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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Title: The Agency: A Spy in the House
Author(s): Y.S. Lee
Genre: YA historical mystery
Page Count: 335
Publisher: Candlewick

Disclosure: Review Copy sent to me by Sarah Rettger

The Summary: Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

The Review: Woah, where to start? I love this book, and I’m not confident that this review will do the book just. Well, first things first, as I suspected from following Y.S. Lee’s blog tour, the setting was AMAZING. I felt like I was transported in time to 19th century London. Everything felt so tangible, the grime and stink and grit of the city, and the house Mary was assigned to just felt so real, like I could imagine myself walking through its kitchen and corridors and what have you. Best of all, the setting felt like such an integral part of the story, a story that couldn’t take place anywhere but in that time period and in that city, that context. It’s not just, you know, Victorian window dressing to make everything look pretty and get an excuse for the ladies to wear pretty frocks. I wish more historical novels set in the Victorian era read like this book.

I’ve seen quite a number of reviews giving attention to the banter between Mary and James, saying that this is their favourite aspect of the novel, and while I too enjoy good banter (and the ones between Mary and James were really good), those didn’t make the novel for me. I mean, I do like the Mary and James interaction because they were just really well-written and fun, but this wasn’t an aspect of this novel that made the reading experience so memorable for me. Nor was it the mystery aspect, as I confess I have absolutely no taste or sense for mystery/detective written narratives. Some of the stuff that really stuck out for me was not really mentioned in the reviews I have read, such as the basic concept of the Agency Lee brought in. I love the idea of an all-female intelligence force giving opportunities to young women in Victorian England who may not otherwise have access to. It’s such an interesting and empowering aspect into the story, and I kinda wish we got to have a story that took place IN the school, a bunch of girls gathered from all walks of life learning and dreaming for a future in a kind of Victorian boarding school way. (This is because I am partial to school setting narratives) Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is that the concept of the Agency really appealed to me, and I hope that the workings of the Agency gets fleshed out as we get more books in the series.

The other thing I really like about this novel was just Mary herself. I found her fascinating and relatable, a really interesting yet flawed character. It’s been a while since my favourite character turned out to be the narrator of the whole story, and it’s really nice to always be on the narrator’s side for once, lol. I liked her brashness, her wit, how she takes action without always thinking things through clearly. I also liked that, even though she’s not exactly the conventional leading lady for a Victorian England setting, Mary still fits into the historical setting without feeling like a “modern” day woman transported in time. Mary, despite not being conventional, is still very much shaped by the Victorian era she lived in, and I appreciate that. I enjoyed all her interactions with the rest of the cast. There’s a nice amount of character development in this book, wherein people change as they encounter and talk with others, and getting to see all of this from Mary’s perspective was lots of fun. Not only did we get to see other people change, but we can also pick up on the subtle changes in Mary that she herself may not realize as of yet. In fact, I must confess, the most memorable character interaction scene was not between James and Mary, but this one scene towards the end, with Angelica as they talked about what they want and their futures. In fact, my favourite line came out of that scene! “It’s terrifying to be on the verge of finally getting what you want.” (pg. 281) You know that moment when something you’ve hoped for seems finally possible to attain, how it’s kinda scary but amazing all at once? This moment of interaction just brought back all those emotions: of self-reflection and hope and a dash of fear for the unknown. (I do know that this comes up with Cass too, but I happen to like this moment of interaction more. I suspect because this one was more dialogue-y?) I really liked seeing how Angelica grows in Mary’s eyes, from the spoiled sullen girl she was assigned to, to the lady with a goal to fulfill.

I liked how Y.S. Lee handled the passing aspect as well. Will not go into details about this as it’s spoilery, but I enjoyed slowly finding out more about Mary’s murky, hidden past, and I hope we get to see more of this family exploration in the next few books. The writing of the novel was fluid and accessible, almost deflecting attention from itself so that the reader can concentrate on the many plot twists thrown our way, which is very helpful. The ending left me satisfied yet wanting more story, new adventures for our leading lady Mary Quinn. (WHERE IS THE CIGAR BOX?! I MUST KNOW. *whimpers*) The sequel just can’t come out fast enough.

The Verdict: Excellent book, and I think everyone should give this novel a try. It was an engrossing read, with a lead character you can root for with all your heart, an interesting premise, and a nice heavy amount of twists to keep mystery fans pondering. I, personally, am dying for the sequel. Is it August yet?!

Rating: 4.5/5
Enjoyment: 100%

Title and Cover Discussion: I know technically this book is called The Spy in the House and the seriesname is called The Agency, but I keep calling this book the Agency in my head. I suspect I’ll start properly calling it The Spy in the House once the sequel comes out though. As for the cover, I’m a bit ambivalent. Passing is a bit complicated to portray when we have face covers, but getting a white model (I think the model is ‘white’? Feel free to correct me) to portraying a passing protagonist is rather problematic. I'm informed that the model is indeed of mixed heritage. I suspect this cover would work better for me if it was an illustrated cover instead, but oh well... It’s visually appealing, I’ll admit. Skipping out on ratings because I’m ambivalent about how I’d rate them. =D


Aarti said...

I've heard nothing but good about this book, and I really hope to read it! I love that the author is Asian and grew up in Canada and wrote about Victorian England. To me, that is really just such a great example of the world today :-)

Doret said...

I believe this is just the arc cover. I think the finished cover is the one Ari used.

The girl looked biracial Black and White or a light skinned Black girl. I agree the girl on the cover doesn't look like the MC described in the book.

I am guessing that's why publishers went with a different cover.

I think I am the only one who didn't like this one. The mystery never seemed to go anywhere.

I wished the other would've shown some of the Mary Quinn's training at the school. I would have loved to met some of the other female spies.

MissA said...

@Doret-This is the same picture I used for my review. This is the U.S. ARC/final version, I believe. I do like the cover (she looks rather furtive and I actually think that she does look like she could be Asian and half-white. Hmm I dunno).

I almost threw the book in furstration over the cigar box. I was telling Mary not to let it out of her sight, but she wouldn't listen! (haha you know you love books when you talk to the characters 8)

I should have mentioned that in my review; I loved the idea of the Agency (and yes I call it that in my head too or just Spy!), a secret group of female spies and detecvies. Hopefully we will learn more about them (and I want to meet another agent, we only got glimpses of Mary's partner in Spy in the House)

I'm dying for the sequel as well, but it at least it comes out in August and not like Novemeber. We could always order copies from the UK (I'm waiting to see if I like the cover better for the 2nd book U.S. version).

Fantastic review!

Jodie said...

If you're looking for something that let's you see more of a female spy community you might like 'The Women of Nell Gwynne's' by Kage Barker. I am really excited for 'The Agency' and I love the rise in dark YA mystery books - it seems like just yesterday 'What a Girl Wants' was calling for more mysteries.

yuan said...


lawl well, if you get around to reading it I hope you enjoy it!


Aw, it's too bad that you didn't like it. I admit, I know jack about mystery so I can't say anything about the mystery going nowhere aspect since I don't know how to judge such things... But I will say that I never found it slow-paced or anything of the sort. 8D And I concur about the female spies! Wanttttttt


haha, I totally screamed at my book over the cigar box too. I was like, noooooooo, and then my brother asked me if a character died. lawl.

lol I'm waiting around for the US cover too! I like my covers to match, anyhow.


thanks for the rec, I'll check it out. =D