Sunday, June 05, 2011

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

Book: A Spy in the House
Author: Y.S. Lee
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

One step from the gallows, Mary Lang was rescued and given a new lease on life by Miss Scrimshaw's Academy. Five years later, at the age of seventeen, the rechristened Mary Quinn is recruited for the secretive Agency, a collective of female operatives who do all the dirty jobs that their male counterparts can't.

Her first job is in the Thorold household. Apparently, there's something fishy going on with Mr. Thorold's company, and in the guise of serving as a companion to his spoiled daughter, Mary is to keep her ears and eyes open for any hints as to what.

There's plenty afoot in this house. Why is Thorold's secretary, Michael Grey, so flirtatious? Why is Mrs. Thorold so sickly sometimes and so assertive others? What's with the clever and sarcastic James Easton sticking his nose in everywhere? Mary's got a lot on her hands, sorting out the truly dangerous from the merely seedy, and she's got to do it fast.

Time: 1:55:40
Why I Wanted to Read It: Victorian girl spies! It's like the Gallagher Girls, but with crinolines!

Except not. Oh well.

Mary was so far removed from the central investigation that I couldn't quite grasp the nature of the mystery, and her efforts at finding out more just seemed like recklessness instead of taking initiative. Honeypot, you're a trainee spy, serving as a backup to the central agent in the investigation. This is not the time to boldly declare your independence and go tearing off to screw up said agent's careful plans, especially when you have no idea what they are. Aside: and why is a trainee spy thrown into an investigation without support beyond one or two cryptic notes from the head of the Agency? Also, why didn't we ever find out the identity of the central agent? I was waiting to find out that it was somebody really cool and heretofore unsuspected and . . . nothing.

I did like the setting. Mary's London is so seamy that you half-expect the Artful Dodger to pop up, and she's so comfortable in it that you'd expect her to say, "'Allo, gov," to said famous pickpocket. Lee also touches on the plight of minorities in Victorian London. Mary, it transpires, is half-Chinese and considers this a terribly shameful secret. I wish we'd witnessed the treatment of Asians before that, just so her position wouldn't be so cringe-inducing to a modern reader.

I also liked James, conducting his own investigation and constantly running afoul of Mary's work, and she of his. The sparkage was interesting, which makes me hope that we'll see him again, even though his final appearance in the book would seem to deny that possibility.

Less Gallagher Girls, more straight-up historical mystery. I'll read the next book for the setting, and the interesting premise, and hope that the things that frustrated me this time around will be corrected.

1 comment:

Trisha said...

Yeah, it's more a mystery than spy/action novel. But it worked for me. (You mentioned the treatment of racism, but what really worked for me was how the feminist undertones were seamlessly integrated. They're there and important without being didactic.) And based on what did and didn't work for you in this one, I'll be that you'll like book 2 a lot more.