up at Colleen’s), well, what better time to remedy the situation?

This series, I have to admit, features so many of my favorite elements that I was predisposed to enjoy the books. It’s historical fiction with a vividly depicted setting; featuring a strong female protagonist; solid mysteries that involve, to varying degrees, issues of feminism, class, and race; a satisfying romantic element; and is just plain enjoyable to read. The history is seamlessly integrated so it doesn’t weigh down the story, the feminism doesn’t feel out of place or too modern, the mysteries are plausible, and there’s a lot of chemistry between Mary and James. I was so happy to pick up the first book and discover that it surpassed my expectations, and the same with the following books, as well. Seriously, how often can you say that?

We first meet Mary Quinn in A Spy in the House. Her first assignment for the all-female investigative firm known as The Agency is to work undercover as a lady’s companion to Angelica Thorold. Angelica’s father is suspected of smuggling, and while searching Mr. Thorold’s office one night, Mary bumps into James Easton, a young engineer who has his own reasons to want to look into the Thorolds’ affairs.

cover of The Body at the Tower One year after the conclusion of the Thorold investigation, Mary and James cross paths again in The Body at the Tower. This time, after a construction worker is killed under mysterious circumstances, Mary goes undercover disguised as a boy on behalf of The Agency. James, meanwhile, is recently returned from India, recovering from malaria and a harsh dose of reality that stymied his hoped-for growth of Easton Engineering.

cover of The Traitor in the TunnelIt’s hard to describe the plot of The Traitor in the Tunnel without spoilers for the previous books, so let’s just say that Mary is working as a maid at Buckingham Palace in order to find a thief, but the original case quickly takes a backseat to a murder few want investigated in detail.

In each book, the mystery Mary must investigate forces her to revisit aspects of her past that she’d prefer to avoid. It’s not just her work for The Agency that she must keep secret from James, but also her own background as a convicted thief and her parentage. Basically, Mary is in the position of having to lie to a man she’s drawn to, or at least keep major secrets from him. But Lee depicts Mary so sympathetically, and gives readers enough insight into her background and motivation, that it’s hard to fault Mary for not wanting to tell James the truth about herself.

Yet for all that I appreciate Mary, one of my favorite things is how James evolves over the course of the series. From the start, he’s honorable and respects Mary’s intelligence and ability, but to see how he changes because of his growing relationship with Mary is wonderful.

Unsurprisingly, I cannot wait to find out what happens in the next book. I mean, all this stuff I love, an author I trust, plus the British Museum!? (I’ve never been there, but if I ever travel to England, the British Museum would be my first stop. Well, maybe the second, after the V&A.) I don’t know when Rivals in the City will be published, but you can bet I’ll read it. And you can find out a bit more about it in my interview with Ying.

Book source: The Body at the Tower from the public library, The Traitor in the Tunnel from NetGalley.

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