Conspiracy 365: January (Gabrielle Lord)

The Plot
A few months ago, Callum Ormond lost his father to a mysterious virus. His whole family is still reeling from this sudden and unexpected death. Then, on December 31st, he receives a strange warning from a man who may or may not be crazy: he’s in danger, and will be for the next year. Cal must figure out what it was his father had discovered just before his death in order to discover just who and why people are out to get him.

My Thoughts
January begins our year long spotlight on New Zealand and Australian authors. We start with a look at a series which intrigued me greatly when I first saw it — a series of twelve books, one for each month of the year, recounting in ‘real time’ the increasingly frantic efforts of 15 year old Callum Ormond to solve the mystery surrounding the discovery his father made just before his death.

Why the series caught my attention will probably be obvious when I admit that I’m a big fan of the TV series “24”. The conceit of that show, that all the action takes place continuously within a 24 hour time period, with each episode taking place ‘in real time’ with one hour of action, works extremely well on television. (Even better as a marathon!) Conspiracy 365 looks to take that idea and transfer it to text. Rather than exactly replicate it, author Gabrielle Lord has decided to spread the action out over the course of a year and spread the series over 12 books, one for each month.

I think this is a wise choice; “24” was necessarily restricted in the complexity of the plots it could present because of the inability of the characters to travel long distances or do anything that took longer than an hour or two. With an entire year to work with, the conspiracy of the title can be that much more twisty, that much more suspenseful. Plus, the 15 year old protagonist, Cal Ormond, can be a bit more realistic.

As expected, this first book sets up the initial mystery: a few months ago, Tom Ormond, Callum’s father, discovered something big, something he claimed could “change history”. Then, before he could do more than write a quick letter to his son, he was struck down by a virus that destroyed his ability to communicate before it killed him altogether. Callum is puzzled by the letter he received from his father and by a drawing which accompanied it, but the events of New Year’s Eve and Day are what really start things going: Cal is warned of coming danger by a crazy man who’s then carted off by paramedics, and then a few hours later is nearly killed in a boating accident which turns out to be not nearly so accidental.

The situation deteriorates quickly from there, with Callum attempting to make progress on solving the mystery while trying at the same time to stay alive. He ends the month with a new plan and in a cliffhanger situation that makes me glad we also got the February book at the same time. (And worried that we haven’t yet got the rest!)

The book reads very quickly, structured as one would expect, by day and time. One interesting choice is that the pages are numbered backwards, though only within this book, not backwards to get to page 1 at the very end of the series. It was an interesting choice and did contribute to the feeling of counting down to the end of the month.

This is definitely not a character driven series; Cal is a fine main character, but he’s not given a lot of depth, and everyone else is sketched very lightly. But in depth characterization is not the point: it’s the plot, which races along at a very satisfactory rate.

In Short
From the description of the Conspiracy 365 I expected this to be very similar to “24” in book form. I was not disappointed. January sets up the scenario, introduces our main character, and gets Cal on the road to trying to solve the mystery. Hopefully I won’t have too much trouble acquiring the rest of the series, because it’s going to be impossible not to blow through the entire thing.


The Body at the Tower (Y.S. Lee)

The Plot
Mary Quinn was rescued at the age of twelve from the hangman’s noose by an enterprising group of women. Now educated and grown, she has been recruited by those same women to join a clandestine group of mercenary agents hired by Scotland Yard and other to investigate where official channels have turned up no results. Now a year on from her somewhat shakily executed first assignment, Mary’s latest case is a departure for even the Agency. Mary must disguise herself as a boy in order to infiltrate the building site at the Houses of Parliament and discover what she can about the suspicious death of a bricklayer.

My Thoughts
The Body at the Tower opens roughly a year after the events of the first Mary Quinn book, A Spy in the House. Mary is still working for the Agency, taking assignments and becoming more comfortable in her role as an investigator-slash-spy. Apparently, which I did not recall from the first book, she is not yet considered a full-fledged member of the Agency – though she is due for this promotion soon, as she’s slowly accumulated experience.

Mary’s latest assignment is one which is controversial within the Agency itself – she’s to go undercover at the building site of the Houses of Parliament, where they are working on completing St. Stephen’s Tower (what most people just call “Big Ben”). The building project is decades behind schedule, over-budget, and has been continually plagued by setbacks and bad-luck, leading to rumors of a curse or phantom. Certainly the latest incident, the death of a bricklayer, has not improved matters any. Scotland Yard wishes to know if the death was a suicide or homicide, so they have asked the Agency to investigate. Since the building site has zero opportunities for a female, Mary will have to disguise herself as a boy. It’s this latter step which creates friction between the two women who head the Agency – they disagree whether or not it’s a good idea to attempt expanding the business in this fashion.

In the meantime and hardly unexpectedly to the reader, James Easton has returned from his assignment in India and promptly finds himself tapped to perform his own audit of the building project. What saves this turn of events from being completely cliched is the fact that Easton does not return in health – in fact, he seems downright consumptive in the manner of the best Victorian heroines. (The official explanation is malaria; we’ll see if that turns out to be all it is.)

I found this second book in The Agency series to be much more brisk than the first – though Mary is no Sherlock, she is able to be a lot more proactive in this outing and eventually begins to piece things together. She finds herself on more even footing with Easton due to his physical weakness and her own increased confidence in her abilities, so their interactions are more interesting. And we’re introduced to a new character, the tabloid journalist Octavius Jones, who promises to be a nice addition to the cast, provided he shows up again!

My main concern, not of this book in particular, but of the series in general is that the books thus far have been fairly short. My fellow Tripletakers have noticed that many things which may have been quite interesting (Mary’s time at school, her time teaching, her training for the Agency) have been quickly glossed over or skipped entirely. Indeed, book 2 barely has time to return to the mysteries surrounding Mary’s father introduced in the first book. And – alarmingly – other reviews have referenced as fact that the Agency series was intended as a trilogy rather than an ongoing, open-ended (or simply longer) serial as I had initially supposed. I haven’t actually been able to confirm this at author Y.S. Lee’s website, but it seems to me that there is simply too much which needs to happen in book 3 to satisfactorily tie up all of the dangling threads. I fear being disappointed by the ending, so I rather hope book 3 is either considerably longer or not actually the end.

In Short
Now a more experienced investigator for the Agency, Mary Quinn’s second adventure moves along at a highly satisfactory pace. The setting and mystery are not at all similar to A Spy in the House, giving this book a different but still pleasing flavor. I’m left anticipating the third book in the series (The Traitor and the Tunnel), inexplicably (and aggravatingly!) due to be released in the US months after the UK edition arrives.


J’s Take on A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

A Spy in the House coverThe basic premise of A Spy in the House is that it’s er.. Victorian? London and this girl is plucked from prison where she’s about to be hanged for theft, and brought to a school. Where she learns, not how to be a proper lady, but how to think for herself. Not that she needed much help there. But she also learns maths and things. Only learning and then teaching at the school isn’t enough, and she asks if there isn’t more. And there is. There’s the Agency, which is a private company of spies. Female spies.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the school at ALL. Unless you count the headmistresses’ (or whoever they are) study, or room, or office (whatever it is). Four or five years go by between the introduction and the first chapter, and suddenly she’s 17 and ready to go do spy stuff. We don’t even get to see any of her super-intensive super-secret spy training!

But, that’s okay, because she was so super-awesome that she could do it super-intensively and not the long way. And maybe I wouldn’t have twigged ‘Mary Sue!’ if it hadn’t been so recently after my discussion with K about Babel-17. But I’m calling it on this one. Total Mary Sue.

So, yea, okay, the school sounds mostly normal and boring. But it was new to her and I really, really, really would’ve liked to have seen some of it. So, at this point I’m already rather annoyed. I’m more annoyed when she passes their spy wannabe test with super-awesome flying colors. I then get further annoyed when several chapters in, we randomly get a chapter from some guy’s point of view.

It’s around about this time that I start feeling it’s a historical romance novel disguised as a YA adventure-intrigue-mystery novel. Grr.

My annoyance escalates when, in the first scene where the main character (Er.. name name.. what was her name…? Mary Quinn? Ha ha! It totally was. Okay.) The first scene where Mary Sue Quinn and Hunky McDreamy are together, the point of view completely breaks down. Utter failure. It was his point of view, but then we get one of her thoughts. And that’s not a fluke. Because the entwined confusing points of view recur every time they’re later in a scene together.

So now I’m just ready for this book to be over with so I can write my review full of annoyance about it. But I’m not even halfway through. Fortunately it’s not a slog. And it’s not a long read. It’s just not a particularly interesting one either.

Then, ladies and gentlebeings of other genders, then we learn something about Mary Sue’s past that she knew all along. No, dude. No. You don’t get to hide something that important from us. If it was first person, sure. But it’s third person and we’re inside her head. The author should not be keeping that sort of secret from us. It’s just wrong.

And, yes, it does make the whole story a little more interesting from that point on, but I’m still beyond annoyed and into mad now. And while I’m reading, in the back of my mind I’m thinking.. if I say this in my review, is it a spoiler? When I firmly believe it should have been revealed in the first chapter? Hrrrm. Am I complicit in hiding it from other readers by not mentioning it? Well.. now you’re warned at least. And if you care to know, probably the second book in the series says it right in the summary.

So the next thing that happens is Mary Sue Q does the unforgiveable. She receives some deeply important information about her past. And she doesn’t read it. And she doesn’t take it with her. Why? I have no idea. You’d think she’d have plenty of hiding places in her dress. It’s not like it’s a steamy romance novel and McDreamy was going to rip it off of her in the next scene.

So, la la la.. plot, bickering, plot, flirting, plot, standard dialog you’d find from two love interests who don’t get along at first, maybe plot or something. And then it’s all over. The end.

Except it’s not. Because there are loose ends.

But there’s no way I’m reading the next book to see if they’re tied up!

And now I feel remorse. I feel I was too harsh on it. So let me soften the blow at the end here. It does try to say some things about gender. Women can be spies. Women make good spies, even. Women can be political and business minded. Women can be bad guys too. And Victorian London kind of sucked. Especially with the smelly Thames.

I really do like the cover. Kudos to the publisher on that. It’s subtle (to my eyes), but there.

And, I don’t know, maybe the series improves. But there’s not enough in this book to compel me to brave it.

Fun Fact: The first paragraph involves urine. Nice way to get teen girls to just jump into your story, isn’t it?


A Spy in the House (Y.S. Lee)

The Plot

The orphaned Mary Lang’s nascent crime spree was halted abruptly when she was caught in the act. Sentenced to hang for her behavior, the twelve year old was instead spirited away to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls and educated to the point where she could make an independent living for herself by non-illegal means. Now aged seventeen and going by the name of Mary Quinn, she finds herself asked to join a group associated with the school: The Agency. An intelligence gathering operation, The Agency might be able to provide Mary with the sort of purposeful and stimulating life she craves. She soon finds herself sent out on her very first assignment, to report upon the suspected criminal activity of Henry Thorold while posing as the paid companion of his daughter Angelica.

My Thoughts
We’re first introduced to Mary Lang at the tender age of twelve, as she stands in the dock to hear her sentence of death by hanging. Mary, orphaned after the death of her mother and the disappearance (and supposed death) of her father, has been scraping by Oliver Twist-style by means of petty thievery. She was caught after graduating to housebreaking and her short career – and life – seems to be at an end. But that would be a very short book indeed, so instead Mary finds herself abducted from the prison yard and given the opportunity to attend Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.

The Academy is a place for girls of all stripes and backgrounds to gain the education with which to make their own way in the world. Not that there are many ways to make it as a woman in Victorian society. The story leaps past Mary’s school years in order to focus on a potential answer to this dilemma: how can a clever and educated woman with no background or influence make a real contribution to the world? In Mary’s case, opportunity presents itself in the form of an invitation to join “The Agency”, a sort of shadow companion institution to the school. The Agency, an intelligence gathering organization staffed by women, has managed to find itself a niche market by where it provides otherwise unobtainable information to the likes of Scotland Yard. Mary is eager to prove herself a top prospect as an agent, and after a brief period of training, she is sent out on her very first assignment.

After swiftly setting up the scene, it’s here in this middle section where the book bogs down a bit. Mary is hired by the Thorold family as the paid companion to their eighteen year old daughter Angelica. Mary’s been given little direction in her real assignment, which is to observe and report upon the household, in particular upon Henry Thorold (Angelica’s father), who is suspected of being a smuggler. Another agent, unseen and unnamed, has the primary responsibility for this case, and Mary’s task is just to provide supplemental information and evidence. Mary, barely trained and very inexperienced, flounders around uncertainly, unable to figure out what she’s supposed to do next. And while this is extremely realistic, this was definitely the least interesting portion of the book and at times I found myself really pushing to keep my attention focused.

Fortunately, the pace picks up again once Mary grows impatient do be doing something – anything! – and begins to make more active efforts to investigate. Though the sequence of events which leads to the climax and ultimate conclusion strain credulity a little, it’s still an enjoyable ride. Mary stays true to her character throughout and never ends up shunted aside even in the final act.

Though Mary’s assignment is resolved by the end of the book, there are quite a few plot threads left dangling unanswered. Not to mention a villain I’ll be very disappointed with if no further activity from them is seen. In other words, it’s clearly not the end of the story, just a good place to pause.

In Short
Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House manages to create a realistic and realistically flawed heroine in the character of Mary Quinn. The book itself isn’t perfect – the middle chapters were less engaging than the beginning and the end – but the pace was good and on top of the plot it managed to say a lot about the condition of women in Victorian England without going out of its way to be preachy (or teachy). I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of this series.


The Laughing Cavalier by Baroness Orczy: B

From the back cover:
The year is 1623, the place Haarlem in the Netherlands. Diogenes—the first Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor—and his friends Pythagoras and Socrates defend justice and the royalist cause. The famous artist Frans Hals also makes an appearance in this historical adventure. Orczy maintains that Hals’ celebrated portrait of The Laughing Cavalier is actually a portrayal of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor.

What a perfectly abysmal blurb that is. Egads.

The Laughing Cavalier, one of two prequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel, tells the story of a penniless foreign adventurer who passed down his exceptional qualities—such as “careless insouciance”—to his descendant, Sir Percy Blakeney, the hero of the more famous work. This fellow, a half-English rogue enjoying the life of a vagabond in The Netherlands, goes by the name of Diogenes and has for companions/minions two fellows calling themselves Pythagorus and Socrates. When Gilda Beresteyn, sister of one man and former love of another who together conspire to kill the current ruler, overhears of these plans, Diogenes and his men are hired to spirit her away so that the assassination atttempt may proceed without her interference.
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