A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

A Spy in the House coverFrom the back cover:
Mary Quinn leads a remarkable life. At twelve, an orphan and convicted thief, she was miraculously rescued from the gallows. Now, at seventeen, she has a new and astonishing chance to work undercover for the Agency.

It is May 1858, and a foul-smelling heat wave paralyzed London. Mary enters a rich merchant’s household to solve the mystery of his lost cargo ships. But as she soon learns, the house is full of deceptions, and people are not what they seem—including Mary herself.

As a convicted thief, twelve-year-old Mary Lang is about to be executed when she is saved by the ladies of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, she receives an education and by the age of seventeen is teaching other students the skills they will need to be independent. Trouble is, she’s not satisfied and the few other career options open to her gender don’t interest her much, either. When she mentions this to the two women running the school, they suggest another alternative: the Agency.

The Agency is a covert organization of female spies, operating under the assumption that because women are presumed to be flighty and empty-headed, their agents will be able to retrieve information more easily than a man might, particularly in situations of domestic servitude. Mary quickly agrees, despite the threat of danger, and soon finds herself serving as paid companion to spoiled Miss Angelica Thorold, whose merchant father is suspected of dealing in stolen Hindu goods.

Mary (now using the surname Quinn) isn’t the lead on the investigation and isn’t supposed to actually do much of anything, but she gets antsy, and in the process of snooping meets James Easton. James’ older brother desperately wants to marry Angelica, but James has heard rumors about her father’s business practices, and so is doing some sleuthing of his own to determine whether a family connection would be unwise. He and Mary form a partnership and spend most of the book poking about in warehouses and rest homes for aging Asian sailors and following people on foot or in carriages while maintaining a flirty sort of bickering banter.

Author Y. S. Lee tries to make the mystery interesting, giving us a bit of intrigue between Angelica and her father’s secretary as a distraction, but ultimately it feels very insubstantial to me. Nothing much comes as a surprise and two story elements that could’ve been highlights—Mary’s month-long intensive training and Scotland Yard’s raid on the Thorold house—occur off camera! Too, Mary is harboring a secret about her parentage which is thoroughly obvious: she’s part Asian. Only towards the end did Lee actually make clear that Mary is keeping this a secret from others because of the foreigner bias of the time, and I must wonder whether the intended young adult audience was reading this going, “What’s the big deal?”

Not that it isn’t nifty to have a part-Asian heroine, of course. Mary is competent and level-headed, though I admit I did get irritated by how often she is favorably compared to “ordinary women,” who would scream or faint in situations in which Mary is able to keep her head. When a mystery stars a male sleuth, do we need to hear over and over how much smarter he is than the ordinary fellow? I don’t think so. On the flip side, the overall theme of the book seems to be “don’t understimate women,” and Mary finds time to inspire a scullery maid to seek out Miss Scrimshaw’s and to convince Angelica to pursue a musical career.

In the end, A Spy in the House is a decent read. It’s not perfect, but I still plan to read the second book in the trilogy in the near future.


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.