Mary Quinn displays plenty of charm and wit while working as A Spy In The House. Sadly, tiresome cliches and one-dimensional supporting characters prevent this good read from becoming a great one!
It's 1853 in London, England, and 12-year old Mary Quinn has just been sentenced to die! Convicted for thievery, Mary is saved from the gallows pole at the last moment by a mysterious stranger and brought to Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls. But much like Mary herself, the Academy is full of secrets. Mary soon joins a secret agency which trains young women to become detectives and spies so that they can work within a society that foolishly underestimates them. Now Mary has been given her first case, infiltrate a rich merchant's home and learn why his cargo ships keep disappearing. But when Mary's investigation earns her a dangerous new enemy, will she be able to cheat death a second time?
This book's premise sounds amazing, right?!? Unfortunately, the execution suffers right from the very beginning. While some authors make the mistake of taking too long to get to the point, Y.S. Lee has the opposite problem...she barrels through so quickly, it's hard to make a connection with any of the characters! After a brief prologue in which Mary's execution is interrupted by Anne Treleaven from the Academy, Chapter 1 immediately jumps ahead 5 years! In the first chapter, teachers Anne and Felicity reveal to 17 year-old Mary that her performance at the school and her interactions with the other girls has convinced them she is a perfect candidate to be trained for espionage. We have to take their word for it, since we never see any of these events ourselves! Than Lee manages to make the same exact mistake a second time, when Chapter 2 skips past all of Mary's training and jumps right into her first case! All the experiences that have made Mary who she is are completely glossed over. Imagine if the second chapter of Harry Potter's first novel featured him graduating from Hogwarts, and you now understand exactly what reading this book is like!
While Lee thankfully stops skipping past long periods of time in between chapters, narrative problems still persist once Mary begins her first case. In order to infiltrate the home of shipping magnate (and chief suspect) Henry Thorold, Mary gets a job working as a companion for Henry's teen-age daughter Angelica. It doesn't take long for all of the people Mary encounters to fall into their one-note roles. For example, since the stereotype of the spoiled, bratty heiress has been done to death, it would have been nice if Angelica had been given a bit more depth upon her introduction...instead, she immediately proceeds to carry on like this...
The other characters don't fare much better, all of them are pretty much shallow and one-dimensional. Even Anne & Felicity seemed hollow in the beginning, but I had chalked that up to how quickly Lee had moved past their segment. But as the story moves on, Mary is the only character that displays any real depth at all, and even that isn't handled very well. In fact, most of Mary's traits aren't evident from her actions, but merely from what other people tell us about her! Early on, Mary encounters James Easton, the younger brother of one of Henry Thorold's potential investors. By Chapter 4, (spoiler insta-love alert)
James is already infatuated with Mary...and from then on, many of the chapters are told from his point of view (silly me, when the banner on the book's cover said "A Mary Quinn Mystery", I just assumed that meant Mary would get to be the star of her own book)! Because of this second narrative voice, we constantly have James telling us about who Mary is, instead of Mary showing us for herself. James so often comments about how feisty and independent Mary is, it sure would have been nice to see more of her in action!
However, despite these problems, I did find myself enjoying much of this book (once I got past the really clunky ramp-up portion). While Mary and James quickly fall into cliched rom-com roles, I can't deny that I often laughed at the witty banter between them. And when Mary was finally
given a chance to shine, she did so brilliantly. In the book's best moments, Mary is revealed to be a very sympathetic and endearing character. Also, the overall mystery was a nice change of pace from the usual whodunit style. While the characters themselves could be boring, I can't say the same for the mystery itself, as Lee throw in enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. Although the mystery is sometimes hampered by Lee's tendency to fall back on tired old cliches...one evildoer even launches into a monologue so hackneyed, it would make even the corniest of James Bond villains blush!
If you've just read something really heavy and want your next book to be light and fluffy, then you might have fun with "A Spy in the House
. But if you want a deeper reading experience that invokes any kind of real emotion, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere. Disappointing, since so much more could have been done with such a promising concept.