A girl in a bonnet and dress walks outside of a building on the street.

About the Book

Title: A Spy in the House (The Agency #1)
Published: 2009

Cover Story: WYSIWYG
BFF Charm: Yay!
Talky Talk: Victorian Lite
Bonus Factors: Feminism, Victorian Era
Relationship Status: 1-2 I’ve Gotta Crush On You

Cover Story: WYSIWIG

The cover’s nothing great, but at least it’s honest and stock-photo free. It looks like a nice, light, Victorian mystery with a plucky, young heroine and a big house full of rich people and servants, because that’s exactly what it is. And frankly, I’d rather see this kind of narrative cover than the emo-prom-dress-drowning horrorshows we usually get.

The Deal:

12-year-old Mary Quinn is about to hang for theft, when she’s mysteriously rescued by one of the female guards and taken to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. At the Academy, Mary and dozens of other girls are given the opportunity to learn more than just French and needlework, and treated as if they actually have brains — a rarity in Victorian London, where even the young queen had to browbeat her advisers into treating her like she was smarter than their prize hunting dogs.

Mary spends five years at the Academy, graduating Jane Eyre-like to a post of teacher, when she’s invited by the headmistress to continue a most un-Jane-like career as a member of The Agency, a secret private investigation firm for which the Academy is a front and training ground. Mary’s first mission is to act as lady’s companion to the spoiled Angelica Thorold and be the Agency’s eyes and ears around the house while a more experienced investigator ferrets out evidence of smuggling and fraud in the business dealings of Angelica’s father. Mary’s path crosses with that of James Easton, who’s investigating the family for personal reasons of his own, and their entanglement might cost both their lives.

BFF Charm: Yay!

Yay BFF Charm

Of course I’d give Mary my BFF charm. She’s secretive about her past, understandably, but I’m totally open minded and won’t pry. The girl needs someone to hold her back — or at least watch her back — when she gets the wild idea to poke into matters that are beyond her abilities. I just can’t promise to keep my hands of Mr. James Easton, and that might break the girlfriend code. Oops.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

There’s nothing like a meet-awkward, a shared secret, and a gentleman with disdain for fancy parties and petty social customs for making me wonder if it’s hot in here, or if it’s just me. Mary’s definitely unconventional, and Easton’s regard for her because of, not despite, her brains and lack of grace makes him a catch and a half. Besides, he’s an architect, and we all know nothing’s sexier than an architect, right? It’s nice to have a tradesman romantic lead in a Victorian romance, too — it betrays my American-ness, but who cares if his 10,000 pounds a year come from working for a living instead of an inheritance?

Talky Talk: Victorian Lite

Y.S. Lee freely admits her premise is absurd — there’s absolutely no evidence of anything like the Agency operating during the Victorian era, and schools for girls weren’t as progressive as Miss Scrimshaw’s. But what’s fun is Lee actually knows a LOT about the era, so she’s not just making shit up. Well, she is making shit up because it’s a novel and that’s what novelists do, but it’s sprinkled with authentic details of Victorian life and culture from a real, live Ph.D. The style and dialogue aren’t modern, but the book isn’t weighted down with chapters and chapters of description that serves no purpose but to up the word count, and it’s delightfully cheeky — all the taste, half the calories.

She must learn to avoid stereotypes: there was no reason on earth why a ruthless merchant who evaded taxation and smuggled Hindu artifacts could not also be a jolly paterfamilias.

Bonus Factor: Feminism

Raised fists in different skin tones wearing nail polish

This book carries my usual favorite bonus factors, beginning with feminism. Mary Quinn has a lot against her, not least the fact she’s a woman, and I loved the idea of there being an investigation ring run by anonymous women who know all the secrets of the most influential men.

Bonus Factor: The Victorian Era

A Victorian-era woman drinks from a tea cup and looks bored.

Who doesn’t love a good Victorian novel, where the anachronistic plot is sprinkled with historically accurate details?

Relationship Status: 1-2 I’ve Gotta Crush On You

Is it serious? Not really. But is it fun? Hell, yes. This is a great palate-cleanser book, when you just need something to take the taste of the latest poorly written dystopia or misogynistic paranormal out of your mouth. It’s like an excellent champers — bubbly, a little dry, goes well with anything, and good any time.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Candlewick. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). A Spy in the House is available now.

Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.