Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review - A Study in Silks

The past few years we've seen an insurgence of popularity for Sherlock Holmes. We've also seen a growth in strong female protagonists in all sorts of literature. A Study in Silks brings those together. The story follows the adventures of Evelina Cooper as she comes of age in London Society while also trying to solve a murder and other mysterious that may or may not be related. In addition to catering to the newly invigorated popularity of Sherlock Holmes and female heroines, this book also covers the Steampunk fascination as well as dabbling in magic and mysticism of the urban fantasy genre.

The book quickly and elegantly establishes the relationship and character of Evelina Cooper as the niece of Sherlock Holmes who grew up in a circus, has magical abilities at her fingertips, enjoys tinkering with gears and motors and is now living as a guest in the home of Lord and Lady Bancroft. A lot of details that come together to make an interesting character. Due to her circus upbringing, Evelina is not likely to have a chance in high society. But the more "respectable" nature of her Holmes relations and her friendship with the daughter of Lord Bancroft has given her the possibility of at least socializing in higher circles with the remote chance of eventually being admitted as a member of that higher echelon of society. Of course, that all hinges on how respectable Evelina keeps herself and whether or not she can hide the fact that she possesses magical talents (a force which is shunned and despised in society) or that she has unladylike desires such as going to school or inventing machines.

Since we are in a "Steampunk" alternate London. the book sets up a new form of political and economic influence known as the Steam Barons. Essentially London is segmented into neighborhoods each beholden to a different Steam Baron for the energy to run their households and businesses. The Steam Barons provide electricity, heat, water and even a degree of "protection" to those who respect them and pay their dues. This group is very wary of magic for its defiance of science and they definitely don't take kindly to amateur tinkers coming up with their own inventions outside of control of the Barons. Naturally this means that Evelina's natural tendencies may not fit well in this society.

Before too long, the book has thrown us a few mysteries to be solved. First, Evelina stumbles across evidence of a mixture of "dark magic" and mechanical inventions within the Bancroft home. Second, a young woman is found murdered in the front foyer of that same home. Even worse, though no one else can detect it, Evelina discovers traces of magic on the corpse. The murder and the presence of magic could both mean ruin for the family. With this in mind alongside her innate curiosity, Evelina sets out to solve the mystery.

The book does a lot of "world building" by establishing and manipulating history and relations between the various powerful influences. The plot continues to get more and more intricate as time goes on. By the end of the book there are multiple different mysteries to be examined and solved. As a reader, it was not a difficult leap of faith to assume that these different mysteries would be interrelated but the author did a good job of keeping each thread unique and individual such that there always seemed to be the possibility of more than one distinct problem to be solved. And in fact, even though these various mysteries were related in many ways, they also stood on their own with plenty of intrigue and problems.

In addition to a TON of intricate plot points and world building, the book is also filled with a lot of characters. While Evelina is definitely the main character of the book we also spend some time navigating the streets of London through the Point of View of some of the secondary characters. None of the characters receive the same treatment and backstory as Evelina but most of these secondary characters are rather interesting and have multi-faceted motivations and characteristics. Not terribly surprising (given that we are dealing with a story of a young woman about to "come of age" in society), there are a couple of primary male characters each vying for the affection of young Evelina. The love triangle isn't at the forefront of the story and each of these characters also have solid actions in the core plot of the book, but there is definitely a romantic plot full of intrigue and entanglements.

Amid all of her adventures with Steam Barons, street thugs and magical beings Evelina shows herself nervous but capable. About midway through the book we meet a strange new character named Dr. Mangus. He apparently has old ties to the Bancroft family and has come to London searching for….something. His motivations are unclear and it seems evident that he isn't tied to the murder but it is also readily apparent that he isn't someone to be trusted. Before long it becomes clear that he will be Evelina's nemesis. As Sherlock has his Moriarty, Evenlina will have her Mangus, or at least so it seems.

Speaking of Sherlock, he does make a small cameo in this novel. Throughout the course of Evelina's investigation there is always the possibility that Holmes may show up. She communicates him and Dr. Watson via letters and it seems he is off working on a case in Bohemia. When he does finally show up in person, Holmes seems willing to act as a bit of a sounding board for Evelina to help her solve the case. Naturally he does stick his ego out a bit to point out some "obvious" things that may have been missed, but mostly he lets Evelina do her work.

The Steampunk, historical romance, Holmes-ian mystery and urban fantasy elements were all enjoyable and well crafted. The biggest problem I had was that it felt like the author was trying to do "too much." She did a good job of drawing all of the elements together and making a cohesive and interesting story but part of my wondered if perhaps some portions could have received better treatment if another portion had been excluded. At the same time, the way everything fit together is very intriguing and I really had a lot of fun with it. I did like Evelina as a character. She's not as analytical and emotionally disjointed as her Uncle Sherlock and as a result the way she approaches the adventure and the mystery results in a number of problematic situations.

There were also a number of times that I felt like things were stretched a bit too far or came about due to some very convenience coincidences. Still, the plot was engaging and left me wanting more which seems odd considering this novel is over 500 pages. It did feel a bit long and disorienting at times, especially when doing the heavy world building with the Steam Barons and the magical elements. The plot and characters were well enough executed that even the lengthier segments could be overlooked for overall enjoyment. The book does end with a pretty hefty cliffhanger and a number of dangling threads to be resolved. Fortunately you don't have to wait long for the sequel. The book is actually part of a trilogy and it looks like the author and publisher are set to release books two and three over the next two months.

Overall this was a fun mystery adventure with a lot of exciting elements all bundled together into a single package. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

3.5 out of 5 stars

View all of my reviews on Goodreads.com


Brian Miller said...

not bad for a play off a literary great eh? i get a little concerned when they start messing with well established characters...or playing off them as they always seem pale comparisons...you have me intrigued though...

Okie said...

There were a few times when I was concerned about the changes from the original Sherlockian worlds and early on I also really felt like the book was trying to do too much...to appeal to too many crowds, but in the end it came together pretty well.