Steph Recommends: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

a-spy-in-the-house-the-agency-1-by-y-s-leeRescued from the gallows in 1850s London, orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn found herself at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, the cover for an all-female investigative unit called the Agency. Now seventeen, Mary must put her training to the test. Disguised as a lady’s companion, she infiltrates a merchant’s home in hopes of finding clues to the whereabouts of his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of deceptions, and there is no one to trust … or is there? Packed with suspense and evoking gritty Victorian backstreets, this breezy mystery marks the debut of a detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets—including those of her own past. — [X]

Hello, beautiful strangers! It has been too long!

I’m finally back and catching up–or trying to–on recommendations from Book Club Month. A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee was kindly recommended to me by Steph, who took at a peek at my impossible reading challenge and found that I’d been meaning to read it all along.

I’m so glad she pushed me to read this sooner rather than later because, wow, it is such a fun book and, I’m sure, a really fun series.


  • The language is so wonderful, easy to slip into but not without reminders about the setting and the time period.
  • The historical details are–as far as I can tell–very well researched. Lee’s biography also mentions that she’s done her PhD on Victorian England, so I suppose I trust the details woven into the story.
  • Also, I felt sure that no one but Zen Cho could entice me to step into historic London again, but I’ve been proven wrong. Y. S. Lee’s London is pretty diverse and interesting, providing details on histories that mattered less to people, like cheap, foreign labour, what kinds of perils they encounter while working for an Englishman (or woman) during the Victorian period, and how this was yet another way to colonize people.
  • Mary Quinn is an extraordinary heroine whose intelligence is matched by her perseverance. James Easton, full-time engineer and part-time stalker, is the equal and opposite force to Mary–except they are on the same team and James seems to have some pretty solid reasons for the stalking. Together, they are quite a lot of fun to read.
  • And not to spoil anything, except I’m totally about to spoil something, the alternate title for this novel ought to be “Women: Underestimate Them At Your Own Risk!” Yep. With an exclamation mark.
  • As you can see, I love a lot about this novel, but the fact that Lee talks about the challenged faced by women–though, primarily white women–at almost every class in society, makes this a very interesting account of what feminism would look like in Victorian England.
  • Another thing I loved–and by “loved”, I do mean it made me heart ache for Mary–is the way that her biracial identity is discussed, the pain of losing a side of Mary’s heritage, the despair of knowing what it would mean to those closest around her if they knew she wasn’t white was very well-written. For the first book in the series, I am glad Lee spent as much time as she did on this topic. I hope it is explored further in the rest of the series.
  • There was an odd moment of introducing a man with a speech impediment–because of wooden dentures, ouch–to no real purpose. Unless, he shows up later in the series for some bigger purpose, I thought this could have been edited out. At the very least, the dialogue did not have to be spelled out phonetically. I think this was the one issue I had with the novel.

Favourite Quotes:

“Compared to most young Chinese women, you are doubly blessed and cursed: you have the luxury of being able to deny your heritage if you choose.”

This whole conversation with Mr. Chen was heartbreaking, but I loved that these topics were broached. Whatever she chooses, Mary has a lot to lose and lot to gain as well.

“Did you fall out with Michael?”

Angelica’s face appeared, puffy and red and grotesque. “N-no. Yesterday was lovely–Michael was lovely–everything is love–lovely ….” She melted once again into tears.

Mary didn’t know how to respond. “So–yesterday was lovely but today is not?”

While their friendship makes me a little uncomfortable, this moment hints to me that Angelica may have more than her fair share of problems. Not only is this the moment their friendship is solidified, this is the beginning of a big decision for Angelica, one that changes her status and her future rather dramatically. One of my favourite sub-plots, I think.

“I’m a businessman. Of course I’m not armed.”

“Well, I’m a business woman, and I’d never be so stupid,” she jeered.

This quote is whitened out because of spoiler-y reasons, but if you don’t care, go ahead and highlight the lines above. I have a begrudging respect for this villain.

And those are all my thoughts on the book. I’m pretty excited to read more by Y. S. Lee and to see where Mary’s adventures take her. Thanks for the tip, Steph! <3


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