This is part of one of those YA series that has nowhere near as much hype as it deserves! I discovered the first book over a year ago and actually purchased it having never read a single review. That is crazy for me. I am obsessed with book reviews. The premise though was beyond amazing and I was afraid I wouldn’t come across the book again because I had never seen it. I am so glad I made that impulse book-shopping move! This is book two in the series. And I already own book 3, which I will mostly likely need to get to soon (before book 4 comes out).
For those of you who don’t know anything about these books, they are about Mary Quin. She used to be a thief and actually got caught red-handed and sentenced for it, but at the last possible minute she is rescued by the Agency. The Agency is a group of women that rescues women across Victorian England and brings them to their school where they train women in self-defense and various other subjects, including subterfuge. These women are trained to go around England and partake in investigations, and help solve crimes that are particularly more difficult for men to solve. Housemaids, lady companions, etc. can glean a lot of information.
In the first book, Mary was a lady’s companion who helped solve a case involving illegal smuggling. This book makes everything a little bit harder for Mary. In this one, she needs to dress as an errand boy and work at a construction site (the construction site for Big Ben!). Her job is to determine who murdered a bricklayer by pushing him off the top of the tower. Unlike in the first book, where Mary had fun dressing as boy to do some of the more athletic bits of her missions, this book requires Mary to be a boy for the whole case. She has to sleep in a boarding house and share a bed with a stinky, snoring man. She has to do physical labor. And she has to act as though she has only as much money as an errand boy, eating rarely and drinking at pubs with the rest of her crew.
No one can know about the Agency and no one can know she is a woman. Otherwise, she’d never learn everything she can by blending in. This all becomes slightly more difficult when a certain romantic interest returns from India to do an inquest of the building site. There’s murder, blackmail, fight scenes, funerals, romance, hanging from clock towers, stubborn journalists, and most of all further disgusting insight into the horrors of lower class Victorian England. One of my favorite things about the first book was sort of this juxtaposition between the reality of the lowest caste of England and the fantasy of this agency that saves lower caste women.
And on top of solving murders, hiding her identity, and hiding her agency’s identity, Mary is hiding her own ethnic identity. Her father was Chinese, making her place in Victorian English society the lowest of the low. Mary has become accustomed to lying, pretending, and acting. And this case is particularly hard for her because it brings her back to her miserable roots. She’s poor again, making little to no money, and dressing as a boy. She used to dress as a boy before the Agency found her to avoid being taking advantage of in her line of work.
The first book was all about how bad the working class of a giant household had it. And this one is all about how bad those working elsewhere for small wages have it. And while boys and men don’t ever really seem to have as much to loose as women, they didn’t have it easy either. Between public beatings, little to no food, the physical aspect to their jobs, and the complete lack of education, life seemed pretty awful.
First, I must say that I love books where women pretend to be men, and prove themselves to be just as capable as them! Mary is not only just as capable as any man, she is more than capable than most men! She is so intelligent and quick to figure things out. She’s better at observing scenes then the experienced journalist was! And most of all I love that while she stands by her Agency sense of morality, she still remembers what causes people to slowly loose their morals. She understands the poor because she used to be the poor. She’s brave and stands up for herself as a woman, as an errand boy, as a student, and as a reporter! She is one amazing character!
I’m glad that the romance was able to pick up again because it ended so badly in the first book! Though, it’s hard to see it ever ending anything but badly. I have hope though. It is always so much fun to watch Mary adjust to her surroundings. I loved the scene where she got drunk at the pub with her work crew! There still remains to be things she needs to learn, and this makes her even more endearing. She wants to learn everything (sometimes the hard way…).
The books remind me a lot of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, which was amazing! And I know I must have said this in my review of book 1, but my only real scruple with this book is the lack of knowledge I have of the Agency. I am secretly hoping that the author will write a prequel. I am dying to see how the school is run, how other girls are rescued, and even hear how it started…This background is not necessarily relevant to Mary’s story, or at least it hasn’t been yet. And I love that each story so far has revolved around a very interesting investigation. I just, personally, find the Agency fascinating, and want to know everything!
Overall, this book was suspenseful, mysterious, and addicting! This is a series I hope will continue for a long time. If you like the Victorian time period, mysteries, spy novels, and feminism, then this is so a book for you! It gets a 9/10 from me.