Rivals in the City by Y.S. Lee

rivals in the city

3 out of 5 stars.
I was given an ARC of this work.

This book is the fourth instalment in “The Agency” series. The premise of the entire series is that there is a secret agency in London that trains young girls to be spies and detectives, on the premise that, at the time, no one really expected women to do anything, so they are perfect operatives. The series follows the adventure of one such young woman, Mary Quinn, from her introduction to the Agency in the first book, through to this fourth one, where a villain from an earlier adventure reappears and threatens Mary’s hard won happiness.

The books tend to be on the short side, and the setting isn’t too distinct, but the books are fun. They are a nice, light mix of mystery and historical fiction. Perfect for a vacation or weekend read. It took me only a couple of hours to get through this one, so not a huge time commitment.

The premise is endearing (women sleuths and spies in petticoats), the adventures are fantastical, and some of the dialogue is clever. The books are not deep works of art, but are a fun read. It would be nicer if they were longer, though. It seems like you just sit down to read and then the book is over. There is not a lot of time to get to know the characters deeply. The books are action, with a little romance. There is just not a lot of space for anything else, which is too bad. I would love to know more about the Agency and some of its other missions and operatives. Lots of day-to-day details that tend to make worlds and situations “pop” are missing. The tension also does not have a lot of time to build up. By the time you start worrying about the characters and their situations, we are already at the climax.

The most historically interesting thing for me is that the main character is half-Chinese, so the books portray racial tensions, as well as gendered ones, in Victorian society. I appreciated the author including this, since books from the female point of view set in this time period tend to focus pretty exclusively on gender issues. The inclusion of race issues was nice, and historically pertinent.

I always wonder, with Victorian era books, how much of the “adventurous woman wanting to leap out of the constraints of the rigid society in which she finds herself” are accurate to the time, or are our 21st century notions imposed on a character in a certain piece of history. I do not doubt that there were some women in Victorian England who saw the unfairness in an extremely sexist society and wanted out, but how many and how did they express themselves? The heroines in these types of books seem to go from “maybe same basic liberties please?” to “dangerous action and adventure” without really stopping in between. Would Victorian women really have wanted the ability to conduct investigations and capture criminals, or would their concerns be more about greater political liberty and more equality in social contracts like marriage?

For hard-core fantasy and science fiction geeks who want something different as a break, these are books in a different genre that still preserve the well-loved tradition of adventure and speculation.

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