Saturday, 12 October 2013
#CBR5 Book 127. "A Study in Silks" by Emma Jane Holloway
Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer! I was given an ARC of this book from Random House via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and impartial review. A Study in Silks is out now. The sequel comes out at the end of this month, and the concluding volume in the trilogy will be out in December.
Evelina Cooper is the niece of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. Her mother ran off with a circus performer, and Evelina grew up in said circus. Her mother got sick and died, and eventually Evelina's grandmama Holmes tracked her down, fetched her home from the circus, did her best to gentrify Evelina, and sent her to a posh boarding school. There Evelina befriended Imogen Roth, daughter of Lord Bancroft, and although he doesn't really approve of his daughter's boon companion, the two girls are set to start their first Season together. Evelina just has to keep secret her interest in mechanics, as that's unladylike, and that she can do magic, as magic users are persecuted and arrested. Best case scenario after arrest is death, but they may also be sent to Her Majesty's laboratories, where very nefarious things might happen.
With me so far? Evelina is in love with Imogen's brother Tobias, Lord Bancroft's heir, but knows full well that he is far above her station. Also he's a total rake. Unexpectedly, her childhood sweetheart Nick shows up in her room. He still works at the circus, and has magic abilities of his own. Magic that when he and Evelina get close to each other spark so strongly that it would be impossible for them to ever hide it. Hence they are doomed as a couple too. A servant girl is murdered, and Evelina tries to investigate, hoping that the case might be solved before scandal befalls her friend's family. Lord Bancroft orders Tobias to seduce Evelina to keep her from investigating, but he refuses, because he genuinely likes her, and won't ruin her reputation.
This is not regular Victorian England, but a steam-punky version with unusual mechanical innovations, where the whole country is divided into regions controlled by the Steam Barons, who decide who's allowed steam, coal and gas and discourage any unauthorised mechanical development or independent inventions. Magic exists, but is feared and magic users are persecuted.
There is a lot of potential in this book. I'm just not sure that this book needed the protagonist to be Sherlock Holmes' niece. I get that he's the most famous Victorian detective, and currently extremely fashionable, with the films, directed by Guy Richie, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, the excellent modern takes in BBC's Sherlock, and (in my opinion, the not as brilliant but still very enjoyable) American Elementary. It still feels to me that if you're going to all the trouble of creating an alternate Victorian England, with very interesting magics and Steampunk and the power struggle between lords of industry and the actual nobles, you don't really need ties to other fiction. Couldn't Evelina just have been the niece of some fictional great detective?
Still, as I said, there is a lot to like. In the beginning, I found the book a bit hard going, because there is a vast gallery of characters, and many of them get a point of view in the book. There is a whole load of info dumping, while very well done, to make us realise that this isn't just regular Victorian England, and there's the murder mystery, and another complicated scheme involving one of the steam barons, and a stolen Greek artifact and it all seemed a bit overwhelming at first.
Once I got about a third of the way in, and everything was set in motion, though, I really enjoyed the book. The world building is very creative, and excellently done. Holloway has clearly done her historical research very well, and her cast of characters, while sizable, is nuanced and interesting. There is a strong and genuine friendship between Evelina and Imogen, and while I am normally wary of love triangles, both Tobias and Nick are undoubtedly very attractive young men, and it's understandable why Evelina would be drawn to both of them, yet distressed because neither of them, due to societal expectations, and her own forbidden magical powers, are a realistic option for her. I'm very much looking forward to how the story plays out in the rest of the trilogy.