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A Spy in the House (The Agency #1) by Y.S. Lee

June 17, 2010

Arrested for housebreaking, a twelve-year-old orphan and thief escapes a death sentence when she is offered a place at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.

Five years later, her studies complete, Mary Quinn is dissatisfied with the few occupations available to young women in Victorian England. However, unknown to Mary, Miss Scrimshaw’s is also home to the Agency, a discreet investigative organization comprised of women, and its heads believe Mary has the skills and intelligence necessary to become an Agency operative.

After completing her training with the Agency, Mary is sent on her first assignment: to spy on a man suspected of the smuggling of jewels and sculptures from India while acting as a companion to his daughter, Angelica.

A Spy in the House, the debut novel of Y.S. Lee, reminded me a bit of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. Which is, in my opinion, definitely a good thing. In writing that is descriptive and immediate, Lee vividly depicts Victorian London: class and poverty, the customs, the stench. After all, 1858 was the year of The Great Stink.

Here beside the river, the smell of putrefaction was so strong she could taste it. Vegetation. Flesh. Sewage, both human and animal. All rotting. Add to that coal smoke and, beneath it all, the tang of salt water. (p. 30)

I imagine that it would be easy for a writer with a PhD in Victorian literature, as Lee has, to spend a lot of time dwelling on the details. But Lee strikes a nifty balance of evoking her setting—one that is essential to the story without overwhelming it—developing a cast of flawed and sympathetic characters, and plotting and pacing that make the book a fast, enjoyable read. The mystery element is above average for YA fiction (which may make me sound like a mystery snob, and I’m not sure I’d deny the charge). It makes sense in the context of the story and we are given enough clues that the solution is perhaps unexpected, yet also unsurprising. And I especially loved the feminist undertones running throughout the book.

My main criticism of A Spy in the House is the surfeit of expository dialogue in the early chapters, especially Chapter One. Otherwise, I very much enjoyed the book, so much so that this is one of the increasingly few times I’m actually excited that a book is the first in a series. The next book, A Body at the Tower, will be published in August, and I can’t wait to read it. (Though I’m crossing my fingers that A Body at the Tower will NOT end the way Pullman’s The Shadow in the North did.)

Oh! And there’s one more thing I really liked about the book, having to do with Mary’s identity, but I won’t go into detail about it as it’s kind of a spoiler.

Book source: public library.

* From the moment I learned what this book was about, I knew I HAD to read it. So I didn’t get around to reading the blog tour until I actually finished the book (what if there were spoilers? Oh noes!), but I just need to echo Ah Yuan here and say that it was fun and fascinating and if I had been previously unsure about whether or not to read A Spy in the House, it would have convinced me to read it.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2010 11:26 pm

    CANNOT WAIT to get to this one! I, too, have been avoiding reading too much about it, fearing spoilers, but OH, I can’t wait! LOVING the strong-girl mysteries lately.

  2. June 18, 2010 3:48 am

    This sounds like a good read – I love historical novels.
    Ann Summerville
    Cozy In Texas

    • June 19, 2010 1:37 pm

      I love a good historical novel, too. If you pick up A Spy in the House, I hope you enjoy it.

  3. June 18, 2010 4:44 am

    You know, I could not get past the first chapter, but since you mentioned that in your review I think I will give it another try. Thanks!

    • June 19, 2010 1:40 pm

      I think there were a couple more occasions in which dialogue was used for infodumps, but the first chapter is the one that really stuck out in my mind. And I suppose that if/when they happened later in the book, I was already engaged by the story, and by Mary, so it didn’t bother me as much anymore.

      I wonder how this will be handled in book 2. If we’ll get the new story right away or if book 1 will be recapped, either in a prologue or through dialogue?

  4. June 19, 2010 7:12 am

    I have been meaning to pick this one up since it first came out and have read consistently good reviews for it, but this is by far the best review yet. Time to go and get this one now.

    • June 19, 2010 1:42 pm

      Thanks! I didn’t search for additional reviews, but you’re right about the consistently good reviews, because at least in the blogs I read regularly, I’ve only seen positive reviews of this book.

  5. July 2, 2010 6:45 pm

    Loving this series! I have yet to start the 2nd book but I’m so excited to. I loved how well researched the novel was, I felt so immeresed in Victorian England. Mary (I was surprised by her past, but in a good way) is a great heroine and we need more YA mysteries with brave girls! Watch out Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew

  6. Hellooo permalink
    July 10, 2010 9:43 pm

    Hey i heard that there was a sequel coming out and i was wondering if you knew when?


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