23 June 2014

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.
A Spy in the House had blipped on my radar almost as soon as it was published several years ago, but I wasn't very interested in it.  Mostly because the cover made it look like a lily-white historical Christian novel with a laughable attempt at crime solving.  Then I saw the entire series lined up on a shelf at the library and my embarrassing fetish for pretty series made me pull it off the shelf.  I flipped to the middle of the book and read a few lines and that decided it.  It was not, in fact, lily-white and I had to know just how much.

Mary was a charmingly deviant main character who had a strong, steady internal compass that often brought out her smart mouth just as much as it did her warmth and kindness.  It made her relations with James Easton -- the smug Darcy to her crime-sniffing Eliza Bennet -- positively flammable.  I found myself rereading entire sections filled with snappy dialogue and smirks and glares.

The romance was a downright tease, suspenseful but oddly satisfying in the style of Pride and Prejudice.  I appreciated the utter lack of insta-love, a common pitfall that seemed almost inevitable in this electric story.  More often than not, Mary and James were having heated arguments (that were not actually foreplay) rather than making moon eyes across a crowded room.  That, I liked immensely, even if my fangirl side was screaming, "Oh my god please kiss her -- please!"

Mary had bigger things on her plate than the maddeningly charming inconvenience of James Easton, though.  But here is where Y.S. Lee lost me.  I understood the skeletal framework of the mystery but not so much the delicate intricacies.  Moreover, I wasn't really concerned with it.  My thoughts and concerns were less on Mary's mission and more on whether she was going to be caught, or how it would put her back into the path of James Easton.

There's not much to be said for Y.S. Lee's writing style, other than the fact that it was subtly clever enough to deliver the story effectively and not get in the way.  I had the rare experience with A Spy in the House where I was so entranced that the words on the pages seemed to disappear entirely, and there was only a dusk-dusted street outside a warehouse and the thrilling anticipation of getting away with well-meaning breaking and entering.  Lee's writing style let me enter the world, and didn't lead me around by the hand.  

Y.S. Lee, you are one sneaky woman.  A Spy in the House was not so obvious to be all "come hither" but more like the butler who opened the door and stood there waiting patiently for me to realize it would be rude to not enter.  Even as I finish this review, I am starting on the third book.  Yes, Y.S. Lee has engineered the kidnapping of my soul.  She's welcome to it.

She hesitated for a moment longer, then tentatively placed her fingers in his. Her hand was hot and dry and so fragile-seeming that James cradled it gingerly. The next moment, she squeezed so hard his eyes widened.

Fragile lady be damned. He squeezed back spitefully. "Vicious minx."
Book Info
  • pages - hardcover, 335
  • published - April 2009
  • publisher - Candlewick
  • genre - historical fiction
  • received via - library :)
  • series - The Agency
    • A Spy in the House
    • The Body at the Tower | Review
    • The Traitor in the Tunnel
    • Rivals in the City