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Last year I reviewed a book in a new series by Y S Lee. The first novel ‘A Spy in the House’ begins just as orphan Mary Quinn was being saved from the gallows. She is taken to be educated in a charitable institution, Miss Schrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, ostensibly so that she could earn useful skills and take up a career appropriate for a poor girl. After several years at the Academy it is revealed that an all female spy ring operates out of the academy and Mary is to be recruited for her first mission. While I found the solution to the mystery in the first book a little tricky to unravel I was so happy with the overall book. Spies, romance, proto-feminism, history, and charmingly awkward encounters in a wardrobe…This book is full of all kinds of little touches that made me ridiculously happy.

Last month I finished the second book in the series ‘The Body at the Tower’, which was just as good (and I understood the solution to the mystery this time). I realised I was sad that there was only one more book in the series and that’s when I knew it would happen again. Yes, I would become a book pusher for this series. Are you ready, because here comes the YA evangelism:

Reasons why I am attempting to push ‘The Agency’ series on you

Spies who are ladies: Let’s face it, men have traditionally been given the most adventurous roles, so I love when writers give female characters roles that in the past, belonged exclusively to male characters. I mean, there are problematic side issues that can play into this role reversal, but done well stories where girls go to work in male industries can yield some truly fun results. For me ladies + super secret spying activities = some sort of messy squeeish explosion. James Bond was a pretty big influence on shaping my tastes in cool, but sadly there were no female Bond’s when I was growing up. Girls got to kiss the spy, but rarely did they get to be the ones stealing documents and making roof top getaways.

While Mary is no Bond equivalent and her story is set in Victorian London, ‘The Agency’ series is based around Mary’s induction into a secret organisation of female spies, who use their gender as the ultimate disguise. In Victorian London, patriarchal prejudices guarantee that no one looks at a sensible female companion and suspects her of being a wickedly clever spy. Mary and her colleagues go unnoticed as they carry out their surveillance work, when a man would appear suspicious if he started poking about. This set up, where prejudice makes male society more susceptible to female spies, appeals to my smug, inner feminist. Oh boys, if only you weren’t so damn sexist you’d have seen that sting coming.

I’ve seen people clamour for more female detectives (I totally support this clamour btw, I would even support caterwauling calls), but as yet there just aren’t enough books with a full range of female spies. Y S Lee goes to the top of my author list for adding more female spies to my shelves. And obviously it’s all about me.

Feminist YA: It sounds so negative to say there’s a dearth of well written young adult books that explore feminist issues effectively and explicitly. I don’t mean to say that young adult writers aren’t trying to engage with feminism. There are some really good examples I could cite, such as ‘Flygirl’ by Sheri L Smith, but YA books that grapple with sexist chicanery are definitely still a minority.

So far, ‘The Agency’ series (especially ‘A Spy in the House’) is full of successful feminist critique. The feminist arguments that Mary Quinn uses are well thought out and would withstand tough examination. Y S Lee never lets her story or characters disappear under the feminist commentary, yet at the same time she never compromises her attractive feminist line to further her story. She’s made feminism a vital part of her story in a couple of ways that I’d just like to examine a bit if you’ll come with me.

I guess to an extent I’ve come to see any a female character put out front, as at least a goodwill gesture of pro-female intent from an author. Obviously there are some notable, anti-feminist exceptions to that rule (a certain vampire series which manages to be grindingly female undermining, despite being written from a heroine’s perspective). In general though, if an author is putting girls in books and making them positive characters/heroines/complex human beings who aren’t always nice , rather than setting them up to be doormats/dead/stereotypes/soulless people then that’s great.

Having complex woman take major roles in books is wonderful. The idea that the personal is political is a strong one in our society, so we see a lot of female characters who challenge gender stereotypes, or create female positive spaces, just by presenting themselves to the world in one way or another. Y S Lee contributes to this type of political female representation by including heroines and female spies, in a setting where these kind of female presentations go against stereotypical cultural ideas.

I don’t mean to sound unsatisfied with this type of female representation. The more major female characters appear and the more female characters that present complicated, but essentially anti-sexist fronts the better. I don’t want to seem like I’m underestimating how each heroine contributes to the politics of female representation by showing up, being themselves and working for what they want. At the same time, I sometimes I wish there was also a greater amount books that had their characters explicitly examine sexist and feminist arguments with the words. I’m not trying to advance a value judgment about one aspect of the personal politic (speaking out) being more worthy than another (showing up every day). I just wish we could have both approaches turn up in YA as often as possible.

In ‘the Agency’ series Y S Lee makes Mary a heroine who presents a complex, successful female personality to the reader. By looking at how Mary’s character acts and the career she’s chosen readers can absorb the ideas that girls are capable in roles traditionally taken by men and that realistic female characters can challenge simplistic gender stereotypes. Just by showing up in a novel and acting like a person who is being true to herself, Mary presents a personal politic that advances a female-positive idea. But Lee goes a step further and shows that Mary is capable of elucidating the logical reasons behind the pro-female stance, through conversations like this one:

‘He sighed patronizingly. “When men enlist, they know they are risking their lives. When gently bred young women flock to a military encampment, they not only endanger themselves, they also distract those who must look after them, and who ought to be thinking of other things.”

“And males are only too eager to blame all their shortcomings on the distraction represented by females,” Mary retorted. “As though nurses are the only women in an encampment!” '

Lee includes her kickass, realistic, complex female character and she has Mary argue for her own gender. In doing both she advances two fronts of political, female positive representation.

I understand there’s a tendency for authors to avoid giving their characters arguments to make, because this didactic approach can come off as preachy. I’m usually against the staged conversations, because they’re often poorly inserted into the story. The speech in these conversations can take on an unnatural quality, in much the same way that conversations consisting of world building info dumps sometimes make characters sound oddly formal. Everything characters say in these passages can becomes exceptionally precise, as the author tries to keep their purpose clear and encourage their characters to talk about issues they might naturally avoid.

The conversations in which Lee includes feminist commentary avoid this stiffness because of her skills as a dialogue writer. Some writers just can’t write sustained periods of dialogue that sound natural (to me anyway). I even noted in my review of ‘Spy in the House’ that some of Lee’s own commentary on items of Victorian history, sounds a little obviously teachery, though set piece conversations like the one above sound normal. She also shapes her story into a narrative which invites feminist commentary (Victorian society, where a secret group of female spies solves London’s problems) and gives Mary reason to be female positive (head strong, intelligent girl in patriarchal Victorian society, raised in an all female organisation), which makes it seem natural for Mary to hold and voice views on woman and sexist theories. Crucially, as I said above, Lee never lets the active, moving story get buried under feminist commentary.

Even if didactic arguments are well done, it is arguable that the use of didactic conversations, thoughts, or third person commentary is not appropriate in modern literature. I would argue though that these kinds of conversations don’t just act as instructive tools for the reader. Didactic feminist arguments also act as a way for writers to show women shouting, arguing back and asserting a vocal version of a female personal politic. We have so few novels that focus on traditional feminist activism (of the protest rally, or organised feminist group kind), so novels where women speak their minds and knock down sexist arguments with words seem just as important as novels where women knock down sexist assumptions with their sheer presence. I want more novels where the female characters take up arguments and hurl them loudly at the world around them and I want these arguments to be well done and integrated into novels with skill. Let me hear a cry of: ‘You are demanding!’ Well, I will just be over here with my Y S Lee’s books having my demanding side catered to *cradles books*.

History Geek Out: Y S Lee has all the history facts. All of them. When an author can take a done to death period like Victorian London and teach you new things about it you have to award them some kind of history crown, or possibly a sceptre. I so enjoyed learning about parts of history that were new to me, like details of the community of Lascar sailors that inhabited London’s docks. You can see some of the interesting things Lee knows about Victorian England by looking through her blog tour posts.

Five reasons why the second book ‘The Body at the Tower’ is particularly awesome

Wait, the body is where now?: The mystery concerns a body that was found dead in the ‘cursed’ Big Ben. Freak out with me a little right now history fans! This is a novel where Big Ben has yet to be finished, where the characters were walking around the half completed Big Ben. I mean, that’s almost like time travel to the birth of a great monument. If you don’t understand, I don’t know how to explain, but this is just, wow, I got such a palpable feeling of history being created. I got a sense of great affection for history in the making from this book and a kind of playful deconstruction, which is similar to the feelings that roll of an episode of Dr Who where they travel back in time.

Cross dressing: Heroines dressed as boys is a favourite trope of mine. Mary must infiltrate the building site by posing as a young male labourer Mark Quinn to investigate the death at the tower. What I especially liked about Lee’s use of the cross dressing trope, is that she makes it into something deeper than a very useful and liberating disguise. Mary has posed as a Mark before, to avoid being raped when she lived alone on the streets. Returning to her old disguise brings up issues of identity that threaten Mary’s ability to complete her mission. I like how Lee takes this common trope and makes it individual to her heroine, by adding back story and how this also increases the realism of an almost fantasy situation (girl in repressed society easily escapes restrictions by adopting male dress – problems solved).

Social commentary: ‘The Agency’ books betray an interest in issues of social justice. The focus of the social commentary in ‘The Body at the Tower’ is a little different from that in ‘A Spy in the House’, which focuses on society’s attitudes towards women and Chinese sailors. ‘The Body at the Tower’ spends a lot of time looking at the poverty of many London residents, as Mary returns to places that remind her of the hard life she faced after her mother died. It also looks a little at issues of conflicted identity, as Mary continues to pass in white society but is always recognised as British-Asian by Chinese characters. While racial identity is a (vital) theme I’ve seen explored in a few young adult novels, I haven’t read many young adult novels that deal with poverty, so it was interesting to see Lee dig around in that area of Victorian history.

Lee comments on the specific social injustice of Victorian Britain, rather than setting up historical situations that lead to obvious lessons about modern injustice. Although she avoids leading her reader to direct comparisons about modern day social injustice she makes strong points about what should and shouldn’t be acceptable in any society (sexism, child labour, racial prejudice).

The Romance: The romance between James Easton and Mary was swoon worthy in the first book, but they parted expecting they would never meet again. Then James appears on the building site, weakened from a fever he caught in India. It’s obvious they are in love, but Lee keeps throwing obstacles in their way until…

I never thought I’d topple so hard for James, as he often shows himself to be a smug Victorian male in the first book. However, he’s also just in his twenties, determined to make his business a success and oh so uncertain about life underneath all that arrogant charm. He’s much more vulnerable in ‘The Body in the Tower’ and open about his feelings for Mary. I’m beginning to feel that the more he sees of Mary, the more reconciled he would be to her being her own unconventional person. He wouldn’t push her to fit into the shadows of his life, like the stereotypical Victorian wife. I feel like he’s become a decent partner for Mary over the two books and if she could find a way to fit her life as a spy, with her love for James they would make the best couple. Their relationship is going to work out, or I am going to cry.

Ladies, detecting: Ladies: solving crimes with their minds! It’s like girls are smart or something. Mary is all ‘I will sleuth in my disguise and uncover the crime!’ and she does work capably, but she also makes mistakes, as you’d expect of a new spy. One of my favourite bits of sleuthing comes when Mary has to go to the pub to ‘gather information’ and accidentally gets rather drunk. She isn’t perfect, but she also isn’t rubbish. There are more fruitful, professional spying moments, like the daring night time game of hide and seek at the building site, as she follows a criminal in her search for clues.

‘The Agency’ series is so much fun for fans of mysteries, spies, ladies and Victoriana. Won’t you come and squee with me, before the third (and possibly final, gah, NO) installment comes out in June?

Other Reviews of 'The Body at the Tower'

Reading in Color
A Striped Armchair
The Booksmugglers

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