Sunday, December 29, 2013
Book Review: A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway
A Study in Silks by Emma Jane Holloway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Evelina Cooper's world consists of steam-powered machines, fancy-dress parties, and the mysterious death of a servant in her best friend, Imogen's, house. This is Evelina's year to come out in Victorian society, that is, Victorian society of the steam-powered, speculative variety. All she should be concerned with is obtaining an invitation to be greeted by Queen Victoria, certainly not spending her time worrying over the untimely demise of Grace Child. Unfortunately for her, Evelina is the niece of renowned detective Sherlock Holmes, and like her brilliant uncle, finds the mundane, drudge of existence to be utterly tiresome. So, Evelina involves herself in catching Grace's murderer, not only to serve justice to the poor, murdered girl, but also to exercise the talents she has been given, both the intellect of the Holmes family, but also the magical talents of the Coopers. Evelina literally has a foot in two worlds, torn between the high society and promises of a good match, possibly even with Tobias Roth, the man her heart yearns for, or the world of the circus and magic where she grew up, and the Indomitable Niccolo whose very touch sparks unspeakable magic and passion between them. Evelina must decide which world to involve herself in, but both are fraught with tension, danger, and intrigue.
Ms. Holloway is a master storyteller. Even the characters that I do not want to like based on moral grounds (cough, Tobias, cough), I still end up liking. Her villains are solidly crafted, and her world is vividly devised. I love all of the steam-powered machinery, both the ones that are man-made, and the ones that have a little additional touch of magic to make them work like Evelina's Mouse and Bird. Steampunk fiction is rare, especially of the variety that I would like to read. I love this delightful world that Ms. Holloway has so flawlessly created with her agile and clean writing style. It's beautiful and vibrant and I wish I could see this world for myself.
Now, on to the reasons for only giving 3 stars. Ms. Holloway uses too many voices. The book is supposedly about Evelina, but because of the many other characters that we follow, there can be 30 or 40 pages where Evelina is simply gone. And unfortunately for the author, those tend to be the pages I like best. I like following the villains of the story because they are much more interesting than the heroine. I even loved the chapters from Tobias' view, and especially the ones from Nick's perspective. On top of that, Evelina is tormented by romantic afflictions of the most repetitive nature. I could understand ruminating over her dangerous feelings for Nick once or maybe even twice, but any more than that slows the story down and had me almost wishing to skip ahead to some action. This book is 531 pages long. She could have told the story more concisely in half the time and I would have finished it in 2 days instead of 9. Her plot and her characters are bogged down by too much information and too many voices.
The other point against the book is the heroine's supposed cleverness. She's not that clever, and a reader of even the remotest intelligence will note this fact. Everything Evelina discovers is told to her by someone else. Her investigative skills are sadly lacking, and it's a bad sign when the reader is 4 steps ahead of the heroine because one of the other characters revealed something to us, but not to her. Evelina seemed almost blind in comparison to me, but I really shouldn't blame her because I was the one with the other characters, not her, and I couldn't expect her to be a fly on the wall like me. If Ms. Holloway had narrowed the book down to a single voice, Evelina's, or even her, Tobias, and Nick, then the flow would have been much smoother.
Then we have Sherlock Holmes. In some ways, I think Ms. Holloway believes Evelina is more clever than the great detective. No, she is not. And by trying to declare that belief, however subtly, to me as a reader only made me think Evelina arrogant in her magical talents because she has something that Holmes lacks. Add to that the unrealistic tenor of Holmes' personality, and I didn't buy his addition to the story at all. She would have done better to develop this story in steampunk Victorian England utterly devoid of the great detective. I would have bought her story completely, instead I found the logical side of my brain saying, "Why would Holmes care about this?" or "He wouldn't act this way!" Ms. Holloway did herself a disservice by including the great detective.
"A Study in Silks" is, on the whole, very good. I love Ms. Holloway's writing style and her character development, but there is no excuse for the formatting or the length of the novel. I hope her next novel corrects some of the mistakes made in this one, especially chopping down the number of voices. I'll just have to wait and see.
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