A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway is the debut mystery featuring the niece of Sherlock Holmes, Evelina Cooper, in a fantastic Victorian Era of ruthless steam barons, steampunk machinery, and sorcerers as the enemies of the crown (available September 24, 2013).
A Study in Silks, a debut novel by Emma Jane Holloway, is subtitled The Baskerville Affair #1, making clear that the novel is another entry in the wide world of Holmesian spinoff literature. Its heroine, Evelina Cooper, is Sherlock Holmes’s niece, with country gentry on one side of her family and circus performers on the other; Holmes makes cameo appearances in the story. More unexpectedly, steampunk and gaslight fantasy are combined with the mystery/thriller elements of the plot: Evelina’s many skills include both mechanics and magic. Finally, there is a romantic aspect. As Evelina investigates the central mystery, she wavers between two potential male partners, one from her past with the circus and another who is the brother of her aristocratic best friend, one above her rank in society and the other below.
I enjoyed the ambitious combination of these various genres; the mix reminded me of some urban fantasy series, only in a historical setting.
Despite or perhaps because of all the unique aspects of her life, Evelina craves acceptance by society, and stifles her talents when anyone can see.
Apprehension prickled along her arms. In the privacy of her own mind, Evelina Cooper gave a very improper curse. There were any number of reasons why a young lady, gently reared by a respectable grandmamma, did not want to be caught hiding in the attic in the dead of night. First would be the inevitable assumption that she was meeting a lover. Why was it that no one imagined a young lady might have more weighty interests?
Second, whatever trouble she got into would automatically rebound on her best friend, Imogen Roth. Hilliard House belonged to her schoolmate’s high-and-mighty father, Lord Bancroft, and Evelina was a guest for the Season at Imogen’s request. If she were caught doing anything even mildly scandalous, Lord B was more likely to mount both their heads on his study wall than to listen to excuses. And an unladylike fascination with mechanics was enough to cause comment.
Evelina does not want a Season to find a husband, but rather to enjoy herself and help her friend; her eventual hope is that she will be able to attend a womens’ college, and perhaps discover her true purpose in life. This desire wars somewhat with her feelings for the two male leads, and is complicated by her magical abilities. Evelina’s secrecy about her differences has a good reason behind it. If Evelina’s magic is made public, she risks arrest and worse, which would put an end to any such plans for the future.
Though the bloodlines that granted such magic were thin these days, she could call the essence of things: fire, water, perhaps the deva living in a stream or a tree. And it was a power that could damn her. Science was the currency of the educated, monied, polite classes. With the rise of industry, magic—impossible to measure, regulate, or rule—was banned by Church and State, especially by the steam barons who controlled so much with their vast wealth. Fortune-tellers and mediums were usually tolerated as amusing if immoral tricksters. Anyone claiming to use real power was subject to jail and probably execution or—if there was some suspicion they actually had the Blood—a trip to Her Majesty’s laboratories for testing. The specter of the latter terrified her into nightmares at least as bad as her friend’s.
Though I enjoyed the concept of the book, in practice it felt somewhat cluttered with multiple points of view and varied perspectives on the same events, and I was not convinced that the Holmesian element was entirely necessary. However, the world Holloway created is very rich and I can easily see how subsequent volumes will allow room for the characters and the overarching plot to stretch out. Holmes completists will find a number of amusing tidbits scattered throughout, and fans of historical fantasy settings will no doubt enjoy Holloway’s inventive take on Victorian England.
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