In the debut novel of the new Baskerville Affair Trilogy, Emma Jane Holloway puts her own spin on steampunk with A Study in Silks. Unlike any other Sherlock spin off I’ve read, Holloway mixes humor with intrigue and magic with science. There are neat concepts at each turn and Holloway creates a world which is parallel to that of Sherlock’s while remaining respectfully entertaining.
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.
Holloway brings so many clever ideas in details and plot twists in A Study in Silks, which begins fairly soon with the twist on the typical orphan story. Instead of being a martyr, the main character Evelina has a childhood spent in the circus and spends her adolescence in a finishing school, adding a nice conflict of interest. Steam technology is just budding but still a part of society and technology is outlawed to the general public. These neat ideas follow through to the overall storyline where there are Steam Barons- a governing person who runs a neighbourhood and has the ability to give power or quite literally, disconnect it.
As soon as I started reading, I could tell that Holloway is a fan of mystery. This is most prevalent in her Evelina, the protagonist. Not only is Evelina the niece of Sherlock, but she goes about investigating in manner which is very reminiscent of Miss Marple- talking to everyone in an unassuming fashion and letting people underestimate her. This inquisitive manner of Evelina’s enabled the reader to learn more about each character in the full cast. As I read I found myself unable to pick a favorite character because there were things I liked about all of them.
Despite taking place in the same world as Sherlock Holmes, Holloway never writes in an irreverent manner. Instead, she quite smartly creates an alternate world where magic and science exist, along with wonderful cameos of known characters such as Inspector Lestrade and Dr. Watson. Perhaps more notable, is the wonderful manner in which the main character Evelina feels pressure to do well investigating a mystery because of her familial relations. In true Sherlock fashion, I was delighted to see that the ending played out with Holmes divulging observations and ultimately solving the case.
One of the most intriguing things in A Study in Silks is how Holloway entwines magic into her narrative. While Evelina has an affinity for earth magic, her friend Nick has a knack for that of air. We find out that not only are there divisions of magic such as dark and light, but in those with true gift, there are elements tied to your bloodline. This concept is ever the more interesting when magic users meet each other. Users can literally sense the bloodline and therefore pick out the gifted. Magic was throughout the world, which Holloway created in big and small ways. My favorite aspect of magic is when Evelina embeds a magical spirit or deva into the body of a clockwork bird, bringing the deva to reality and the trinket to life. Not only does she do this with a bird, but she repeats the task with a mouse, both toys of her own creation. Evelina eventually uses them as spies and this beautifully captures a mix of knowledge in magic, science, and tactics.
Holloway’s writing is fast paced and entertaining. She has quite a few great scenes from epic magic battles to flashbacks of different characters on a day of murder. One of the scenes which stood out to me the most was an action packed seen at the opera. Not only were the nuances of stage life captured, but there was a theatrical display of a steampunk giant tentacled contraption. This scene was a true gem in storytelling and made me wish I was there witnessing it for myself.
There is no doubt in my mind that Holloway is an imaginative storyteller. With a nod to Victorian era sensibilities she continuously makes it her own. Holloway does lighthearted well, instilling at the end an interesting take on what you’re born for and what you’re born into or destiny and opportunity. A Study in Silks effortlessly entertaining and is incredible start to a trilogy I am definitely looking forward to.