Nenia Campbell's Reviews > A Spy in the House

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee
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Mar 06, 14

bookshelves: ya-baby-ya, historical
Read on August 11, 2012

A Spy in the House has a good premise, but it isn't very well executed. Mary Lang is a half-Asian, half-white girl in Victorian England, about to be executed for petty theft . But her stoicism and derring-do attitude has captured the attention of an all-female school of espionage . Naturally, Mary is The Best They Have Seen, put into an accelerated program, and placed as governess in the house of a suspect drug lord/jewel thief faster than you can say, "I spy with my little eye . . ."

There were many good things going on here. I like that authors are trying to write strong female protagonists. But strong isn't about being the best or perfect - in a way, that's as damaging as the books that romanticize the female as the weak, hapless damsel in distress. Female strength is about having weaknesses and learning to overcome them or live with them over time. It's about fulfilling your own healthy realistic goals and relationships and living your dreams to the best of your ability.

I found fault with Mary because she was just too much, you know? She dresses up as a boy and goes out into the streets because it makes her feel more powerful than being a weak silly girl. She flaunts proper conventions of the time. She's cold and logical, but not a very good person. Does our male protagonist fall in love with her immediately, and subsequently get jealous at every one of her subsequent interactions with the opposite sex? Of course. Is this person also the love interest of her rival? Of course.

Actually, that's another problem. Angelica, the girl for whom Mary acts as governess, is super girly and feminine and oh-so-charming with the men, but she's a total raving blonde-haired blue-eyed bitch, who draws blood with her fingernails and plays her mother against her father. It's so obvious that "girly" = "bitchy" in this book, and that's really not true. You can be feminine, and still be, you know, feminist. Lord knows, I am. The two are not mutually exclusive things.

I feel this attitude is especially unrealistic in a time when ladies were supposed to be seen and not heard. Pride and Prejudice is a perfect example of how strong young women can work the system, while still remaining true to the conventions of their times. Another good example is Anne of Green Gables (although even she gets the side-eye from a few of her villagers). People would definitely NOT be clapping their hands and saying, "Jolly good show!" to the types of things Mary did in this book (having incriminating liaisons in armoires! letting men see your . . . bosoms in public! fighting! dressing up in men's clothing! oh, dear me, I think I might faint).

So basically my point is that this novelist had the right idea, but she went about it in the wrong way. It's a shame, because I was really, really excited about the premise. For a similar but better executed concept, check out The Assassins of Tamurin by S.D. Tower. It's quite amazing.

1.5 stars.
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