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

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Seven reviews in, and this is the first review of a book published prior to 2015! This review also marks my first non-speculative fiction book featured on the blog.

A Spy in the House is a historical YA mystery set in 1850s London featuring the exploits of one Mary Quinn. Twelve-year-old Mary, a pickpocket and housebreaker, has been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, but is unexpectedly saved at the last minute by a woman named Miss Trealeaven. She runs the Scrimshaw Academy for Girls, a school for women who desire to learn skills and enter professions outside those of wife and mother.

Fast forward five years—Mary receives an offer to join an organization held under the auspices of the Academy known as the Agency. Its female volunteers serve as spies in situations where people are unafraid or oblivious about speaking candidly in front of women. To Mary, the job sounds perfect—she takes on a position in the Thorold household, serving as lady’s companion to the family’s spoilt, musically-talented daughter and keeping her ears open for anything related to some fishy insurance fraud in Mr. Thorold’s shipping business. Eager to prove herself, Mary decides to be proactive and do some investigating of her own, and in doing so, becomes unavoidably tangled with James Easton, the brother of one of Angelica’s suitors. Together (or not, at times), they investigate the many secrets and mysteries lurking in the Thorold household, some which lead to shocking answers.

It’s been a while since I read a straight-up historical novel, much less a mystery,and A Spy in the House definitely delivered. This is Y.S. Lee’s first book, published all the way back in 2010, and her writing is impressively confident and assured. She deftly balances plot, character development, and world-building with aplomb, vividly depicting mid-19th century London. (One of my favorite details was all the characters bemoaning the all-powerful stink of the Thames in the summer heat as a result of a growing city producing even more garbage and waste with the increasing influx of new people into the city.) The book’s quick pacing and all the characters’ subterfuges make this mystery a satisfying read.

Mary makes for a wonderful protagonist. She’s smart, quick-thinking, distrustful yet keenly observant and innately curious. Also extremely impatient. Barely a few days pass before she’s breaking into Thorold’s offices, using all her old skills as a thief and housebreaker, hoping to speed up the information-gathering process. Mary is also biracial—her mother was white and and her father was a Chinese immigrant and a sailor. As a light-skinned, white-passing woman (if not English, than Irish or mainland European) race is both present and invisible in the story—other people side-eye her when they perceive her as not passing quite well enough. The nature of this particular mystery is such that Mary has to grapple with her race and appearance the more clues she discovers.

At the crux of A Spy in the House are two things: women’s opportunities and women’s perception—their own and others’. Which leads leads me to what was my number one surprise with the book—I loved Angelica, Thorold’s spoiled daughter. For most of the book she’s a disagreeable, occasionally vicious brat. (At one point she digs her nails into Mary’s blistered hand to warn her away from her suitors.) However, I really enjoy reading about selfish characters who know and accept that they are indeed selfish. And over the course of the book, Angelica’s selfishness transforms from being that of self-centered gratification to self-determination. Not only does Angelica take Mary’s advice and decide to chart her own course to become a professional musician, she owns up to the consequences these choices will have on herself and her loved ones. She knows and accepts the price of her past selfish behavior and her current decisions, but that doesn’t mean she won’t put herself first and live her life as she wants if the alternative is living as a married wife, forever bored, upset, and wanting more from her life than what she has.

I do have one sizable complaint with A Spy in the House, and it lies squarely on the shoulders of James Easton, Mary’s erstwhile partner-in-crime and love interest. He’s a well-developed character in his own right, but when when interacting with Mary, he is patronizing, condescending, and plain old disrespectful. To the author and Mary’s credit, Mary doesn’t take his insults lying down, and that does mean her and James’ interactions are fun to read since they mostly comprise of trading barbs, making inaccurate assumptions about each other. But witty banter alone does not a believable romantic relationship make when one of the people involved consistently behaves like an asshat. Plus their relationship was eye-rollingly melodramatic—both James and Mary storm away in a huff from their partnership more than once, only to return each time, hanging their heads and acting contrite. While the book doesn’t end with the two of them together, that is the direction the book sets up their relationship as going in, which I’m not pleased with.

I had a lot of fun reading A Spy in the House. It was both a strong historical novel and a strong mystery. I enjoyed the exploits of Mary Quinn this time around, and I will be sure to read about her future ones in the sequels.

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