It is entirely possible that I read more contemporary YA and Juvenile books than I read contemporary Adult fiction. Keep in mind, though, that I read vastly more classic adult fiction than contemporary anything. Another reason I read more YA is because every stinking book seems to become a series. There are very few standalone novels in the teen section of my library. Perhaps this is a ploy to get teens hooked into reading more. If so, I certainly hope it’s working. It certainly worked on me.
I most recently finished a YA quadrilogy by Y.S. Lee, entitled The Agency and with each volume having a subtitle (A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City). At the top of each book is written “A Mary Quinn Mystery,” after the books’ heroine, so I suppose I’m supposed to use that as a guide for what I call this series. However, I much prefer calling it “The Agency Books.” To me, these books are less about the mystery of Mary Quinn figuring out whodunit, and more about espionage and the actual footwork of collecting evidence and stopping criminals, so although Mary Quinn is undoubtedly the center of these books, her work as an Agent is what makes these books notable.
This book series is very much like a Victorian Era Nikita, with half-Chinese, half-Irish orphan Mary Quinn saved from the noose by a secret, all-female covert operations Agency. In her first assignment she’s charged with posing as a companion to a rich family’s daughter. Sparks fly when she comes up against James Easton, who may be in league with the criminal she’s trying to track down, or might be an ally in her investigations.
The author’s blurb explains that Y.S. Lee has a PhD in Victorian Literature and culture, and although she shows her work by filling out a very intricate picture of Victorian London, she doesn’t let these details bog down the action of Mary’s adventures undercover. Lee is adept at making these characters believably Victorian, but also relatable to the modern reader, and her dialogue is usually sharp and witty.
I have really only two complaints about this series. First, the romance part of these books is far too sensual for my taste—it is YA, after all. Now, I am well aware that there are tons of books (mostly other YA books, but also adult contemporary) with much more graphic sensuality than this. However, for a book written by a Victorian Lit/Culture PhD, it seems quite a leap to be so attentive to historical accuracy, then suddenly having the main character think about the taste of some guy’s lips.* While nothing “happens” in the books that would be super inappropriate in our time, I’ve read enough Victorian literature myself to be puritanically shocked by this.
My second complaint is more substantial than that. Because while the first objection was one of content, this second objection is one of storytelling. I think that there should not have been a fourth volume. First, stylistically it would have been apropos to have a novel about the Victorian era written in Three-Volume structure, since the three volume novel was a staple of Victorian literature (and is even referenced in Rivals in the City). Second, Rivals in the City felt very much like a let-down, like a neat tying up of some loose strings that I as a reader didn’t need tied up, while also leaving several other more important plotlines unresolved.
In the end, I would recommend this book to mature teens as a sort of Victorian escapism, and to readers who enjoy adventure/spy novels as well as books by Dickens. My only suggestion would be to skip the fourth book. The third book ends on a cliffhanger, but it is so much more satisfying a conclusion.
*This is mentioned more than once, and stuck in my poor brain mostly because it brings to mind either that part of Shrek where Prince Charming is wearing cherry-flavored lipgloss, those edible Wax Lips.