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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower

The Agency 2: The Body at the TowerTitle: The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower
Author: Y.S. Lee
Page Count: 352 pages
Publisher: Candlewick
Genre: historical mystery, young adult
Copy for review compliments of the public library

50 words or less:  Miss Mary Quinn is back in this second installment featuring the Agency, an all-female detective agency in Victorian England.  This time out, Mary must take a long, hard look at her past as she works undercover as a male laborer to find out what the heck is going on at the construction site for the clock tower for the Houses of Parliament.

This second book in the Agency series definitely lives up to the high expectations set by the first, which I reviewed here.  The lush and vivid historical detail is present, as well as an interesting and engaging mystery and a very poignant and detailed commentary on what life was like for people of various social strata at the time.  This is another book that is an excellent rebuttal to folks who would argue that they don't like historical fiction.

Details from the last book, such as those regarding Mary's childhood as a street child and thief as well as her ethnicity, her hidden past, and her interest in James, the engineer, are all woven into this new story to keep things firmly tethered together while still allowing the overall story to unfold.  Mary is sent to investigate the death of a laborer at St. Stephen's tower, disguised as a laborer.  This proves troubling for Mary, as she was often forced to disguise herself as a boy when she was a child in order to pass more freely and, more importantly, unmolested, through the streets of London.  The unpleasant memories abound and Mary is forced to tamp everything down and deal with it in private moments which are few and far between.

Needless to say, being unmasked as a female masquerading as a male would be disastrous for Mary, so when someone who could recognize her appears at the building site in the form of Mr. James Easton, who is investigating the misfortunes of the tower construction from the engineering side.  The site manager is an old family friend of the Eastons so James is under the dual pressures of wanting to help his father's friend while also doing the most thorough job possible, even if it means exposing corruption or incompetence.

The mystery of what specifically is going on at the tower building site is fairly straightforward, as greedy people usually don't cover their tracks all that thoroughly, but the mystery component takes a backseat to the exposition of what life was like for the poorest of the poor in London at the time.  One of the other errand boys at the site, Jenkins, while being a sassy sort of snot on the outside, is actually the sole breadwinner for his family.  When he's injured on the job, it's a huge blow to their very survival.  The descriptions of the hovels that some people were living in were gut-wrenching.  In this particular time, if you were a person with no skills and no prospects, survival was far from guaranteed.  This was a reality for Mary herself not so long before, and her grappling with the dissonance between her current reality and the one she almost had was very realistic and believable.

Equally vivid, too, was the blossoming of Mary's relationship with James.  Mary is torn between wanting to dive in headfirst in her first encounter with romance while also wanting to be practical and loyal to the people to whom she literally owes her life.  Formal attachment to a man would mean the end of her work with the Agency (it's one thing for a young single woman to enter into households in service capacities to find out information, but quite another for a married woman to be doing that,) and that's not something that Mary is ready to consider.

I'm very interested to see what happens in future books with James Easton.  James is a man of principles, for whom things are black and white, right and wrong.  Finding out the truth about Mary's past threw him for a loop, and Mary used that loop as a way to disentangle herself from him, as hurtful to her as it was.  And yet, James acts with a certain amount of hypocrisy throughout the book.  He believes in following the rules and being proper and appropriate at all times, a man of honor, but he takes incredibly liberties with Mary throughout the book, liberties that I don't think he would even consider if Mary were anyone else.  While Mary is an equal partner in these and totally permits these liberties, it did make me wonder what James considered his intentions towards Mary to be and whether or not he would consider those intentions to be honorable.

This book definitely lived up to my expectations and I'm totally looking forward to reading future installments in this series.  Mary Quinn is a female lead who's sensible, practical, snarky, funny, articulate and intelligent, and as a heroine she sets the bar very high indeed.

Overall Grade: A
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