Review: The Agency: A Spy In the House by Y.S. Lee

Title The Agency: A Spy In The House
Author Y.S. Lee
Published March 9th, 2010 by Candlewick
Pages 335 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Historical Fiction, Mystery, Adventure, Espionage, Romance
Part of a Series? Yes (Book 1 in The Agency series)
Source & Format Purchased from Chapters, Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters


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.

“Shaken, she pulled her hand away. This can’t be true, she said to herself. This must be another dead end. There is no hope. You learned that years ago, you little fool. She drew a steadying breath and opened her lips to snarl all this. Instead, one word came out in a faint voice.

Saved from the brink of death after being sentenced to hang for the crime of housebreaking, Mary Lang is informed by her saviors that she has been chosen to attend Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for girls, a charity school meant to educate and empower women to achieve some measure of independence in the otherwise rigid and repressive patriarchal Victorian society. Although initially reluctant and suspicious of the stranger’s motives, Mary can’t help but accept the first offer of charity she has received in her twelve years of life. The novel then fast forwards five years in the future, to the year 1858. Mary, now seventeen, has spent the interim five years being educated in a number of different professions like nursing and teaching. Despite all this, however, Mary can’t help but long for more. She wants a profession that she’s passionate about, one that she can find satisfaction in. That’s when Anne Treleaven and Felicity Frame, two of Miss Scramshaw’s Academy’s head instructors, offer her a position in The Agency, a covert collective of female operatives who use their unique skill sets, which would otherwise be largely ignored or discredited in this time period, for intelligence gathering. Using positions as domestic servants as cover, they are placed within some of the most noble and wealthy houses of the period where they will have access to some of society’s greatest secrets. Mary’s mission, after completing an abbreviated month-long training program, is to infiltrate the home of Henry Thorold, who is suspected of smuggling and selling merchandise that has been stolen from Hindu temples and homes. Mary will be employed in his home as a companion to Angelica, the spoiled daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thorold, with the hope that Mary will overhear information about the next shipment and Henry’s alleged criminal activity.

“It’s terrifying, to be on the verge of finally getting what you want.”

I desperately wanted to like this novel. I really did. I think I’m all the more upset because this book undeniably had potential. A secret society of female spies operating covertly during the Victorian period? Yes, please. Unfortunately, I was bitterly disappointed, not the least of which is because I felt more than a little mislead by this novel’s synopsis. With a description that sounded like an intriguing combination of Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, Y.S. Lee’s The Agency: A Spy In The House sounded like an amalgamation of a number of books I had greatly enjoyed in the past. But alas, it was not to be. Lee inexplicably fast-forwards through Mary’s time at the Academy as well as her training for The Agency, both of which were aspects of the novel I was particularly looking forward to. Instead, Mary is almost immediately placed within the Thorold’s home, after which time we’re subjected to a bland heroine, plodding plot and unappealing romance.

“He’d put in a long Saturday night at the office, catching up on work that he’d neglected in favour of tearing about London with that woman. He really ought to have known better: any person encountered skulking in a wardrobe was going to be trouble. That went double – no, triple – for any tomboy who claimed to be a lady but whose behaviour proclaimed otherwise at every moment.”

From what I can gather about the origins of this novel based on Y.S. Lee’s biographical note printed on the inside back cover of my copy, Lee wanted to imagine an empowering scenario in which women in the Victorian period would have the ability to dictate their own destinies and act in direct opposition to what would ordinarily be expected of them during that particular period. I’m of two minds when it comes to Lee’s premise. While I can’t help but be a little irritated by the vast historical liberties Lee takes in order to further the plot, implausible though it may be, as a woman I have to applaud Lee in her efforts. I will always support the concept of a strong female protagonist and a novel with an empowering feminist message. That said, I don’t believe that Lee took her idea far enough. If you’re going to revise history and take it in a wildly different direction, it is up to the author to fill in the blanks of this new world she’s created. You can’t do this sort of thing in half measures. I needed to know more about the origins of The Agency in order to fully invest myself in the concept, but unfortunately I was left wanting. How did The Agency originate? Were a group of women simply sitting around one day and were suddenly struck with the idea? We know that it was founded ten years prior, but are never told by whom. Who was the original founder? We’re told that it is not Miss Scrimshaw as she has no affiliation with The Agency. Are all the members of The Agency graduates of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy, like Mary, or are some recruited elsewhere? Why are the agents never allowed to meet one another face-to-face? We’re given a vague, stock answer regarding ‘reasons of security’, but would it not be more empowering to be able to socialize and commiserate with a group of women employed in a similar field? I simply needed more. More answers, more depth, and most importantly, more world-building.

“You are surprisingly resigned to death, for one so young.”
“Twelve years is enough for me,” she said. Well-meaning strangers – women, especially – were forever trying to coax her into a tearful confession of her life’s sufferings. She hadn’t fallen for that sort of rubbish in years.”

Mary Quinn, née Lang, is a spectacularly unremarkable heroine. We’re told again and again what makes Mary special and unique, but we never see her exhibit half of the qualities attributed to her. She isn’t particularly adept at her profession, either as a lady’s companion or a undercover agent. She spends very little, if any, time in Angelica’s company, which is surprising and wholly unrealistic given that the only reason she was employed by the Thorold family in the first place was to act as Angelica’s companion. I believe I can count the number of times on one hand that the two characters spent any meaningful amount of time together. Likewise, her attempts at sleuthing are amateur at best. She’s so indiscreet that she manages to arouse the suspicion of even the most self-centered character, Angelica. She’s so unobservant that she is tailed for over a day by a ten-year-old street urchin employed by James Easton, and might never have noticed had James not made her aware of it. Not unlike Nancy Drew, clues and important information seem to fall into her lap at the most opportune moment and are rarely, if ever, the result of actual detective work or skill on her part. James rescues her on more than one occasion and she often relies on him to concoct schemes as to how they should proceed. The positive qualities that she does possess, like being able to remain calm under pressure and pick any lock at twenty paces, are not unique to her character, and are actually quite common amongst female heroines in the mystery genre. Lee also continually alludes to a ‘secret’ regarding Mary’s true identity, but with the help of a quick perusal of her surname and a number of hints dropped with the subtlety of an anvil regarding Mary’s ‘dark, exotic’ looks, the eventual revelation about Mary’s true heritage is anything but surprising. I was given the distinct impression that we were meant to admire Mary, but the only emotion I could manage to muster was apathy.

“He knew full well what he ought to do: forget about her, except when her actions affected his own quest. He knew, equally well, what he ought not do: he ought no to waste his time – and lose sleep – wondering about her motives. He ought not worry about the dangers to which she might expose herself. He ought not waste time bandying words with her when he called on Angelica. And he most certainly ought not to admire the slim elegance of her figure just a hundred yards ahead of him.”

Then we have James Easton, a civil engineer and the romantic interest for our protagonist. Much like the synopsis, I can’t help but feel there are times that this novel is its own worst enemy. Case in point: One of the blurbs on the back cover compares James Easton to Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. By comparing James to Mr. Darcy, one of the most iconic and beloved romantic heroes of all time, the novel is inevitably setting itself up for failure and creating expectations that Lee cannot possibly hope to meet. Arrogant, domineering and misogynistic, James has in much in common with Fitzwilliam Darcy as I do with Darth Vader. Where Darcy’s reserved countenance and pride are a result of social discomfort and the manner in which he was raised, James’s conceit is rooted in a superiority complex that would rival Donald Trump’s. Bragging about his alleged allure to anyone who will listen, James lacks Darcy’s fundamental charm, gentle charisma, and most importantly, his vulnerability. More often than not, James simply seems like a bully. “But Jen!”, I hear you say, “This is accurate for the time period! Many men in the Victorian period would act that way!” To which I respond “Yes, but why now?” Why does Lee choose this moment to adhere to the strictures of historical accuracy? Given the myriad of other historical liberties Lee takes within the novel, why not also create a progressive romantic interest that celebrates female equality and treats Mary as an equal with respect and dignity?

“Good afternoon, Miss Thorold.” He was at the drawing-room door when he turned to glance over his shoulder. “And Miss Quinn…”
She arched one eyebrow.
“Dare I fear you’ll say ‘good riddance’?”

The romance between these two characters is unexceptional and uninteresting at best and mildly offensive and dangerous at worst. There was absolutely no chemistry, either romantic or sexual, between these two characters. Mary and James spend the majority of the novel sniping at one another. Their banter is predictable and bland rather than charming, and often borders on mean-spirited. While I love the combative love-to-hate dynamic as much as the next person, their relationship often bordered on the abusive. I particularly liked when James repeatedly called Mary an ‘idiot’ and suggested that Mary had done something to provoke Angelica into physically assaulting her. (“Rather vindictive of her…although I’m sure you deserved it.”) And people said romance was dead. Who wouldn’t fall in love with such a charmer? I know there’s nothing like a little victim-blaming to get me in the mood. On a number of occasions, James also makes jealous insinuations based on nothing more than unfounded speculation that Mary is involved in a romantic or sexual relationship with one of her employers. This was not only tiresome but also extremely irritating. As little more than business partners with a mutual, vested interest in getting to the bottom of Mr. Thorold’s shipping affairs, James has no right to question Mary about her personal life. Remember ladies: You’ll know a man loves you when he attempts to control aspects of your life and becomes jealous at the slightest provocation. I’ve about had it with books that portray the domineering, jealous male as the epitome of a man in love. As a result, I couldn’t help but applaud as James embarked on his trip to India at the end of the novel. Goodbye, good riddance, and don’t let the rudder hit you on the way out.

“Well, my dear?” Anne turned to Felicity, her voice crisp once more. “How do we assess Mary’s professional prospects? That she is intelligent and ambitious is evident.”

“She is loyal and capable of great discretion,” Felicity added with approval. “She is also brave, tenacious, and decisive. And she strives to do what she believes is right.”

“However, she has a bad tempter,” Anne noted cooly. “She dislikes correction and goes to great lengths to avoid being in the wrong. She is shy of strangers, particularly men.”

Upon completion of this novel, I came to the rather disheartening conclusion that Lee had very little faith in her readers’ intelligence. For example, twice within the first seventeen pages the reader is provided with a complete accounting of Mary’s characteristics, both positive and negative. We’re never given the opportunity to learn about Mary organically or allowed to view Mary exhibiting many of these characteristics firsthand. How are we to know Mary has a bad temper? In what way does she go to great lengths to avoid being in the wrong? We first met her after she was convicted of a crime. You have to do more than simply tell us what your main character is like. Please, show us! I will not accept something simply because it’s stated outright. Worse still, Lee even goes so far as to summarize and explain the events of the novel in itemized, painstaking detail in the second-to-last chapter of the novel in a conversation between Mary, Felicity and Anne. Not only is this needlessly pointless and redundant, but it’s also mildly insulting as well. Having just spent the better part of three hundred pages watching all of this unfold, the last thing I need (or want) is to have these events recounted again as though I’m a simpleton.

This, coupled with Lee’s simplistic narrative style and the relatively easy-to-solve mystery led me to believe that this novel would be more appropriate for a middle grade audience as opposed to the young adult audience it was marketed toward. This is the sort of story I would have enjoyed while in middle school. The plot is simplistic, the characters trite, and the writing mediocre. The pacing was glacial and I often found myself in the awful position of having to force myself to pick up the book and continue reading. After slogging through pages of exposition in which Lee clumsily sets the stage for Mary’s placement in the Thorold household, we bid farewell to Anne and Felicity, who will not be seen again until the conclusion of the novel when they reappear to explain to the reader all that has just happened. This was another problem I had with The Agency: A Spy in the House – Existing solely to act as a means of furthering the plot, secondary characters would disappear for entire portions of the novel with no explanation simply because they ceased to serve a purpose for our main character or for the development of the plot. I was left to imagine them waiting impatiently in the wings, tapping their feet and checking their watches until they were needed once more. James’ brother, George, is hopelessly in love with Angelica and appears early in the novel to declare his feelings for her, thus conveniently facilitating a series of conversations between James and Mary. After their relationship has been established and they begin to meet on their own, George disappears entirely from the novel, only alluded to obliquely once or twice, having obviously served his purpose and then disappeared into the ether.

“With terrifying suddenness, an ungloved hand clamped roughly over her nose and mouth. A long arm pinned her arms against her sides. She was held tightly against a hard, warm surface.
“Hush,” whispered a pair of lips pressed to her left ear. “If you scream, we are both lost.”

Much to my chagrin, I purchased the first two books in The Agency series at the same time, and as such will be continuing on with this series whether I want to or not. While I would like to believe that this series will improve and that I will enjoy The Agency: The Body in the Tower more than its predecessor, with even more implausible female cross-dressing shenanigans and the threat of James’ return, I won’t hold my breath. Despite my hopes to the contrary, The Agency: A Spy In The House was a grave disappointment. The pace is glacial, the characters uninteresting, the romance uninspired and offensive, the method of storytelling juvenile and the mystery’s solution patently obvious. This is one novel I would advise you to steer well clear of. Your time would be much better spent reading Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty or Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke instead.

Overall Rating

Around The Web

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Chelle @ Tempting Persephone wrote “Overall, A Spy in the House was highly enjoyable, and left me wanting to tag along with Mary on her future assignments for the Agency.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Nori @ Nori’s Closet wrote “I give this book an 8/10. It would have scored higher if not for the authors inability to transition scenes better; it really did take away from the awesomeness that was the plot and kept making me pause and mentally shake my fist.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Tasha @ Truth, Beauty, Freedom, & Books wrote “There was a lot of infodumping, unbelievable coincidences, and awkward scenes, but what really got to me was that I disliked every single one of these characters, especially James…I’d like to read more about The Agency, which I think is a great concept, but I’m not sure I want to spend more time with Mary Quinn.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

9 Responses

  1. Oh no. This does not bode well. *reads more*

    I don’t mind so much if authors take historical liberties as long as they’re open about the fact that it should not be taken as history. Try to play it as actual history and I shall be a grumpus. The half measures, though, remind me of Sasha Gould’s series, which posits a female secret society in Venice. I love the concept, but there’s so much more I’d like to know about it, and what they can do.

    Writing a bland heroine and naming her Mary is a daring move. *quirks eyebrow*

    How do you pick a lock from twenty paces? Does she have magical powers?

    Oh no, the foreshadowing anvil. I HATE when they do that. A good twist should be guessable, but there should only be subtle hints, so that if the reader guesses it they feel clever, and, if they don’t, they look back and go MY GOD.

    “Arrogant, domineering and misogynistic, James has in much in common with Fitzwilliam Darcy as I do with Darth Vader.” <–BAHAHAHA. Well, Darcy IS arrogant and a bit domineering, so you must have a few things in common with Vader…. He sounds more like Rochester, though, which no.

    Okay, with the description of the romance, this is coming off my to-read list. Ain't nobody got time for that.
    Christina (A Reader of Fictions) recently posted…June: Month in Review + Monthly Box GiveawayMy Profile

    1. Oh, gosh. Where do I even start with this? I get that everybody has their own opinions, but in mine, you have to keep reading the series. Sure, sure, ‘A Spy in the House’ was a bit boring, but it really sets the scene for the next two books. Yes, James is a total ass at first, but trust me, he gets sooo much better. Yeah, this person could totally think this way, and what do I care if they don’t like these books? But, it’s totally worth a read. Try it out and see if you like it! If ‘A Spy in the House’ is too boring for you, I would even recommend starting on the second book and finding your way from there. It’s really the best series I’ve read so far, even topping Percy Jackson and HoO. Give it a shot!

    1. I’m actually a big fan of historical fiction which is why I fully expected to enjoy this novel, and I think that made the end result all the more disappointing 🙁

      Thanks Jenni! I never take pleasure in writing negative reviews but I was extremely frustrated about the time I wasted on this particular book. I’m surprised steam wasn’t pouring from my ears as I wrote this one 😛
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Waiting On…Tumble & Fall by Alexandra CouttsMy Profile

  2. Ooooh…yeah. If you came in hoping for something similar to Gemma Doyle, disappointing things would doubtless happen. I wasn’t a huge fan either, since I’m admittedly a historical mystery snob (my first series was awesome and I will forever hold a grudge against any book that does not measure up lol).

    I certainly agree with you. I think that in attempting to create a “pro-woman” version of Victorian England, she kind of ruined her chosen setting. Mary, for me, felt very cold and distant, since Lee gave her absolutely no “traditional feminine” qualities, and only ended up creating this…unreachable and too-logical machine.

    Uh…hmm. I was equally unimpressed with The Body in the Tower, unfortunately, though book 3 did manage to work its way up to three stars. But…yeah. Might not be worth the effort of reading for you?
    Renae @ Respiring Thoughts recently posted…Book Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah OcklerMy Profile

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Jen is a thirty-something Canadian book blogger and bibliophile currently residing in the wilds of suburbia. Aside from a penchant for older men, particularly those with the surnames Firth, Elba and Norton, Jen is also passionately interested in running, Mad Men, and Marilyn Monroe. In addition to being a voracious reader and self-proclaimed television addict, Jen is also an aspiring children and youth services librarian who would like to pursue a MLIS and better help readers find the perfect book for them.