A Study in Silks was a book that I truly wanted to review. First off, I am a certified Sherlockian. I may not be a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, (I could never join a club that would have someone like me as a member), but I once owned Barring-Gould's The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. (I lost the former. If anyone knows the whereabouts of an inexpensive copy let me know.) So, having read innumerable pastiches and homage I looked forward to this latest addition, a novel by Emma Jane Holloway about Evelina Cooper, who happens to be the niece of Sherlock Holmes. Still I promised myself that I would be as rigorous and fair-minded as possible. If anything I felt that I may have approached the book with a chip on my shoulder.
A Study in Silks takes place in an alternate England, semi-steam punkish, where magic though against the law, works and steam-powered inventions abound. Evelina is a young woman, embarking on her first season and staying with her feisty but frail school friend, Imogene, daughter of Lord Bancroft. As the story opens murder most foul occurs and Evelina finds herself right in the middle of the investigation using the methods of her famous Uncle. Soon enough she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous labyrinth of clues and motives.
Early on I was a bit worried because Ms. Holloways's palette seemed full of all the conventions needed for a romantic potboiler, including duel romantic leads; Nick, a gypsy circus performer and Imogene's older brother, Tobias, a dissolute troublemaker who is a steam-punk wonk on the inside. Evelina also starts out with a ton of strikes against her, including a penchant for magic, mechanical invention, and a childhood spent as a circus performer. All things rather frowned upon. This seemed a bit much at first, but the narrative was strong and compelling and the plot started to get to me. Ms. Holloway is a subtle writer, not much for fireworks, but her prose is deft and assured especially at giving the characters life and depth. Big or small, the characters felt well-rounded and complex full of feeling and motive. The unfairness and hypocrisy of the class system during Victorian England is not a new subject but Ms Holloway handles it beautifully, showing its cause and effect on Evelina and the rest of her characters.
The plot! It’s a handful weaving in Lord Bancroft's intrigue, the shaming of Jasper Keating, one of a cabal of Steam Lords who monopolize the supply of power, archeological digs, mythological and magical inventions, Tobias's gad-fly friends, a plotting sorcerer, and a few appearances by Sherlock himself. Even LeStrade shows his face. To my surprise, not only did Ms. Holloway pull this all off, but she does it not at a walk but a sprint, as the story hurdles along at breakneck speed. The twists and turns are not only surprising, but assured and didn't feel forced as allegiances shift and partnerships form and crumble. Oddly enough, one of the few complaints I have with this book is the use of Sherlock, as he steps in at the end of the story and steals a little of the limelight from Evelina, who deserves all she can get. Another caveat is that this is the first of a trilogy, and although self-contained I felt that a few more loose ends could have been resolved. Still I enjoyed this book a great deal and look forward to the next installment. The game is afoot!