A Study in Darkness is the second book in a trilogy by Emma Jane Holloway about the adventures of Evelina Cooper, Sherlock Holmes niece. I was pleasantly surprised by the first book in the series, A Study in Silk. So my expectations for the second novel were higher, and to my delight Ms. Holloway succeeds again.
As the title suggests, this book is darker and more serious in tone than Silk. It start off near where the second book ended, and once the story starts Ms. Holloway stamps her pedal to the metal for the rest of the way. I can't be sure but I wouldn't be surprised to discover that she was a talented juggler because she keeps an enormous amount of plot lines in the air and most of them are riveting. Most everyone from the first volume is here, and their stories not only continue but grow more and more entwined. If that isn't enough more members of the Bancroft and Keating families enter the story along with Mycroft Holmes, the enigmatic Schoolmaster, a wonderful automaton called Serafina, and even the Ripper murders.
The characters are all well-drawn and compelling, and as their stories unfold the author does a wonderful job showing us their motives. I enjoyed the moral complexity, as we see very few black or white hats; most everyone here is varying shades of grey.
If character isn't your bag than you can enjoy the plot. This book almost literally starts with a bang and never lets up. As in the first novel Ms. Holloway also makes sure that you feel the harsh side of the times. Even though this is an alternate history the hypocrisy and staggering unfairness of the Victorian Era is vividly brought to life as Evelina is disproportionately punished for a small indiscretion, and when she is shunned by society she enters the shadowy underworld of the times, where hunger and illness were the lot of the common man and woman. At the same time once cast down where the eyes of High Society do not see her Evelina feels a kind of freedom from the first time, a loosening of the ties of propriety. The paradox is beautifully explored by Ms. Holloway. She doesn’t turn away from the dark side of life.
Most of the story in this book is a continuation of the plot of the first, and while it is better to read the first one, it isn't necessary, as Ms. Holloway does an admirable job of filling the reader in. If at all possible you should read the first one, though, as it kicked butt, and there are so many interesting plotlines that I wished that the book were a bit longer at times, a rare thing indeed.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this book is that, having pushed the borders of convention in the ending of the first book, you get the feeling that Ms. Holloway wants to take it a bit further, as she puts Evelina and the other characters into tougher and tighter situations. Now this book isn’t perfect; I had some problems with the timing of the Evelina's romance, and I was disappointed that I foresaw the outcome of the Ripper murders. The character of Serafina is so poignant and true that you hope for more for her, but if wishes were fishes we'd all cast nets.
The ending, however complete and right it may seem, is still in some ways a cliff-hanger, and made me feel as if I were being set up a bit, but that's okay. This book is worth it, and if the third volume is as good as this, I won't mind at all.