Mary Lang is a girl about to die. Sentenced to death for the crime of stealing, she simply does not care to live any longer. Ever since her mother passed away, and she found herself living on the streets, Mary has hated her life, and sees no good reason to prolong it.
But others feel differently. Stolen away from under the noses of the judge and the court officers, Mary is rescued by two women, Anne Treleaven, and Felicity Frame, teachers at Miss Scrimshaw's School for Girls. They want to save her because they see something special in her, something that she could become, if only she had the schooling. And Mary, despite her deep cynicism, can't keep herself from wanting that, and accepting it.
Six years later, Mary has gone from being a student at Miss Scrimshaw's, to being an assistant teacher. But when asked about her future, she isn't really sure what she wants to do, and has no plans for the future. So instead, the two women who saved her ask her to take on a new role and a new job: to work as a Spy in The Agency, a detective agency that hires only women, thinking that women are often unnoticed or disregarded, and not thought of as having the intelligence to notice what is going on around them.
Mary agrees, and her first job as a junior agent is to investigate the goings-on at the Thorold household. The master of the house is a wealthy merchant, and someone seems to be ensuring that his business is having problems- to wit, his ships are somehow disappearing. And as one of the suspects is the master's assistant, it makes sense to install someone actually is in the house to listen to what is going on.
So Mary enters the house as a companion to the Master's daughter, who hates her and doesn't want her to be there. And the house is full of secrets: the daughter has an interest in academics, and doesn't seem to want to marry her father's assistant, the mother disappears from the house for hours, and no one knows where she goes, and someone in the house is passing on information on what is going on in the business, information Thorold's competitors would love to have. And then there is James Easton, friend of the family and someone Mrs. Thorold would love for her daughter to choose as a husband. But when James takes an interest in the supposedly "invisible" not quite a servant, not quite like society Mary, can she keep him from discovering her true mission in the household while her heart yearns for him, even as she knows it can never be, and after this mission, she might never see him again?
This was a strong first beginning to the series, and Mary's voice pulls you into the series right from the start. From her not caring what happens to her when she is standing at the gallows to her stronger, confident voice after years of schooling and working, Mary comes off as a very strong character. She has her moments of not knowing what to do, but she always keeps her head and is willing and able to improvise and think on her feet.
I liked her unexpected feelings for James Easton, and how we works out that she isn't really what she seems to be, but she manages to snow him into her reasons why she is there and who she is there for. She also engages in behaviors that might seem less than aboveboard- like blackmailing the daughter of the house. But Mary never loses our trust or sympathy because of what she does.
I loved this book, and I loved the characters of Mary and James, and I loved the idea of a detective agency that only employs women, because women sort of fade into the woodwork to men, and most men think women aren't intelligent or interested enough to pay attention to what is really going on. I love this book and am looking forward to reading more books in this series.