July 23, 2015

Rivals in the City (The Agency, Book #4)

by Y. S. Lee
Candlewick Press
293 pp.
Ages 12+
March, 2015

Since wowwing readers with her first book, A Spy in the House (Candlewick, 2010), in the Mary Quinn Victorian mystery series, Y. S. Lee has gripped readers with the authenticity of her social and cultural landscapes, the complexity of her plotting, and the intricacies of relationships between her characters.  The stories provide a glimpse into life in Victorian England, though not always a pleasant one, while tantalizing readers with convoluted mysteries that have former homeless thief turned spy Mary Quinn and her love interest and fellow investigator, engineer James Easton, looking over their shoulders constantly.

In Rivals in the City, Mary Quinn and James Easton have set up their own enterprise, Quinn and Easton, though Mary's former Agency employers, Miss Anne Treleaven and Mrs. Felicity Frame, now estranged, connect with the young couple separately to enlist their help with regards to the first investigation Mary ever pursued (The Spy in the House, Candlewick, 2010).  Seems the shipping magnate Mr. Henry Thorold, accused of insurance fraud and piracy, is now dying in Newgate prison, and everyone is anticipating the return of his wife, Mrs. Maria Thorold, who had attempted to murder James while fleeing accusations of being the true perpetrator of the piracy and countless deaths of Lasgars.  Thorold's daughter, Angelica, too is scheduled to return to her father's bedside from her studies in Austria.

While everyone is watching for the appearance of the devious and dangerous Mrs. Thorold, Mary and James are distracted somewhat from their discussions of marriage–a wholly beneficial state for Victorian men but not so for women of the day–by matters demanding their personal attention.  James and the family firm of Easton Engineering have been contracted to build a series of new underground vaults for the Bank of England's storehouses of gold, and Mary is becoming acquainted with a young Chinese boxer who holds the secrets to her father's past.  Can the two continue on their path to matrimony without being steered off course by the interests of The Agency's former matrons or by those who purport to have their interests at heart?  Can the truth of Thorold's crimes be revealed without further danger from the elusive and deadly Mrs. Thorold?

Y. S. Lee plunges the reader into the grimy underworld of criminal activity of 1860s London while tempering it with the loveliness of a first and true romance, all of it revolving around the unique Mary Quinn.  Y. S. Lee’s protagonist has grown into a strong young woman, still hampered by her past of shame and loneliness, but enjoying the benefits of her accomplishments, including independence.  Perhaps she has such a bountiful future because she does not deny her past.
This was her London: brutal, coarse, dangerous.  It was part of her history.  It had molded her character.  But she would not allow it to shape her destiny. (pg. 67)
And that future includes the gracious James Easton whose wits and engineering prowess are only shadowed by his thoughtfulness and insight.
She’d changed him more than he’d ever dreamed possible.  He was no longer entirely at home with his peers, thanks to her.  If he lost her now, what on earth would become of him? (pg. 80)
You can see how these two incredible characters create a story on their own, irrespective of a grand mystery wrapped up in the criminal activity involving the British Museum and the Bank of England.  There’s much to delve into in Rivals in the City: the history, the mystery, the atmosphere, and the romance.

And while Y. S. Lee is 4 for 4 in The Agency series, sadly there will be no Book #5.  Y. S. Lee has written that, “The publication of Rivals also marks the end of the Agency quartet – the last Mary Quinn adventure, the last time I write dialogue between Mary and James, and probably my last romp through London, 1858-1860.” (Retrieved today from a post dated March 10th, 2015 at http://yslee.com/tag/the-agency/) So, enjoy this finale for Mary Quinn, as I did, but look forward to other novels by her true birth mother, Y. S. Lee.

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