Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway

A Study in Silks (The Baskerville Affair #1)
By: Emma Jane Holloway
Publisher: Del Rey


Caught between two worlds, and on the cusp of finishing school and entering Society, Evelina Cooper is a woman caught between the pull of her past and the alluring possibilities of her future. The only child of an ill-fated union between a society miss and the rakish son of a circus family, following her father's death Evelina's disgraced and disowned mother took refuge with her husband's people, the vagabond Coopers responsible for the wonders of Ploughman's Paramount Circus. When her mother died far too young, Evelina was raised by her gypsy grandmother -- and amid the carefree wonders of circus life began to learn of the magical inheritance coursing through her veins, her sole -- and dangerous -- inheritance from her father. In Victorian England, power is controlled by the steam barons, and magic of an stripe or practice is squashed with a fearful ruthlessness. When her mother's grandmother appears with an offer to fund Evelina's education, she resolves to leave the freedom of the circus -- and her affinity for magic -- behind, exchanging the danger of the one for the irresistible pull of knowledge, education, and the respectability the Holmes family name commands.

Years pass, and Evelina readies for her society debut -- no longer a circus ragamuffin but not quite an accepted member of the gentry, even with the friendship of Imogen Roth, daughter of the powerful Lord Bancroft, lending her an extra measure of respectability. On the brink of the season's start, Evelina discovers the existence of forbidden, menacing, magic-touched automatons in Lord Bancroft's attic followed by the brutal murder of a family servant. Taking a cue from her Uncle Sherlock's profession, Evelina determines to stop the threat menacing her beloved friend's family. But the more she investigates, the scope of the plot touching the Roth household grows, a spinning a dangerous web that threatens not only Imogen and her family, but Evelina as well. For someone knows of Evelina's secret magic, someone determined to bend Evelina's future to their dark will -- and if her secret is discovered, her hope of making a future for herself, free of the past, will be lost forever.

Since discovering a love of steampunk fiction (thank you Gail Carriger and Lilith Saintcrow), I'm constantly on the lookout for new authors to try -- and when I discovered Holloway's debut, with a SHERLOCK HOLMES connection, I was instantly sold. A Study in Silks is a heady blend of steampunk wizardry and historical detail, the title a playful nod to A Study in Scarlet, the novel that introduced Holmes and Watson to the world. And much like that famous literary introduction, here Holloway introduces Sherlock's niece, an intelligent, passionate, atypical female with her uncle's flair for observation, but every bit as feminine and -- dare I say it -- emotional as the silks she wears and the society with which she mixes.

Holloway's world-building is superbly detailed. Her vision of Victorian England is at once both instantly recognizable and intriguingly different. The concept of iron-fisted steam barons controlling the power supply -- and therefore the political direction of the country -- each fiercely defensive of their color-coded district. The barons shut down industry and innovation, and since may of those with an affinity for magic possess a gift for the mechanical, Evelina has a double reason to guard her secrets from the barons who give no quarter in their quest to completely dominate the country. Holloway wisely limits Sherlock's appearances and influence -- his presence is felt as an inspiration for his niece, but she holds him in something akin to wary awe, leaving his legendary intelligence and prickly personality intact.

I'm absolutely dying to discover how Evelina's love life is resolved. Here Holloway introduces two potential love interests: Niccolo, the alluring and dangerous trick rider from her circus past who'd do anything for the woman who brings his own magic abilities to life, and Toby, Evelina's deliciously handsome brother, a devilish rake and inventor who tempts Evelina with his unabashed desire and easy charm. Usually when it comes to literary love triangles I have a clear favorite early on, but here I remain COMPLETELY torn. In a bold move each of Evelina's would-be suitors takes drastic actions at the end of the  novel -- actions it is going to be hard to walk back and overcome. And yet I remain hopeful for each fellow's redemption -- because honestly, they're both too dishy to be lost to the dark side. *wink*

While I love Holloway's world-building (Evelina's relationship with the devas who bring to life her mechanical creations is a wonderfully quirky touch) and characterizations, her debut does suffer from a lack of editing. The first few chapters set an awkward tone, as Holloway rehashes the evening of the initial murder from three different perspectives, "restarting" the narrative three times with nary a transition. Once the initial awkwardness has passed the plotline gains momentum, but at nearly six hundred pages and covering less than two weeks of time, the storyline does, occasionally, meander into overlong territory. I love a "chunkster" read, but a novel of this ilk would benefit from a touch of the pacing, brevity, and focus that characterizes the Sherlock Holmes stories which inspired it.

Despite the novel's padded prose and meandering focus, I thoroughly enjoyed Holloway's introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes's niece. The steampunk and magic elements are wonderfully realized and thoroughly inventive, and I am thrilled by the publisher's decision to release each of the three volumes in this series in quick succession (the sequel, A Study in Darkness, has already been released while the conclusion, A Study in Ashes, is due to release at the end of December). I cannot wait to dive into the next installment of Evelina's adventures and learn more of the threat of the ominous Baskerville Affair.

About the book:

Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London Society. But there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse.

In a Victorian era ruled by a council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch and sorcery the demon enemy of the Empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines—something Evelina has secretly mastered. But rather than making her fortune, her special talents could mean death or an eternity as a guest of Her Majesty’s secret laboratories. What’s a polite young lady to do but mind her manners and pray she’s never found out?

But then there’s that murder. As Sherlock Holmes’s niece, Evelina should be able to find the answers, but she has a lot to learn. And the first decision she has to make is whether to trust the handsome, clever rake who makes her breath come faster, or the dashing trick rider who would dare anything for her if she would only just ask.

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