The Agency Series (Y.S. Lee)

Title: The Agency
Author: YS Lee
Genre: Action, Historical Fiction, Mystery
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ || 2.0 stars

In some ways, it’s deeply unfair to rate these books as a series. In others, it’s the only way to rate it at all. As individual books, they were mostly competent, interesting reads. I’m generally a huge fan of revisionist Victorian novels (particularly if there is a mystery element) that feature intrepid girls (particularly if they are intrepid girls of colour), but I found that the more I read the books, the more frustrated and impatient I became with them.

The Agency follows Mary Quinn, formerly Mary Lang, an Irish-Chinese girl who was saved from the noose to be given a second chance at life. She takes this second chance to turn herself into a member of the Agency, a covert all-female private detective agency that utilises stereotypes about women to go undercover as maids, companions, and governesses––all in the name of the case. In each of the four books, Mary is sent on a different case––uncovering the truth behind the smuggling of Hindu artifacts into England while posing as the paid companion of a spoiled young lady, solving the death of a bricklayer at the building site of the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower in the guise of a twelve year old boy, even enjoying a stint in Buckingham Palace as a maid chasing down a string of petty thefts in the palace. This setup allows for an almost infinite amount of permutations––Lee could certainly have extended the series indefinitely if she so chose, so it’s something of a minor miracle that she chose to complete it at four. This is also part of why I found myself enjoying the novels less and less.

It’s extremely formulaic to the point where all the plot points, the identity crises, the will-they-won’t-they love affair feel old by the time you get to them. I enjoyed the first novel extremely, enough to give it a 3.5 or a 4. Then, the formula was new and exciting, and the love interest, though nothing especially outstanding (perhaps unfair of me; I will always compare every male love interest of Victorian era YA to Kartik and they will always fall short for not being him) did enough blushing and stuttering and heart-hammering around Mary that I was at least nominally rooting for them to be together. And Mary’s relationship with her race, her father, felt like they were dealt with quite sophisticatedly. At no point is Mary shamed for deciding to deliberately obscure her Chinese heritage and pass for white because it makes it easier for her to live in England. Yet some of the subtle microaggressions––the term “exotic” for example––are not looked over. And the presence of her father (presumed dead at sea) in Mary’s life was something that gave her depth of characterisation without consuming her entire narrative.

From here, however, the narrative continually circles back on itself, making a glut out of what was once fresh and clean on the tongue, turning new flavours into cloying ones. I found that by the beginning of the fourth book (which I put down after the third chapter) that I simply could not stand Mary’s agonising over her identity once more, particularly since she had already come to certain decisions about it. I found the love story with James, once adequate, now tiring, as they circled between anger and confusion and kissing and rejection for the nth time.

Even the mysteries themselves, though taking place in different arenas, started to feel really repetitive––Mary is sent on a mission, there are underlying tensions in the Agency, but some magic of fate or coincidence or lazy plotting she comes across James Easton and she must lie to him about who she is, he sees through her disguise, they agree to work together, they kiss, and Mary feels guilty. Even the fourth novel, which should have provided a break from this mold given the events of the third, did not feel like it was heading in that direction. Which is unfortunate, given that I enjoyed the first novel so much I immediately bought the next three.

And I have to admit, I expected a little more out of the commentary of the novel. While Lee seems extremely knowledgeable about the internal strife of Victorian society (expected, as she’s a Ph.D. in English literature), the external strife defines the Victorian era just as much––if not more than––the internal tensions. I don’t see how this can be far from the centre of the novel––Mary is, after all, the daughter of an Irish seamstress and a Chinese Lascar––an Asian sailor working in Europe. And perhaps this is because I am an English minor whose interest largely lies in postcolonial studies, but the novel felt so insular for all it demonstrated the diversity of 19th century England (a function of the expansionism of the empire!).

This is quite egregious at several points:

  1. The premise of the first novel is that Mary is looking into the disappearance of several Hindu artifacts from India and their reappearance in private collections in England. This is an especially interesting component given the still-contentious history of the British National Museum––it is likely one of the largest collections of looted works in the world. The Koh-i-Noor diamond, taken from the Maharaja Ranjit Singh and appropriated into the British royal treasury and onto the British crown, is still a heated diplomatic issue between England and India & Pakistan today.
  2. The love interest, James, is a civil engineer and a younger son. He is sent to India to build a railroad. This is seen as quite the coup for him, and he is congratulated on his securing the contract, and no more is said of it. This seems quite benign until you realise the role of second sons in the British Empire––that is to say that as people who did not inherit title, land, or capital, they were often the ones at the frontiers of empire, the forefront of empire, the people who expanded empire. Violently. Moreover, the railroad in India is also a point of contention between South Asia and England as a symbol for the legacy of empire. I don’t know if I believe this is something that a Ph.D. in English literature has never thought of, but it was never mentioned.
  3. The characterisation of Victoria as this kindly matron who is practical and generous is a fairly common one in historical fiction, but it belies her role within the British Empire, and in particular as a symbol of Empire––she is uncritically called the Empress of India, which really chafed. The entirety of the third novel was exceptionally uncomfortable to read in part because of this.

It’s not that I expect every work of fiction set in this particular era to be a postcolonial dissertation citing, IDK, Fanon, Spivak, Said, blah blah blah. But I do expect all fiction to be self-aware, and in particular, my personal standards for historical fiction is not that they adopt the attitudes of the periods they are set it, not that they remain accurate to the attitudes of that society. If that’s the case, why do we bother with historical fiction? Why not simply read Dickens, or Conrad, or Barrett Browning, or the Rosettis? IMO historical fiction exists as an arena to parse our pasts and our presents, to investigate the notion of history through our modern conventions and social mores. When so much of the Victorian era profited from, benefited from, and was built on empire, it seems narrow-sighted to not at least mention that.

All in all, I would definitely recommend the first novel, A Spy in the House. It was an entertaining read with a compelling plot and complex characters. But as the series drew on, many of its flaws deepened and became more obvious. The plot was no longer fresh, the internal conflict cyclic, and the romance insubstantial, so I wouldn’t strongly recommend the last three.

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