Review: A Spy in the House (The Agency #1), by Y. S. Lee
In 1850s London, Mary Quinn, born Lang, is rescued from the gallows and offered an education to become a proper lady at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Years later, she is offered the singular job of becoming a spy. You see, the school is really a front for an all-female spy group called The Agency. Accepting her new job, Mary first's case is to pretend to be the lady companion of one young lady called Angelica Thorold, while gathering as many information as she can on her potentially thief and fraudulent father. I n the course of her investigation Mary discovers secrets about her past, meets a new ally, interesting and slightly arrogant James Easton, and learns that everybody has secrets, things might always be more dangerous than they seem, and to never ever take people at face value.
I liked this book. For a mystery. Like I said before, I'm not sure I'm the right person to comment objectively on any mystery book I read. I think I am too impatient to ever be able to enjoy them thoroughly (except for Sherlock Holmes stories. They are the exception to the rule). Once I'm half-way through a mystery novel, I usually just want to know how it ends, or who is the culprit, etc. and do not care as much anymore about the process to get there. That said, I actually really enjoyed several aspects of this book. Mary was an interesting character. It was great to see her start as a spy, to see her find her footing, making mistakes, and learning from them. As this is the first book in a series, it would be very interesting to see how her talents as a spy evolve. I'm no specialist of the Victorian period, and therefore could not point out historical inaccuracies even if I wanted to, but I could see, I could feel, that this book was well researched. Of course it helps that the author has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture. I loved all the little details here and there, a sentence, an anecdote, that contributed to make the world of the novel come to life. It always felt real, and not romanticized. That added greatly to my enjoyment of the book.
A second thing I loved was how it balanced fairly well the empowerment of women versus the gender restrictive era in which they lived. In fact, The Agency bases part of its success on the fact that, in those times, women were greatly underestimated. This constant tug and pull between expectations and what was actually possible, was really enjoyable and made me even ponder the feasibility of such an agency ever existing in the past. It was quite exciting at times.
The males interest, as there are bound to be one in YA novels, was actually interesting as well. He was given a voice, a personality and even goals and desires of his own that went beyond the heroine. James and Mary had fun, albeit at time a bit cheesy (but we like a bit of cheese, don't we?) arguments, and lively discussions. Their story was different in some aspects and it was quite refreshing. I love how it, and the book, ended. I also really enjoyed some of the other characters, especially Angelica, the spoiled, sometimes cruel, but ultimately unhappy, young lady, to whom Mary was hired to keep company.
Overall, I thought it was a great book. The mystery was well crafted, I think (even though I couldn't get really interested in it, but, like I said, that could be just me), the characters interesting and believable, the period details fascinating and the novel was well-paced. I would recommend this to anybody who loves historical or mystery novels (or both!). I, myself, will probably read the second book in the series, The Body at the Tower. I guess, I'll never learn.