________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 33 . . . . May 1, 2015


Rivals in the City. (The Agency, Book 3).

Y. S. Lee.
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press (Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada), 2014.
293 pp., hardcover, $19.00.
ISBN 978-0-7636-5914-1.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Kris Rothstein.

*** /4



"We can't allow Mrs. Thorold to reestablish herself in England. I need to do my part." Yet more silence. "James, say something. You may be angry, or have suspicions about the accuracy of this information, but even so: speak to me."

In one swift movement, he turned and pulled her into a bruising hug, the pedestrians of Russell Square be damned. His voice was muffled in her hair and he said in a strangled voice, "I'm not angry."


"No. I'm terrified."

Mary almost gasped. James, fearful? She pulled back slightly, fighting against his grasp. "I've been thinking what to do. Your brother is back from holiday soon, isn't he? He could take over some of your site duties until we know more-"

"Good God, Mary, I'm not frightened for myself. But the thought of you out there, alone, spotted by Mrs. Thorold, or deciding to pursue her: that's what absolutely petrifies me." He shook his head.

"I'll be fine. She'll have more important things to do than come and find me."

"I disagree! She tried to kill you. If she's brought to trial, you'll be the most important witness against her. She has every reason to try again to murder you. And this time, she won't leave the burning building until she knows she's succeeded."

      In 1860 London, Mary Quinn has left behind her days as an orphan and a thief and also as member of The Agency, the secret all-female detective organization who rescued her from the streets. She is now a respectable lady of independent means with her own rented flat, working as a private detective with her fiancé, James Easton. Her old life comes back to haunt her though as the head of The Agency requests Mary's help in one final case. Mrs. Thorold is a thief and murderer, and it is believed that she is returning to London; Mary has the best chance of identifying her. James was almost one of Mrs. Thorold's past victims, and it is important that James and Mary separate in order to keep them both out of more danger than necessary. Mary befriends Thorold's daughter. Angelica, in the hunt for clues. Eventually she uncovers a daring heist at the British Museum (and a diversion at the Bank of England) and manages to catch the thief, escape with her life and be reunited with her beloved James.

      In a significant subplot, Mary and James attend a fight at a pub in Leicester Square (Mary is disguised as a boy). Mary is interested in the techniques of the Chinese fighter as she had a Chinese father, herself. In a contrived coincidence, the fighter turns out to be Mary's first cousin, and he is able to fill in some of the gaps in her knowledge of their family history. This is an opportunity to engage readers on the topic of some nineteenth-century Chinese history with which they are probably unfamiliar. Mary's family was involved in the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping, a rebel group based on ideas of class and gender equality as well as some Christian principles. While there are many historical interpretations of this significant uprising, Mary's cousin refers to it as a cult, an assessment which does not match up with my reading on the topic, and I am not sure that the word 'cult' was used in this way in the nineteenth century.

      Rivals in the City is the fourth book in the series following Mary Quinn. Author Y.S. Lee does an impressive job of catching a first-time reader up to speed without the explanations seeming clunky or forced. And while this book can stand alone, it feels like the end of a series, one in which most of the remarkable developments have already taken place. From a newcomer's perspective, the rift between the two factions of The Agency seems somewhat inconsequential and, while I assume it is what the title refers to, it is very much in the background. I would have liked to see much more of the two main female detectives, their differing ideas, characteristics and methods. This would make the rift rather more active and intriguing and make it more important that Mary is working for one side while James has been recruited by the other.

      There is a lot of local colour written into this portrayal of Victorian London. The descriptions are impressive and evocative without being the result of obvious research. The description of street life outside Newgate Prison where Mary, in disguise, searches for Mrs. Thorold is particularly vibrant and convincing. The portrayal of the working class may be accurate, but it is perhaps a little uglier than needed, with a love of hangings and significant racism against Mary's cousin. The writing, itself, is very polished and effective, if a little cold and detached.

      The main problem with the novel is how much action happens in reported speech or is revealed in conversation, rather than in events which are allowed to fully and naturally unfold. Characters are constantly visiting each other to explain events or to tell them what has happened. In all of these conversations, there is so much talking and communication of details but no real sense of urgency or momentum. This makes the story more passive than it ought to be, although there are certainly some rousing action sequences. More actual discovery and investigation could have improved the pacing, instead of having sources turn up constantly to tell all. To describe the plot, it sounds full of fabulous intrigue - bank theft, museum heist, murderous widows, dying inmates, long lost Chinese cousins - yet aspects of it fall just a little flat.

      Mary is a very well-realized character, well-rounded and full of the little contradictions that make people human. The scenes in which her relationships with other characters develop are certainly the best in the book. One aspect which really develops is the relationship between Mary and Angelica. Angelica was raised in a wealthy family, but her fortune has been lost, and she is now a poor music student in Vienna. She is an intriguing historical figure and to see her struggle with her change of circumstances is interesting. She must face the possible wrongdoing of her own mother and decide whether or not to reconnect, again an interesting psychological dilemma. The two young women do share a lot, and the growing bond between them, despite the fact that Mary is essentially spying on her, feels warm and real.

      The novel employs dual points of view as some chapters follow Mary's exploits, and others, James'. I suppose this is due to the author's desire to isolate them both physically and emotionally in order to make the case all the more difficult, but I was not sure that having James as such a central character was necessary. In order to use this device more effectively, James' sections of the story needed to be strengthened and his character deepened. I would like to know him better, and the idea of a fairly conventional man who finds a new life with an unconventional woman holds a lot of promise. Lee manages to inject quite a lot of light humour into the story as James and Mary have a nice banter to their relationship.

      I would not expect more books in the series as Mary and James are both of an age and place in their lives that their stories and experiences are not really young adult fiction any more. There is much to like in this historical novel though, and it did make me want to delve into the previous books.


Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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